The Godfather's Daughter

At 19, Sofia Coppola blends precocious sophistication and teenage enthusiasm

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The Godfather's Daughter
Sofia Coppola in Hollywood. Photograph by Ted Dayton.

The Godfather's Daughter

At 19, Sofia Coppola blends precocious sophistication and teenage enthusiasm

At 19, Sofia Coppola blends precocious sophistication and teenage enthusiasm. One minute she’s reminiscing about the Philippines, where she spent three years while her father, director Francis Ford Coppola, was making Apocalypse Now—and the next she’s talking about her favorite food, Cap’n Crunch Berries cereal.

“I’m totally addicted to it,” she admits. “I bought some yesterday and the box is already half gone.” She loves couture (wore her first Saint Laurent to a party at age eight), the classics (especially  Romeo and Juliet) and gossip.

“It’s fun as long as it doesn’t involve you,” she says. “I like the National Enquirer because you know it’s not true. The best part is the headlines like ‘Frozen Chicken Comes to Life.’”

Coppola grew up on her parents’ ranch in Napa Valley and at their apartment in New York’s Sherry-Netherland Hotel, where she haunted the halls in blue jeans and Chanel jackets like an Eighties’ Eloise. Her father was so taken with his precocious 12-year-old that he based the main character in Life Without Zoe, his segment on the 1989 film, New York Stories, on Sofia, and asked her to help write the screenplay and design the costumes.

Mary Corleone, the character she’s playing in the upcoming The Godfather, Part III, also bears more than a passing resemblance to Sofia. “She’s about my age, she’s the daughter of the big Italian family and she’s the daughter of a powerful man [Al Pacino, as godfather Michael Corleone],” the actress says.

“But she’s been very sheltered and doesn’t know about all the doings in the family. She has questions, and she wants to find out about her roots. Milena Canonero [the film's costume designer] says she’s dreamy on the outside and lethal on the inside.”

Sofia herself is no stranger to movie sets. Her first film appearance was as Talia Shire’s infant son in The Godfather. She also had small parts in Rumble Fish and The Outsiders and played Kathleen Turner’s little sister in Peggy Sue Got Married. But in those roles, Sofia admits she “was like a kid playing dress-up.”

“This is the first time I’ve had to realize what acting is all about,” she continues, saying that she was surprised to be cast as Mary Corleone. “I’d been studying at Mills College and had gone to Rome for Christmas vacation. Winona [Ryder, originally cast as Mary] came over just as we were leaving, and she got sick and couldn’t star. That’s how it happened.”

Sofia didn’t miss the whispered allegations of nepotism on the set and the rumors that other actors were upset that she was cast.

“They felt I was just too young and inexperienced,” she admits. “I tried not to pay attention, because in the beginning there was just so much for me to concentrate on in order to play the part. I had so much to do to catch up. I know people will probably talk about Francis Ford Coppola casting his daughter and find it hard to understand, but my aunt [Talia Shire] was in a similar situation. She was his little sister when he put her in the first Godfather.

“My whole family is really involved in these movies, and my dad must have been doing something right, because it’s been working.”

Of her fellow cast members, she says, “Andy [Garcia] was the best to work with. I don’t know how I would have done it without him. It’s corny to say he’s a ‘generous actor,’ but he was very giving.”

Al Pacino was very serious in his role, but in real life he’s very funny, ” she adds. “We’d have these scenes where we had to be sitting in these chairs all day long or in a car, and he’d just crack jokes. The best thing he ever told me about acting was, ‘Whenever I get an urge to act, I lie down and wait for it to pass.’”

But performing isn’t Sofia’s only passion. “As kids we used to put on plays in the living room, and I was always very particular about what the costumes would be,” she says. At 15, she spent the first of two summers as an intern at Chanel in Paris.

“I learned so much there. It was during the haute couture collections, and it was almost like putting on a play. Everything was directed toward the big show,” she says.

These days, she also wears Katharine Hamnett and Isaac Mizrahi, and she’ll soon receive her second film costume credit for The Spirit of ’76, due out in the fall.

“The movie is like a spoof of the Seventies,” Sofia explains. “To look at old magazines from that era now is really funny. We think of it as the rock ‘n’ roll Seventies, all glittery, but it was really more like The Dukes of Hazzard.

Sofia met her current beau, actor and musician Steven McDonald, on the set of The Spirit of ’76 last summer, and recently moved to Los Angeles with him. As for her other options, Sofia says, “I know I want to pursue acting… I also definitely want to continue with design. My brother Roman and I want to design a line of clothes, but it’s such a full-time thing, I don’t know how we’ll be able to do it.” She pauses for breath, then adds, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be really focused. But I figure, when you’re young, it’s time to just test everything.”