Interview: Milla Jovovich - Milla's crossing

For the last eight years, Russian-born actress Milla Jovovich has been best known for playing the action heroine in kick-ass blockbusters such as the zombie killer in the Resident Evil franchise. But as she reclines in the Los Angeles home she shares with her fiancé of six years, British writer/director Paul WS Anderson, and their 20-month-old daughter Ever, she is insistent she wants to show a different side of her character on screen.

"I want to play a sweet, normal girl," says Jovovich, who stars in the upcoming thriller A Perfect Getaway. "Cydney (Jovovich's character in the film, a newlywed who becomes caught up in a spate of murders] is a nice girl who just got married, and there's no dark side to any of it. Well, not at first, anyway.

"I wanted to show a different side of myself on screen," she says. "I could be myself for a lot of the film, and not train like crazy and have to do stunts."

Only four months before A Perfect Getaway began shooting, Jovovich gave birth to her daughter. Ever, according to Jovovich, is a Scottish boy's name, to reflect her husband's Scottish parentage. And the middle name Gabo is a combination formed from the names of Jovovich's parents, Galina and Bogich. Bright and chatty, the actress has now shed the last of her baby weight since filming finished. The mood is light, even as she discusses her preoccupation with maternal issues.

"It's incredible to have this responsibility," she admits. "I've done lots of different things in my life, and now I definitely know what I want and don't want. Human beings need problems, but at this point in my life I'm not creating them for myself.

"Finally, at 33, I got my bearings straight," she says. "What I want is for my baby to sleep at night – she doesn't – and for her to eat good food, which is hard to get down her throat. What I don't want is for her to be sick. Those are the three most important things in my life right now," Jovovich says. "Everything else can go to hell. If my baby isn't sick, if she's eating and sleeping well, my life is great. I don't care if I ever do another movie again or another modelling job. We can sell the house and move to a smaller place. I'd give up everything in a second if my child weren't happy."

To keep Ever happy while still resuming her own acting and modelling careers, Jovovich turned to her mother, Galina Loginova. After employing a family friend as an assistant/babysitter for Ever's first year, she hired a nanny and invited her mother to move into her home to oversee Ever's care.

"Without my mom, it would have been a disaster," the actress says. "I would have had to quit work and stay at home with these new people to get my baby adjusted and make sure they were right. It's given me more freedom to work and travel. I have a house to support, Paul can't do everything," she says. "I'm very lucky to still be modelling. I can earn great money so, while I can do it, I have to. In this climate it would be a sin to not be working when you have a chance to be."

That work ethic has been a part of Jovovich since childhood. Despite her name, her general air of Soviet exoticism and her fluency in both Russian and Serbian, she only lived in the Ukraine until she was five. Her chief memory is queuing for food with her mother but, even then, Galina and Milla were singled out for preferential treatment because Galina was a well-known actress at the time.

"We would stand in long lines for food and my mum would get special treatment," she recalls. "She would get a better cut of meat, or a bigger chunk of butter." The family left their impoverished homeland in order to give their daughter more opportunities. Her mother had been a stage actress in Russia and began taking her to modelling auditions. In America Galina Jovovich signed her daughter up for classes in acting, dancing, violin and piano – and a never-ending round of auditions. By her early teens, she was a high-profile model, actress and sometime singer/songwriter.

Jovovich, working under the single name Milla, landed a contract with the Prima Modelling Agency, and at 11 was selected by fashion photographer Richard Avedon to be part of his ad campaign entitled The Most Unforgettable Women In The World Wear Revlon.

"In a sense I've been working my whole life," she says. "If we call a spade a spade, I was working because, as a family, we needed to move forward. It wasn't like my mom was taking my money and buying stuff with it."

Jovovich's earliest film roles ranged from the precocious to the plain inappropriate. She played the younger sister of Sherilyn Fenn's character in Two Moon Junction (1988), then appeared in the vaguely pornographic Return To The Blue Lagoon (1991) when she was 15 and, the following year, played Christian Slater's pregnant, abandoned girlfriend in Kuffs.

There were brushes with lecherous casting couch executives during this time, she admits, "but I was lucky enough to have my mother with me. She didn't let me go anywhere on my own."

By the time Jovovich was 15, her parents had separated and her father had been jailed for eight years for his role in a health insurance scam. In Reagan's America, good roles for heavily accented Russians were thin on the ground, and Galina found herself cleaning houses to eke out a living. Jovovich became the family's breadwinner and spent much time in LA's legal offices trying to get her father released. They were only too happy to take her money but the campaign failed, Bogich remained in jail and his daughter admits she went slightly off the rails, partying and dabbling in drugs. She seems more embarrassed that at one point she joined a graffiti gang and was banned from one of the city's biggest malls.

"I think you spend your whole youth creating problems for yourself," Jovovich says, "especially when you've lived a privileged life, which I have. We came as immigrants to this country and struggled a lot, but at the same time I had very early success. My family worked really hard, so we were able to move up in a new country very quickly."

Aged 16, she was casting around for an escape, and found it in marriage to actor Shawn Andrews, her co-star in Dazed and Confused (1993). They eloped to Las Vegas, only to have the marriage annulled two months later. She admitted it was an attempt to assert independence after her mother had refused to give her a cashline card. Her nuptials were captured on video. Perceptively, when Jovovich labelled it, she scrawled "My First Wedding" on the spine. Between 16 and 18 she lived in London, dating ex-Jamiroquai bassist Stuart Zende, who is now father to Melanie 'All Saints' Blatt's child. Around the same time she caused a tabloid sensation by appearing on the cover of High Times magazine holding a joint.

She finally realised she was pushing herself too hard, and in too many directions, during The Fifth Element, the 1997 film that she acknowledges was "the biggest turning point in my career as an actress". Up until then the model with the million-dollar cheekbones had still been easy to overlook. But Hollywood took notice when she appeared as Leeloo, the orange-haired, bioengineered make-love-and-war machine.

"Leeloo was beyond any greatest dream to play," she says. "We'll probably never see again something as unique as she was. The amount of time I had to spend training and studying to play that part really changed me as a person and an actress."

The biggest change was marrying the film's director, Luc Besson, that same year. Seventeen years her senior, he has been dubbed the French Spielberg because his box-office success has not always translated into critical acclaim. Their follow-up together, an epic called The Messenger with Jovovich as Joan of Arc, achieved neither critical nor commercial success but the film did not cause their break-up in 1999. Part of the problem, she says looking back, was her inability to settle down.

Now she's getting married – again. Jovovich and Anderson plan to marry on 22 August in a wedding ceremony at their home in Hollywood, after postponing their plans for two years when Jovovich became pregnant. The couple met and fell for each other on the set of Resident Evil in 2002, became engaged in 2003 but then hit a rocky patch and broke up. After eventually reconciling, the engagement was back on.

"We're having an intimate wedding with a classical Spanish band at our house in the Hollywood Hills," Jovovich says. "Paul's family are flying in from England." A short honeymoon is also planned before the couple resume work on Resident Evil: Afterlife in September.

"I'm so appreciative of having a steady income, especially with this economy," Jovovich says. "It's allowed me to balance action films with serious art movies. Sometimes those small films go straight to DVD or don't get a proper release."

Meanwhile the actress has completed two other low-budget films. The 4th Kind, a thriller, is based on a true story about the unexplained disappearance of people from a community in Alaska, which has prompted theories about possible alien abductions. "I play a psychologist living in a small town in Alaska," she says. "Her husband kills himself, and she starts seeing these connections with (local) disappearances."

Jovovich's other forthcoming film, Stone, is a psychological drama starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. "I play Edward Norton's wife, she says. He's on parole, and he talks his wife into seducing his parole officer (De Niro) to help him get a good report. The film plays on people's weaknesses. It's about how you have to take responsibility at some point for the lies you tell yourself. It wasn't an easy film to make," she says. "(The biggest challenge) was getting into the mind frame of a woman that I'm not at all. It was very hard for me in certain scenes, especially the sex scenes, where you feel violated. You're so close to people who are strangers. It was hard to leave it behind when I went home.

"I can't make movies like that every day," she adds. "It's easier to make an action film. The physical training is tiring but fun. Zombies are easy to kill."

Jovovich makes no apologies for playing an action heroine, though. "I love what I do," she says. A lot of actors and actresses maybe feel like doing an action film is not really a serious film. I put the same amount of work and energy into action and drama. I take them both equally seriously."

She also continues to have financial responsibilities. Her father is now out of jail and lives in Las Vegas with his second family and works as a doctor in ultrasound and nerve conduction. His daughter continues to contribute financially – and credits her 17-year-old half-brother, a keen video gamer, with egging her into accepting the role of Alice the zombie killer in the Resident Evil slasher films. When she's got no movie that seems worth making, she models.

"I'd much prefer to sell my face than do something I wasn't standing behind as an actress," she says. "It's easier to be pretty for a picture and sell a product than to do a movie. I hate to make money and sell my soul."

It's that line of thinking that kept her from pursuing a professional music career, even though her first album, The Divine Comedy (1994), released when she was 17, got some favourable attention. "When I was making music, my record company was like, 'No, you have to make it more like this,'" Jovovich recalls. "They were trying to turn me into something I wasn't. I just said, 'Screw it, I'm not doing music professionally any more. I'll just do it for fun, because I don't care if I make money doing music'."

Not many 17-year-olds would have the ability to say no to a career as a pop star, but Jovovich wasn't an ordinary girl. At school she endured the taunts of "commie" from classmates. After school she would race off to her latest photoshoot. Aged 12, she made history as the youngest girl ever to appear on an American fashion magazine cover.

"I definitely grew up fast," she says, "but I had a lot of fun as a kid too. I had a lot of freedom. I rode bikes and skateboards. Sometimes starting work young can really screw you up, especially if you don't have really great parents that get it and stand by your side and support you and don't force you to do things. You get these kids, especially in the modelling industry, that quit school and get in trouble, or young actresses who go out all night and get wasted. It's horrific.

"With the right family behind you, it can also be very useful," says Jovovich, whose "wild child" era was over and done with before most youngsters have really got going. "How many times do you have people who had a great childhood and end up being completely spoiled and screwed-up young adults because they didn't have a job growing up? They didn't have responsibilities."

If that's her perspective, what lies ahead for Jovovich's daughter? A life that is more privileged, she agrees. And she worries that raising her daughter in LA means steering her away from regarding the life of a 90210 princess as her right.

"I had a lot of responsibility," the actress says, "and that taught me a lot at a very early age. My daughter doesn't need to work at an early age, so she'll have different problems. My problem with her is making sure that she's not a spoiled brat."

It's possible that Ever will be too intimidated by her mother's physical prowess to act up. Jovovich admits she's slacked off a little in A Perfect Getaway, asking the stuntmen to do her more frantic action scenes. But when she returns to Resident Evil, she will be doing her own stunts once more.

"I have my Korean fighting sticks, and I practice at home," Jovovich says. "I've always had a passion for martial arts, and I definitely throw myself into the moment. Right now I'm into archery, and we have a hill behind our house. It would be really fun to have an archery range back there, because I feel like taking aim and hitting the mark."

So who's tougher, Jovovich or Hollywood's other reigning action queen, Angelina Jolie? Both actresses had disrupted childhoods, both became child actors and models, both were fiercely driven by work throughout their twenties, and attracted to much older mentors – Billy Bob Thornton for Jolie, Luc Besson for Jovovich. And now both place a premium on a contented family life.

In the fight to set up a new role to live by, Jovovich is betting on herself, by self-deprecating default. "I only have one baby," she says. "Angelina's got quite a few more. I might actually be able to win, because I've had more sleep."

A Perfect Getaway is released on Friday

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE?

Vivian Linacare

Some models are content to stalk the catwalk, others are determined to take their looks to the big screen. Here are a few of the best (and worst) of those to attempt the transition from model to actress (MTA).

Cameron Diaz

The blonde bombshell started working as a model at age 16, appearing on the covers of magazines and in ads for Calvin Klein and Levi's. After scoring a role in 1994's The Mask her acting career took off and, in 2008, Forbes listed Diaz as the highest paid actress in the world.

Rebecca Romijn

Statuesque Romijn was a successful Victoria's Secret model before making the transition into acting. Although she got some work on sitcoms such as Friends and Just Shoot Me, her big movie breakthrough came in 2000 when she won a lead role in X-Men. Romijn most recently appeared on the TV show Ugly Betty.

Charlize Theron

Theron began modelling in her native South Africa at the age of 16. She broke into acting in the late 1990s, going on to win the Oscar for Best Actress in 2004 for her gripping, utterly convincing performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Cindy Crawford

As one of the most recognisable faces in modelling from the early 1990s, it was inevitable that Cindy Crawford would try her hand at acting. Unfortunately, 1995's Fair Game made it very clear that Pepsi commercials and feature-length films are two very different things. Crawford has largely stayed away from acting since.

Brooke Shields

The youngest fashion model ever to appear on the cover of Vogue, Brooke Shields has been in the public eye since she was a child. Aside from roles in films such as Pretty Baby and The Blue Lagoon, Shields' acting portfolio in the 1980s to mid 1990s was looking a little empty. All that changed after a 1996 appearance on Friends led to her own sitcom, Suddenly Susan.