Award Winning Actress Takes Action To Help End Human Trafficking
United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, humanitarian, scholar…these may not be the words that first come to mind when you think of Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actress, Mira Sorvino. But this blonde bombshell best known for her roles in Mighty Aphrodite and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, spends much of her time in roles that are far from the Hollywood lights. Sorvino, is the daughter of Hollywood legend Paul Sorvino, and while acting roots run deep, her intellect, activism and love of family catapult her passion for helping others. Since 2009 she has served as the U. N. Goodwill Ambassador for the Global Fight Against Human Trafficking and currently works with many non-profit organizations to end the worldwide plight of human slavery. Sorvino opens up to Risen about her faith, family, and her latest role as a homeless mother in the movie, Do You Believe?
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Your dad, Paul, is a well-known actor, your mom was in the industry as well, and I’ve heard that you performed in your back yard for the neighborhood with your fellow actress friend Hope Davis. What influence did they have on your desire to pursue acting as a profession?
Mira Sorvino: I think from the time I was little, like other kids, I loved to engage in imaginary play and my mom used to sort of have us do drama games in our home where she would pull out a bag full of props and then me and my friends would take turns being teams where we would improv a little skit, using like two or three random props that we’d pull out of the bag. I’m sure she had some influence on me having the idea, “Let’s write a play.” We did a play about a little girl whose doll is sick and she has to take it to the doll doctor. I was the little girl and Hope Davis was the doll and another friend of ours was the doll doctor. I don’t think about that that often but, yes, I’m sure that had an effect.
I also did plays in my school and my father would coach me and teach me how to sort of use my real emotions to fill out the characters in our life and I kind of fell in love with the feeling of performing a character on stage in front of people. I also visited my dad on sets. Once he did a movie called Dummy,  which was a television movie, about a deaf lawyer who defends a deaf mute man accused of murder. It’s based on a true story and I saw how Dad worked with deaf children. His character had lost his hearing at age 12 and then years passed in the story from the initial beginning of the story so he has to relearn more of his articulation as he goes to trial at the end. I thought that the work that he did on that was very noble. I admired him so much.
I think it’s a combination of my loving the activity, being in a little amateur [backyard] production, and then admiring my father and the artistry that he put into acting and the dedication he put into it.
RM: While you had a creative household, there was still an importance placed on education. You went to Harvard, studied abroad in China, and earned your degree in East Asian Studies. How did this foundation affect the way you entered acting and view the world?
MS: Actually, I think it initially sort of hurt my acting in that in college you learn not to take things personally, so if you’re meeting with your professor and they’re very hard on your thesis chapter or shoot down your argument, you have to become very dispassionate emotionally. You just have to be sort of open intellectually for everything so I found that when I got out of college, I was actually much worse at taking things personally in auditions or acting class and I had to shove that and become really emotionally raw again.
Intellectual people are kind of in control of themselves and when you’re acting, you actually have to give into that control so that you can react to the story and react to what the other characters are doing. You can’t tell yourself, as a character, “Oh I understand why he’s being mean, because he’s had a bad day so I’m not going to let it affect me.” That’s sort of the intellectual response, to consider the source of the behavior and then kind of let it glance off of you. As an actor, everything somebody says to you has to instinctively hit you at your gut level and then you spit back out whatever your response would be with a filter. So it was an unlearning of a sort. It’s interesting because sometimes some of the characters I play suffer so much, such as the character in this story [Do you Believe?] and then I have such heartbreak at various scenes. It’s very painful to play and it’s very painful to keep alive in your heart all of this immediate access to pain and sadness.
I was told this by Marlon Brando when I worked with him. He thought acting was a terrible profession because you always have to hurt yourself for the good of the role. So that’s been an interesting thing for me. Sometimes I think, well if I had just stayed in academia and been a professor, emotionally my life would have been a lot calmer and easier to bare in a way, because I’m always breaking my heart on camera, but you know, that’s the life I chose.
Whatever strength God is according you is the way that you should serve. Anytime someone treats a human being as less than themselves, that just burns me up and makes me kind of crazy and human slavery is one of the strongest expressions of that ill…
RM: Speaking of your film Do You Believe?, it covers 12 different story lines all exploring through their own circumstances what it means to believe in God. I understand that you were raised Episcopalian and you still identify with that. What does faith look like in your life now?
MS: I pray a lot. I go to church whenever I can. I have four kids. I’m trying to raise them in my faith. My minister is a woman. She’s also my godmother. She’s an incredible, incredible lady. She guides me with a lot of my spiritual aspirations. I try and ask God to use me as He sees fit, especially in the human trafficking work that I do. As a way to go back to the last half of your question, the thing that college prepared me for was for the public service work that I do for the United Nations, the volunteer work that I do for them as Goodwill Ambassador in human trafficking. I wrote my thesis about racial conflict and then I went on to do work on prejudice and discrimination and I was looking to expand that kind of social justice work. After three years with Amnesty International helping in violence against women campaigns for social media [I then worked] with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as their Goodwill Ambassador in their world website against human trafficking. That has been issued since 2009 and has been unbelievably satisfying and challenging and one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had and I work a lot with NGO’s [non-governmental organization].
I work privately as an individual as an advocate and activist, but that’s something that is very connected to my faith because I feel like as a human being on this planet you tend to live selfishly so I just feel very strongly that you have to try and do something to help other people who are in need. Whatever strength God is according you is the way that you should serve. Anytime someone treats a human being as less than themselves, that just burns me up and makes me kind of crazy and human slavery is one of the strongest expressions of that ill, that social ill that we have in the world today. I pray before I give my speeches, and I hope I’m doing God’s will with what I’m doing. You never really know if we’re getting everything right, but we try our best.
I have worked with some incredible faith-based organizations that are doing a lot of good. One of the first chances I had was making a documentary for CNN Freedom Project called, Every Day in Cambodia, and we worked side-by-side with this group called Agape International Missions. Donald Brewster who runs it in Cambodia, along with his wife Bridget, is like a saint. I’ve never seen people who are so altruistic, so loving, so capable of taking a giant burden on their shoulders and carrying it as saving thousands and thousands of kids and giving them a better life and changing the infrastructure of the communities that they are living in. It’s really quite incredible. I urge people if they can to watch Every Day in Cambodia. I wrote a blog about it and you can find that on the CNN Freedom Project blog site and in it I talk about my experiences.
There are so many great groups around the world working to end trafficking, faith-based or not. There are so many heroes out there that have really blown me away and inspired me. Working on this project was a great project for me, a great resource to people looking to figure out where they can get involved in their state anti-trafficking. They have a whole network. They have a whole grid of all the anti-trafficking groups in the country and now they’re sort of expanding internationally because people want to work against child sex trafficking. IJM, the International Justice Mission, is a great group. CAST, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, in Los Angeles is amazing. They do really great underground work with survivors and changing legislation across the country as well as California to benefit survivors and to fight trafficking in a stronger way. POLARIS is great on legislative changes as well. I’ve partnered with them many times. There are so many great people working on this, but everybody can make a difference. If everybody gets involved slavery will end. It’s just a matter of enough people putting their foot down and getting involved.
RM: You also did a mini-series called Human Trafficking. I’m curious whether your passion led the project or the project led to deepen your passion?
MS: Actually, I had already been working with Amnesty International when I received that script and human trafficking was one of the topics that we were very involved in with at Amnesty because 79 percent of its victims are women and girls worldwide, both in sex and labor, it’s not just sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is equally a need that’s meant to be stopped. I was actually offered two scripts on human trafficking at the same moment. One was a movie script, and one was this mini-series script for Lifetime. I read them both and I really felt that the Lifetime script was the superior one and I vetted it with the people at Amnesty. I said, “Is this completely factually accurate? Is this sending the right message? Is it on point?” They read it and were very impressed with it.
So I got to meet with ICE agents, the people who work in the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement who were working on a task force for human trafficking, after the project was done and actually over the course of doing the publicity for the project. I was able to meet with the first survivors of human trafficking that I had ever personally interviewed. Since that point I’ve interviewed scores of them and recorded the conversations and written copious notes and most of my speech making always includes testimonial from them – that really kick-started my activism on that topic. That really made me even more entrenched in it than I had been in the beginning. I have seen it as a way to amplify the activism I was doing, but then meeting the survivors of it changed me forever – just looking into the eyes of someone who has been treated as worse than a thing, lower than a dog.
The people who do this, it’s the worst of the worst human behavior; it is unbelievably evil. That really hooked me into it and since then I’ve become far, far more of an engaged and activated activist than I was at the time that I shot that film. That was really the tip of the iceberg for me. I also did Trade of Innocents , which was put out by a faith-based team. I don’t think it’s overtly faith-based but it sort of is. It’s about child sex trafficking in Cambodia. Weirdly, it’s like a fictional version of what we ended up doing the documentary on a couple years later – pedophiles buying girls in Cambodia. But we shot it in Thailand instead of Cambodia because the Cambodian government didn’t want us to shoot it there. That was very interesting and I worked with a bunch of NGO’s over there that were doing incredible things.
Every day presents new challenges and new teaching moments – new moments to be more compassionate, more patient, more helpful and more generous.
RM: With the exposure through CNN, do you feel like Every Day in Cambodia was an opportunity not only to spread the message about the horrors of human trafficking, but to also share the love and the hope that your beliefs, as well as the beliefs of Agape International Missions, brings to people?
MS: I don’t think you have to be a Christian to care about human trafficking. I don’t think you have to be a Christian to love people and to bring hope and inspiration. This particular man is a Christian and I feel that he is very much the embodiment of Christ’s work in action. I don’t think you need to be a party to any of those belief systems to actually be moved and affected and driven to action by watching the documentary, but I do think that it could be an inspiration for some, yes.
RM: It is inspiring to see individuals using their fame and celebrity to bring attention to areas in need of change or help.
MS: One thing that I was just involved in with which I think was quite miraculous and incredible, and this would apply to any person of faith around the globe, but I was at the Vatican Interfaith Declaration against modern-day slavery which took place at the beginning of December. I was privileged enough to be invited to be there, to be a witness to it and to help emphasize the message. Basically it was the first time in history that faith leaders got together on any one topic. Historically they have never done it on war, they haven’t done it on nuclear arms, but they had the Pope [Francis], the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Grand Ayatollah from Iran, a British elder, Amma, the Hugging Saint from the Hindu faith, one of the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church – all of these faith leaders sitting together making a joint declaration of unity against modern slavery and how it is a crime against humanity. It was an unbelievable moment because it was very beautiful and very moving to see world faith leaders together and everybody working together for the common good, and I was so honored to be a part of it. It was such a mind-blowing experience and I don’t think that many people know that it happened.
RM: In addition to all your work in the world, you are real-life mom of four, and in your film Do You Believe?, your character is a single mom raising her daughter finding beds at shelters since circumstances have left them homeless. What are some of the challenges you face when it comes to parenting?
MS: I think every parent has enormous challenges no matter what job they have, no matter what kind of exciting talents that might be in their life. Their responsibility is to be there for their children and to love them as well as they can and teach them as well as they can. Every day presents new challenges and new teaching moments – new moments to be more compassionate, more patient, more helpful and more generous. We always have to fight against any issues and there’s always baggage. All of us have back stories that kind of create negative behavior patterns that we really have to try and shape up for the good of our children. Our children are the constant litmus test of how we can try every day to be better human beings and they are our number one responsibility. Every day I try to be a better parent. Sometimes I fail. I do the best I can and I love my kids and I hope that I instill them with love and confidence and also a sense that they have to try and make the world a better place in their own way, whatever their passions are.
RM: Taking it a step further, your onscreen daughter reminds you of how much God loves you. What is something that your own kids remind you of and how do their feelings impact you?
MS: They tell me, sort of unwritten, every day at random times how much they love me and it always just kind of melts my heart – the pureness of their love, the kindness, the sweetness and just hugging and holding them. I feel like every moment is such a blessing and I always feel in those moments that this is about as good as life gets right now. This is such beauty. This is God’s random beauty. When you’re holding your child and hugging your child and your child is telling you how much they love you and you get to cuddle with them and just revel in that simple impression of goodness and love, it’s so heart expanding. It’s so joyful. It’s like the most beautiful thing in the world.
RM: One of the other themes in the film is sacrifice. Has there ever been a time that this extreme kindness has been shown to you or has there ever been a mentor of sorts that has been your needed encourager or a sounding board?
MS: I would have to say my grandmother was that person for me all of the times growing up and she was just the most loving, selfless person. She was so warm and so human and so funny and just always there for you with a hug or wise advice, just generous, and open-armed. Anybody would walk into her house and within five minutes she’s laid out a feast even though there had been nothing on the table when you walked in. She’d say, “Sit down. You’re tired. Let me get you some food.” Everyone turned from a stranger to a beloved friend within ten minutes of meeting her.
She was really an example for me of how to love unconditionally and I will cherish her memory until the day I die. I miss her every day. She was probably that person for me that was so loving, and yet had a really hard life. But she did not let it embitter her or make her guarded or selfish in any way. In fact, she was perhaps even more generous. I don’t know why, but she was just the most loving person.
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