interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography TERRY RICHARDSON
One funny, flirty, five-minute performance in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut by Liliane Roudabeh Elvieta Gloria “LEELEE” SOBIESKI” seduces Tom Cruise and sends the child actress to the top of the hill of artistic promise. But she quits acting at 18. Goes to university. And now, at 23, she’s back with half a dozen movies coming out this year, including The Wicker Man, with Nicolas Cage, and 88 Minutes, with Al Pacino. We talked to her in New York, after the screening in Cannes of M. Blash’s Lying.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How many movies have you worked on?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — In the last two years I made six or eight. Can’t remenber exactly!
OLIVIER ZAHM — One film to the next? Wasn’t that too much?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Yes. It was a lot. But I’d taken two and a half years off to go to college. Then I fell in love. Then I went back to college. And then I went back to work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you fall in love with an actor?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — No. With someone I met in school. A normal person.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Actors are not normal people?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — No. They’re too vain. At least the men are. They’re too concerned about their physique. It makes them feminine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But not as vain as models.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Maybe not male models. But I would’t date a male model unless he was a philosopher. I don’t really care what someone’s job is—it’s what they do when they’re alone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s risky to take a break from your career, especially when you’re so young.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Yes, it was risky. I was 18, in the middle of school. It’s like a new fight again. And like the difference between having started as a girl and now starting as a woman.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you’re 23 and you’re already a woman?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I think I am in the middle. I change all the time—young about certain things and old about others.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started acting very young.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I was 11.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you study acting?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — A casting director came into the cafeteria while I was eating and noticed me. I was terrible. I did take some acting classes because I was curious. My father had acted years before. He said OK, so I gave it a try.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s romantic that your father acted. Maybe it is part of the family story. What was your first movie?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — A TV movie called “Reunion,” then another one called “A Horse for Danny.” Both were movies of the week, family movies. Then I did a very short-lived TV series.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you enjoy it?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I went to Los Angeles for the first time. There was a lot of traveling. When you’re so young, you’re aware of what goes on, but confused by all of the excitement and attention, the clothes and the moving around; you’re out of school but you also have a teacher.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You had a teacher?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Every child actor has a private tutor.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did that affect your life?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — It changed my life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How was your American childhood?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — My mother is a writer and my father is a painter. They’re very open, and thought it was good for me—like a parent noticing that their child is good at sports or a musical instrument. In America, if a child is very good at something they are encouraged. Even when a child is bad, in American you encourage them to do something like play the violin. I took horseback riding and flamenco dance lessons. It was the acting that took off, but I could have been a dancer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you feel like a star when you were a child?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Not when I was very young. My parents listened to what I said. So I grew up thinking that people should listen to and discuss and challenge what came out of my mouth, not just agree with me. I thought I could enter adult discussions and was happy if I could make them see how I thought—but also happy to have my opinion changed, and learn something new. Sometimes children don’t think they can talk with grown-ups on an equal basis. I worked with adults when I was eleven, and I started to feel equal with them, which is maybe why someone might have thought I was full of myself. But I still think it’s a good thing for a child.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you steered away from being a little princess?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — My parents said if I ever became annoying they would end it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But when you have a publicist, everything becomes very professional.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I’m no diva, and my publicist, Craig Schnieder, is a really great guy and my friend. I’ve known him since I was 14. He’s protective, straightforward, and tells me what to do, but he’s also really funny.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does he find you jobs?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — No. There are also agents, managers and lawyers.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have them all?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Yes, and accountants.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s serious business to be an actor.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Yes, but I want to be a director, a painter and a writer of children’s stories, and a mother.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have enough time?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — That is why I started at 11— there are so many things still to do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still have the same boyfriend?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — No. But I’m friends with all my ex-boyfriends…mostly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your sign?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Gemini.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s complicated?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — It’s the twins, the two sides. I switch every minute. Happy, sad, very happy, very sad… On top of it I was born June 10th, the day in the Gemini calendar of laughter and tears. So I am half and half. Not like someone with a problem. If I’m angry with someone, I’m going to be for ten minutes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was just your birthday.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I just turned 23. My friend Ozzy organized a surprise party in Los Angeles with 150 people. She made me get all dressed up to go dancing. It was a few days after my birthday. The actual day of my birthday she threw me a surprise party with 8 people. We went to a club. It was kind of tacky and I was disappointed. Then a few days later, I thought I was going to meet these two cute boys. She had made one of them up. One guy, she said, would be my future husband—an English writer, 6’3” and handsome. She said he’d just written a book, and was getting great reviews. I used to be into English boys, and was excited to meet him. Then I arrived and was so shocked, but also a bit disappointed not to meet my future husband.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe I can find a French one for you.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — How French? French is too close to my father, even though for American women French is exotic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your father is French. What’s your French side?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Americans sometimes think I have a French side, and French people sometimes think that I have both. But actually, the things that I’ve inherited from my French side are the same things that I’ve inherited from my American side. For example, half of me might be open to certain situations and things, while the other half of me is closed and conservative. One side wants to be more French, one American. I try and find a balance that is a combination of my mother and my father—which is their child. At the same time, there are certain social and cultural differences between France and America, and they change depending on whom I’m with.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does your father ever say you’re being too American?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Maybe too puritanically American. He might say that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In what kind of situation? Political?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — In politics, I’m more liberal than the average American. But I really don’t think that actors have the right to talk about politics the way that they do. I think that it’s great that actors are involved in causes. At the same time, we care too much about what actors think. Why should their opinions mean so much?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not that their opinions mean more…
LEELEE SOBIESKI — It’s just that people listen to them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, because they are visible. For example, an actor like Sean Penn can speak openly about things people might be afraid to speak about, especially in a conservative period like ours is now. But, now that you have a choice, how is living in New York, compared to LA?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I plan on living half and half for now. And if I keep working I hope to be living in a third place like Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — If you have a child, you’ll have to add another part.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Yes, it’s going to be dangerous. Unless I pick a half-French, half-American boy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, how is NY for you compared to LA?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Los Angeles is really good when you’re busy working. But it is a lazy city. At three in the afternoon, gyms and restaurants are full of people because they don’t have day jobs. Whereas in New York, there’s always something to do. So it’s nice to get away from New York. You don’t have time in NY, and in LA all you have is time. In LA, everybody has the same dream—to be a director, writer, actor—but wants to do it in a different way. New Yorkers are more pessimistic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is New York a good place to be an actress?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Before I thought you had to be in LA all the time. Now I think people are moving here to work. I’m also trying to get a little place, because when I’m in LA I want to have all my meetings and to work. In New York I want to do other things. In New York my friends are more pushy with me when I’m not doing anything. You get annoyed when you don’t take in enough culture, which is what you find in New York. In LA you have to drive to get anywhere.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you focus on your acting career in LA?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Ideally, I would like to separate them. But I’ll probably go to LA and become a valley girl, because I have all of these crazy movies coming out—and I’m so excited about all of them
OLIVIER ZAHM — Six, eight movies?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — One, which you saw, is called Lying. Another is one called The Elder Son. It’s about a Russian family. The actor who plays my dad in Eyes Wide Shut plays my dad again in this film. I also did in Luxembourg, a modern adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. I play a crazy governess in the country side who sees ghosts. It’s good, but was difficult to film because it snowed and I did lots of scenes running through a snowy forest and peeing in a lake or something. Then I did also a Turkish film in Istanbul called The American Girl, all in Turkish, except my part, as an American girl who comes in to Turkey and changes people’s lives. It takes place in the 70s but deals with present issues and cultural conflicts because a Turkish boy falls in love with the American girl. There will be Turkish or American subtitles. Another film I did was a remake of The Wicker Man, with director Neil Le Butte and Nicolas Cage. What else? The last film I did was with Al Pacino. It’s called 88 Minutes. A thriller, shot in Vancouver. Al Pacino gets a call that he has 88 minutes to live. Everyone is suspected of being out to get him, and he doesn’t know what is going on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your role?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I play a young law student in his class.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you a suspect, or a sexy student?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I’m a little bit nerdy. Maybe secretly sexy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was it like to work with Al Pacino?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Great.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is he funny?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Very.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He is really a legend.
LEELEE SOBIESKI — I was both honored and flattered to work with him. We had a lot of really good scenes together. So I am really excited to see how it’s received.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Will you have to do a lot of promotion?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — Yes, but I’ve been avoiding it so far. I don’t like doing press much. It’s like going on a new date. You have to tell your story again and again, but without any of the pleasure of a date—no one night stand, and anything can end up in the papers. The problem is that a story is really a sound byte, and if you say something stupid they can print it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So does that mean at every interview you give them only one perfect thing to say, or do you pick one person to give the good thing to, and give everyone else the nonsense?
LEELEE SOBIESKI — It’s complicated. Maybe I should show up with my dog, dressed like school girl.
[Table of contents]
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