For W’s new series, “One Fun Thing,” we’re inviting creative people around the world to share an easy, relaxing activity that has brightened up their days spent at home, from Manolo Blahnik’s daily sketches to Jewel’s guided meditations to Marcel Dzama’s homemade coloring books. Consider it a grab bag of ideas for how to shake up your own quarantine routine.
A love for film runs in Mira Sorvino‘s family. She and her husband, Chris Backus, are both actors, and it seems as if their four children—Mattea, Johnny, Holden, and Lucia—have been bitten by the show business bug, too, just not in the way you might think. Perhaps it was her appearance in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood—which recreates the scandals and secrets of the studio system and its stars in the ’40s and ’50s—that sparked the idea, but she and her family have found a unique, entertaining way to pass the time in quarantine: recreating classic movie posters, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Rebel Without a Cause, with the kids starring as the iconic actors who appeared in the original films.
Now that the majority of the United States is on lockdown, seeing those movies in a theater isn’t really an option, so the Oscar-winning actress has been screening them for her kids at home in California, in between promoting a handful of projects available on streaming platforms—including Hollywood, in which she plays a struggling blonde bombshell akin to Lana Turner, and a forthcoming indie called Waterlily Jaguar, about a writer who obsesses over the ancient remains of a woman found in the La Brea tar pits.
Here, Sorvino explains the genesis of the poster reenactment idea, and weighs the chances of whether or not her daughters might try to recreate the poster for Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion for their next act.
Have you developed a daily routine in quarantine?
I have four kids and they have their Zoom classes. We can’t stay on the ball somehow with the schedule of the different teacher meetings. The weekend at least takes away the stress of schooling, although then there’s more of a need to provide entertainment for everybody 24/7. In the morning, I tend to wake up earlier than the kids do, around 6:30 or 7, and then I lie in bed for a while and maybe read. Once it’s time to wake them all up, we go downstairs and we start making breakfast.
What do you usually make?
Today, my daughter, Mattea—she’s a fantastic baker—wanted a piece of leftover birthday cake that she made for our other daughter, Lucia. My one son loves these breakfast quesadillas I make where you crack an egg over a tortilla and swirl the eggs around so it coats it, and you add cheese and onions and avocado. He could eat 10 of them. He’s 6’2” already at 13 years old. Then there was a bagel with cream cheese for Holden, and Lucia had cereal. The morning is taken up with breakfast, and we have four dogs and are fostering a litter of abandoned cats, so it’s pretty crazy around here, feeding everybody. My daughter is a pescatarian, the other three children are omnivores, and my husband and I are vegetarian. I don’t know if it keeps me grounded, but it keeps me busy.
Where did you get the idea to have your kids recreate classic movie posters?
The kids were just really bored and kind of depressed, as I think most kids are right now, because they don’t get to see their friends. I think a lot of things that spark them are connected to images or social media, or using computers. They have to use them all day long for school. We’ve been showing them classic movies at night and I was like, “What if we found some iconic images you guys could recreate because you remind us of them a little bit?” They were all really interested in it, it was not hard to convince them at all.
How did get the look together for your daughter’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster?
One day we did three of them, the three younger ones, and the next day we did Mattea’s because hers is much more complicated in terms of hair and makeup, and I had to do it. [Laughs.] I’m really terrible at hair, so it was touch and go for a while whether she would even let me do it! But I had to use pieces underneath to puff up her hair and tease and spray it. I found a necklace that could kind of be used as the rhinestone hairpiece, and then we kind of tried to copy the makeup look pretty much from Audrey. We put a little less eyeshadow just because Mattea is younger and she looked so sweet and beautiful. So we kept the cat eye without the really heavy, dark eye shadow. I was thinking about changing her eyebrows to look like Audrey’s, but she just looked so pretty that we left her natural eyebrow shape. And she is holding a pencil. We didn’t have long, black gloves, nor could we go buy them. [Laughs.] We have the rescue kitties, so the one in the picture is called Creamsicle. The one in Lucia’s picture is called Hufflepuff.
Are both of your sons big James Dean fans?
No. I always feel like Johnny always reminds me a little bit of a young James Dean. He’s like a brown eyed James Dean. Holdy is a little bit more of a tough guy, so he’s in the more cowboy-ish look. I’m a huge James Dean fan, so I had more knowledge of all those movies. We’ve been meaning to show them Rebel Without a Cause, and my youngest daughter is like, “I can’t watch it because it’s sad!” So we haven’t found the right night to watch it yet. But we did watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was really fun. We showed them The Sound of Music. We try to show them classic movies that are age appropriate, and I think they loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Everybody loves Audrey Hepburn, she’s such a discovery. She’s just such an amazing, amazing actress with so much life. Her spirit is so amazing, there’s something so beautiful about her soul.
Who did the digital design for the movie posters?
My son, Johnny, is the one who was able to put the posters together. He used an app. He kind of morphed the images together, so we tried to set them in front of backgrounds that were similar. With Lucia, we didn’t do the poster, those are stills. There’s no poster that has that image, but there’s a picture of Judy Garland singing, and there’s like a wheelbarrow or something behind her, so we put the bicycle wheel behind Lucia, and had a picnic basket with a cat. I think there’s enough there to suggest The Wizard of Oz, even though it’s not exactly the same. The James Dean one for Johnny, if you look closely at the original Rebel poster, James Dean is in front of this dark blue, corrugated background. We happened to have a storage container on site that doubled as that. We were lucky with that. With Holdy, we just pushed him on top of a thing that usually holds skateboards and scooters. [Laugh.] We took out the background and pasted him into the poster. I shouldn’t say “we!” Johnny did all of the graphics. It was a family affair.
Do you feel a connection between this quarantine activity and your role on Hollywood, which takes place during the golden era?
Maybe all of my thinking about old Hollywood led to the idea! I think it also might have just been that we were trying to show them these old movies, like The Sting. Although, we had to hide Lucia’s eyes from some of that, too. It’s amazing, you think of these films as more kid friendly, but honestly when it comes to violence or adult situations, even then they had it, it was just a little bit more couched in censorship. I think just watching all this old stuff and thinking about doing press for Hollywood and revisiting all of the images from the show, which are so fantastic. It just made me have this idea. And they really loved it.
What sort of research did you do for the role?
I watched a lot of Lana Turner movies because Ryan had told my representatives that Jean was somewhat like a Lana Turner character, even though she wasn’t Lana. That was the visual look of her, and I wanted to get her vocal patterning, that Mid-Atlantic way of speaking. In the show, you see Holland Taylor as Ellen Kincaid teaching a whole crop of hopefuls about how to do the Mid-Atlantic accent, while confirming that Mid-Atlantic is nowhere. It’s in the middle of the ocean, there’s no actual region that speaks like that. Although, I do believe that there was sort of an upper crust faction of society in the past who did perhaps have more of those Britishisms in their speech. I read all of these books about Lana Turner, her autobiography and her daughter’s book about her, and honestly I thought they were going to go with a Johnny Stompanato plotline for her, and it was really a different trajectory. I think, honestly, my character is a little less successful than Lana and is kind of sweet, not one of these sharky people who can always end up on her feet. She’s doing the best that she can, and I think that’s why you love her, because there’s something about her that’s sort of innocent and hopeful even though she’s in this Hollywood system that is sometimes unfair. She’s just doing her best.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research of the era? You mentioned Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, and her boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, and a lot of people might now know the story of how Cheryl stabbed Johnny to death in self defense.
A lot of Lana Turner’s life in general was fascinating. Definitely the Cheryl Crane and Johnny Stompanato thing was crazy. But you also have to realize there were more sordid things that happened before that which set it all in motion. One of Lana’s husbands was molesting Cheryl. Lana said she was lucky because there was this tradition, I think it was at Warner Bros., to have all of these studio contract girls who would be brought on for an 18-month contract and were never intended to succeed as actors, they were just there to serve as fresh meat for the studio executives to use and abuse. After their contract was over, they could fire them and a new crop of young hopefuls would be brought in. It was kind of an open secret—the actors didn’t know it but the executives did—that they were there as this revolving door supply of women for men to take advantage of, which is really sad. If you look at that time, it is really difficult to find women that didn’t have the powerful patronage of some important man. Sometimes it would be their husband or a director, but it was a lot of people in the studio system and you don’t know exactly what their relationship was. My character Jean is unfortunately in a situation like that but she does not like it, and regrets it and has remorse for it.
That theme of abuse in the industry is explored from a few different angles, most notably with the Rock Hudson storyline and the way his agent took advantage of him.
The Rock Hudson storyline is dark. The stuff that Henry Willson does is very predatory and very rapey. It’s very much like a Harvey Weinstein. When I initially found out that my character was in a relationship with the studio head, I got nervous that people would conflate me with her. But upon figuring out what the relationship really is, a 10-year consensual relationship where there is affection and some love, it’s definitely still a relationship that is based on an imbalance of power. He holds all of it, she holds none of it. She leaves, she’s going to lose her career. I tried to be sympathetic to her and play her without judgment. There’s clearly a dividing line between her choices, and even what choices were available to her, and my choices. My choices are different.
In addition to the classic movies you’ve been watching, have you seen anything else enjoyable lately?
Well, we had to dive into Tiger King. We had to! [Laughs.] That was just crazy. I mean, it’s so insane. My sister, Amanda Sorvino, is a full time animal rescuer. So I knew a little bit about the exotic animal trade in the U.S. She had rescued some lion cubs when I was younger and took them cross country to a sanctuary—a real sanctuary—from a breeder who would breed them for people to collect as pets. She just knows the ins and outs of the whole animal rescue world, so I tangentially learned a lot about it over the years. It was fascinating to me, on that level, although I felt that they didn’t completely give their tigers their due. They could’ve maybe focused a little bit more on the plights of the animals and what could be done, but I know that wasn’t their focus. Their focus was on the human drama. It’s just insane, you could not make that stuff up. [Laughs.] I’ve been watching Schitt’s Creek for late night, going-to-sleep laughs. And I love the SNL at Home show, I love that they’re doing that for America. I always love SNL anyway. I tend to watch comedy when I’m bummed out, rather than dark stuff, because it’ll make me more depressed. Comedy is one of my favorite genres to perform, so I enjoy watching other people be great at it and learning from them.
What’s the first thing you’ll do after the pandemic ends?
It’s going to be in steps. Everyone is saying things are not going to be the same for a long time, so I don’t really know. I would love to go swimming in the ocean again, but until there’s very little covid, I’m worried about swimming in the ocean. If there are people swimming in it that are infected, and then I swim in their water, what happens? I don’t know. I’d love to take a trip back to Europe at some point in the next year because I love being in Italy, that’s where my family is from on my father’s side. I also miss the Met. What I would give to have a day, lulling around in front of paintings and sculptures and bringing my kids and our sketchbooks and all sitting in front of a painting, appreciating a beautiful piece of art that’s only in that place. Everything is like, we’ll look at it remotely online now, but it’s just not the same experience. But right now we’re just hunkered down here in California. People are still dying every day. It’s made me want to buy less stuff. Materialism and fashion, as much as I love fashion, all that money that we spent on clothing that’s now just sitting at home? It’s like, which sweats will I wear today? I’m going to try to be more careful.
Are there any organizations you would like to support?
I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d be in a situation where there’s no work. There is no work for actors whatsoever right now. You think, “What was essential about what I was doing before? Oh, very little of it.” [Laughs.] The SAG-AFTRA Foundation, the Actors Fund, the National Corporate Theatre Fund, all of them are really helping the out of work performers. There are thousands of performers out of work right now, but there are so many wonderful people out there.
Is there a particularly inspiring person you’ve come across during this time?
I read this article the other day about a woman in Hackensack who’s a technician in a morgue. Her name is Tanisha Brunson-Malone. She goes out and buys a yellow daffodil on each of the bodies of people brought in because of the virus. Since none of the families are allowed to be near them, there’s been no ceremony or ritual. She just wants to honor each one of their lives. Gosh, it just breaks my heart. Everyone’s individual contributions and the people on the front lines are extraordinary. They’re all constantly at risk for contracting it, yet they show up day after day to help and comfort people. It’s incredible to see.
When it’s time for another photo shoot with your family, which movie poster is next?
I think my son Holden wants to do some more westerns. Maybe the two brothers could do Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That would be pretty awesome. For the girls, I feel like we could do Mary Poppins or something like that, which might be more interesting to Lucia. My older daughter, I don’t know what’s next on her list. It might be cute to try and turn the two girls into Romy and Michele. [Laughs.] That would be really cute. My daughter wants to dye her hair pink and I was thinking about doing it with her, but I’m afraid because it was bleached for Hollywood, so half of it is really light blonde right now and the rest is my super dark roots. Every time I see myself in the mirror now, I try and have the mantra, “Oh my god, Romy, you look so cute with blonde hair and black roots.” It’s not even funny, it’s horrible, it’s like two inches of dark roots! But I’m afraid the blonde will suck up that pink color and never wash out! And, to revise my comments on fashion, yes, maybe I don’t want to spend as much money on fashion, but I can’t wait until I have some reason to dress up and feel like fun, just going out with a certain spirit of expressing yourself with your clothes, because right now we don’t really have that ability.