Milla has always been Milla.
For this actress, there was never any need for a transformation from awkward adolescent gawkiness, no need to earn ethereal adulthood in a duckling-to-swan switcheroo. Flick through a teen fashion magazine from the late ’80s and you’ll find her, an impossible specimen defying her 11 human years. Full lips, iconic hair, clear skin – it seemed improbable that this creature was of this world. On the calendar she wasn’t even a teenager. On the page, she was a woman.
At the very start of her career, Milla was named as one of Richard Avedon’s “Most Unforgettable Women in the World.” It was an impressive place to start, and she used it as a foundation to build a career that defined her, even from the beginning. “For me, my work was always something that gave me confidence. I would work my day and no one could take that away from me, which helped a lot because I started very young. Even if I had problems at school, it was very easy for me to know how to look beyond school and see a whole other life. For me, school was always just something I had to do legally to move on with my life.”
The public transition from child star to adult actress is either bumpy or brutal, but it’s always notable. Milla’s appearance never betrayed that journey – at no point did she look like a child, and she resented being treated like one. “By the time I turned 16, I had been working since I was 11 and I was kind of tired of being treated like a kid. I wasn’t being treated like one at work so it was like a double standard in my head. You expect me to work an adult day, but then you’re going to try to order me around when I get home?” The discrepancy led to her soon leaving home. Yet even with that amount of freedom, Milla’s work kept her grounded. While she occasionally acted out (a quickie Vegas marriage at 16 was annulled even more quickly), those little rebellions couldn’t derail her focus. “I knew my only confidence was in the fact that I work hard. So if I didn’t follow through on my work, I wouldn’t feel good about myself. So I always had that to sort of put the brakes on going out too late or partying too much. There’s always a limit and that was always a stoplight for me.” She has evolved from those early days, certainly, but she never had to grow up or develop a mature work ethic. She was just born that way.
Milla’s mother, an actress herself in their native USSR (now Ukraine), moved the family to Los Angeles where she made making Milla’s career, her priority. The expectations were intense. “I feel like that kind of single-minded attention, that was definitely a lot for me as a kid.” Milla considers this with her assured-yet-approachable tone. “It made me who I am today, but I always did wish that my mom had more of a life when I was younger, one that didn’t concern me. I think it would have been inspiring for me to see that, you know, my mom was a person outside of her world with me.” Milla’s own daughter, Ever, turns four in November and has a full life of lessons and school – but with balance. “I feel like my daughter is getting a more normal childhood that I did. Not in a sense like, ‘Oh I missed on a childhood, boo-hoo for me.’ It’s more like I definitely feel like I worked a lot as a kid and pretty much my life has been my work.”
That die-hard work ethic has translated into a slew of new projects, both indie and mainstream. Dirty Girl will hit theaters this fall along with her fifth reprise of “Alice” in the Resident Evil franchise and a fantastical 3-D version of The Three Musketeers, directed by her husband, Paul W.S. Anderson. She might have shunned school, but she was a voracious reader, so this project grabbed her attention. “I was really excited. I love history and I love Alexander Dumas. I’m a huge fan and these are the books I read and reread countless times as a kid.” Talking about her husband and the film, her enthusiasm is, for the first time, almost childlike. Underlying it all is a sense of teenage crush, as she glowingly talks about her husband. “I feel like Paul really kept the elements that are most important to the book, which are friendship, loyalty and love. And that’s timeless.” Though it’s not the first time the story has been adapted for the screen, the motivation is unique. “I know Paul definitely wanted to make a movie that if Alexander Dumas was alive today, he would approve, and I definitely think he did that.”
Perhaps her nonconventional childhood has pointed her toward philanthropic causes supporting those most in need of protection. Milla works with amfAR, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The latter is in a passionate effort to save the rainforests from a literal grassroots level. “The Republic of Congo is home to some of our largest rainforests in the world. The largest rainforests, undivided, uncultured and wild, they go for hundreds of thousands of miles. The problem is there [are] holes that are being made that are cutting off the normal migratory path of a lot of animals.” She’s pragmatic about the quest though, understanding the humanity it all. “How are you going to motivate indigenous people living in these areas to protect their forest? When your child is hungry, you’re not going to care that your husband goes and kills a gorilla to sell it for food or to eat it. Money is non-negotiable if your child is sick.” Spoken like a mother, she profiles the many challenges facing youth, worldwide, which seem to be insurmountable. But Milla believes strongly in working for change. “Until we bring school systems that are going to educate people, and medicine, and a way for these people to actually make money, you know, nothing is going to be done. It’ll take another 20 or 30 years. We need another generation to go by, for sure. But you do your best, you do what you can to keep the people updated.”
A savvy communicator, she takes to social media to help this social cause. She has her own Twitter stream to comment on recent events and point fans toward her favorite causes. Just as her Tweets indicate, she is interested in everything, approachable and friendly, and always on. The work of being Milla is never done. And that’s the way she prefers it. “There’s no way to have confidence, in my opinion, if you’re not putting the time and the energy into yourself. I mean it doesn’t matter what you do, whatever career you choose: what you give is what you get back. So if you give the minimum, I imagine what you would get would be the equivalent.”
But giving the minimum just isn’t something Milla was born to do.