This article was originally published by i-D US.
When she landed the role of Leeloo in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, 19-year-old Kiev-born actress Milla Jovovich wasn't exactly a blank slate. She had started modelling at nine, was shot by Herb Ritts at 12, reprised Brooke Shields's controversial role in the sequel to Blue Lagoon at 15, and the following year, made a Ukrainian folk-rock album that drew comparisons to Kate Bush. That's a lot of yourself to strip away to play a corporeal Supreme Being experiencing Earth for the very first time.
The Fifth Element could really be considered Milla's return to acting — the discouraged teen had semi-retired after the Blue Lagoon brouhaha and having her role reduced in Dazed and Confused. And she only became Leeloo after initially being rejected, approaching Luc at the Chateau Marmont a few months later, and embarking on an eight-month boot camp of stunt training and learning a new language. In short, Milla works really hard.
Over the phone from her house in Los Angeles, Milla talks to us about two decades of playing badass women, the magical quality of sci-fi, and why modelling has always been about more than being a pretty face.
What does Leeloo mean to you 20 years later?
On a personal level, The Fifth Element was such a life-changing experience as a person and as an actress. The preparation for that character is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It really added to my work ethic, which was instilled in me as a kid, and when I met Luc, I felt like he reflected that same work ethic that my parents had. Leeloo is definitely one of the most amazing characters I've ever seen on screen. Now my daughter loves Leeloo. The Fifth Element was one of her favourite movies when she was five and six. Our youngest will love Leeloo as well. She's one of those characters that stays with people.
How did you learn the 400-word Divine Language that Luc developed?
I don't want to take any credit — Luc had a whole language figured out. He brought me a dictionary of words. We would write each other letters in the language, so I was getting used to communication and speaking it. He had been working on it for many, many years.
Can you still speak any of it?
No! I can still say my name. As an actor, I have a great short term memory — I can memorise a lot of things quickly, then forget it quickly.
How did landing that role influence your post-Leeloo acting career?
When I saw Aliens at 12, I went, "Wow, I can't believe women can do this." That's what I was raised on. So as a teenager who started working so young, I definitely felt like the kind of roles I was going out for and that I was getting… I wasn't even sure that acting was what I wanted to do, by the way. I was very confused, like any other teenager. I definitely felt like I wanted to do other things. The Fifth Element put me in that same place of being 12 and watching Aliens. I thought, "I can do this." I love doing the action and doing the stunts. I love the magical quality of doing sci-fi. Playing something bigger than life and asking these questions always fascinated me in literature as well as film. The film was definitely a major catalyst for me becoming enamoured with acting and playing these strong female roles.
You've designed many of your own movie costumes. You also had one of the first celebrity fashion lines with Jovovich-Hawk, which was nominated for a CFDA award. Why is fashion important to you as an actor?
I've always had an affinity with fashion and drawing. Design was such a natural fit for me, so costume has always been something I've had a big say in. My ideas come from a logical perspective — with The Fifth Element, talking about what kind of costume Leeloo would wear because she can't be naked. It would have to be something that shows enough skin so that doctors can easily take a sample or do an injection, but covered up for modesty's sake. That's where the whole bandage idea came from. I've always been fascinated by the logistics of made-up, fabricated things.
Which woman in real life or in history would you love to design for?
I've always been a fan of Georgian England. Those are my favourite costumes in history. I've always wanted to wear the lace mourning dresses.
You released an album that you started writing when you were 13 years old. What do you like about playing live music as opposed to being in front of a film camera?
Music has always been about something that represented the mysteries of life, to me, when I was younger. It was always something that allowed me to express myself in ways that I couldn't in any other field. Music was a way to be something else — this hyperreal archetype of myself, whatever that was. It was also something that answered a need to be creative that I wasn't getting as an actor.
Did working as a model and actor at such a young age make you scared about what would happen when you got older?
The most important thing about being an artist or being anything successful is education and practice. I'm not just going to go into this industry going, "I'm young and pretty and cool, and I get into all the parties, so I must be successful." That gets old really fast. I've been going to parties for a long time. But I've seen a lot of people come and go. Especially young girls who were super hot for a year or two years tops. It gets boring. There's always going to be another pretty face, so you have to bring something else to the table to be successful.
How do you view the modelling industry in 2017?
Even in the modelling industry, it's not just based on looks any more. [It's,] "Who are you? What makes you interesting? Why should I hire you?" It's even more intense than when I was young. [Education] was also something that my mom drove into me — "Your looks will get you in the door, but what's going to keep you in the room?" I took that pretty seriously because I think that was my biggest fear at the time — not being interesting. For the moment, I'm really happy right now with acting. I love the creative process and the development. It's a fun job — it just took me a while to realise it.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Amy Troost
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm