Mira Sorvino won an Oscar for her portrayal of a ditzy but lovable hooker in Mighty Aphrodite. In Union Square (opening in Toronto this weekend), she plays a woman who tries to reconnect with her estranged sister.
Premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the movie is a searingly honest examination of two women who have been deeply damaged by a shared past. Bronx-living Lucy (Sorvino) just got dumped and is on the verge of a breakdown, while Manhattan-dwelling Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) is engaged and running a vegan foods website. The movie happens over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend, when the sisters’ ugly shared past involving their troubled mother (Patti LuPone) comes to light. Sorvino delivers a gorgeously vivid portrait of a woman barely together but holding on, who deftly delivers some emotional truths to her emotionally distant sibling.
Union Square, from writer/director Nancy Savoca, is shot verite-style, with long moments of conversation and silence, and is sure to provoke much discussion and reflection on the damage passed down between generations of women. “It's kind of universal,” Sorvino says of the film’s underlying themes. “Everybody has a family they have difficulty dealing with.”
The complex portrait Sovino so skillfully paints is partly based on a real person; partly on her own past. “You have to find your character somewhere,” Sorvino says simply. “(Lucy) is bipolar, and I'm close to somebody who's bipolar; her behavior was gleaned from that person, while a lot of the Italian-American buoyancy and guffaw and that is from my relatives, I'm kind of from there and I’ve been around it all my life.”
Born in New Jersey in 1967, Sorvino is the daughter of actor Paul Sorvino. Acting out backyard plays as a child, Sorvino later appeared in school productions, but graduated from Harvard with a degree in East Asian studies. With work at Robert DeNiro’s production company and a string of TV rolls in the early 90s, Sorvino went on to play a wide range of characters, from action stars to screen sirens, in diverse films like Mimic, The Replacement Killers, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, and Summer of Sam. She served as a Member of the jury at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and has been a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador since 2009.
(L-R) Actors Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard with the writer/director of Union Square, Nancy Savoca. "Nancy is very honest and compassionate," Sorvino says of Savoca.
The actor has high praise for Nancy Savoca, whose first feature, 1989’s True Love, won critical acclaim (Entertainment Weekly listed it as one of the fifty greatest independent films of all-time) and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival. She directed River Phoenix in the critically-hailed Dogfight (1991) and was the recipient of a Lucy Award from Women In Film as one of the principal creators of “If These Walls Could Talk", a lauded mid-nineties HBO series about the history of abortion rights. Savoca’s work has received retrospectives at the New York Women's Film Festival as well as The American Museum of the Moving Image. Her compassion for humanity was a guiding force in helping Sorvino to shape her character in Union Square.
“Nancy is not judging these people,” Sorvino says of film’s characters. “It's not like, ‘(Lucy) did something bad...now she'll pay the price!’ It's more, her indiscretions are on her own conscience now... she's acting this way from great pain and because she's scared, and this is how she expresses herself. She's acting out. Is it healthy? No. Is it moral? No. But it's what happens and Nancy is not judging. She feels compassion for the characters.”
This compassion had to be compacted within the relatives constraints of a fast shoot (just twelve days) and a strange/familiar environment (Savoca’s own New York apartment). Sorvino was initially worried that the hurried schedule might compromise the quality of performance, something Union Square relies heavily on in order to drive its narrative and create the necessary emotional tension between the characters.
“This is a performance-driven movie,” says Sorvino, “this is not an easy movie to play. ...I’ve done a lot of fast shooting -not this fast -but somehow, it all worked They planned things in such a way... they did a lot of masters, in a wide shot or medium shot when we're in and out of the frame or it's following us around rather than a (series of) traditional shots. That's how Woody works too -he uses lots of masters.”
The “Woody” Sorvino casually refers to is Woody Allen, whom the actor worked with in 1995. Her engagingly lovable performance as the helium-voiced hooker Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite won her universal acclaim, and ultimately an Academy Award. In watching Union Square, I couldn’t help but think of Lucy as a sort of older-and-wiser version of Linda.
“She's smarter than Linda though,” Sorvino quickly responds. “ Linda is not blessed in the brains department; she has a good heart, but precious little actual rational capacity. (Lucy) is actually quite smart when she hits the ground, and when she looks deeply at something she gets it. She completely nails her sister and calls her on her duality and people.”
Tammy Blanchard (left) and Mira Sorvino in Union Square. "My character can move on, from moment-to-moment, but Tammy's character is all about holding on to pain and anger, and burying it, and pretending 'everything-is-fine-and-we-don't-talk-about-it!’ in that North American way, that avoidance of conflict, of pretending not to hear things."
There’s a certain duality at work with Sorvino; her deeply academic past (she is fluent in Chinese and graduated magnum cum laude) tends to sit, quietly, if comfortably, alongside her ability to contact a motherlode of deep, frequently painful emotions.
“I'm very intellectual, but that’s almost a bad word... let’s say introverted,” muses the mother of four, “ but I'm also... my father used to call me the ‘empath.’ You remember the old Star Trek, the Empath, who can feel everyone's pain and take on their pain? He thought that of me. I have an instrument made for feeling a lot -that comes in handy for acting.”
That empathic ability translates beautifully into her performance as Lucy, some of which she says was improvised. “I added a lot of improv moments to it because that's my character's style,” she observes. “Lucy is the kind of person who should be able to say what she's thinking. Part of fun of her was inappropriateness.”
Not that those fun moments negated the heavier ones, which Union Square delves into with a sort of Cassavettes-like verite and emotional authenticity. Was it hard to walk away from, at the end of the day?
“It was hard when I was on the set and walking out of a scene,” Sorvino admits, “but when I got home … (children) come right up to you... you can't stay in your abstract world when they're right in front of you. It gets you to a better place immediately. You're preoccupied where you can't dwell on your own stuff.”
Does family make you a better artist?
“Maybe.” She pauses.
“It makes me a better person.”