role call

Mira Sorvino Answers Every Question We Have About Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Buena Vista Pictures

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion boldly went where very few 1990s studio comedies had gone before: allowing a pair of women to be just as endearingly idiotic as the scores of male duos that came before them. Directed by David Mirkin and written by Robin Schiff (based on her play Ladies Room), the 1997 film is a sweet, kooky paean to female friendship, deranged fashion choices, high-school trauma, and the genesis of Post-its. Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino play the titular characters, two gentle lunatics who’ve been friends since high school and now live in Venice Beach, spending their days dressing like slutty highlighters and eating Doritos in bed. When they learn about their imminent ten-year high-school reunion, the two scramble to figure out a way to present their lives as enviable — which, to them, means pretending to have invented ubiquitous office supplies and pseudo-casually asking diner waitresses about “Business Women’s Specials.” 

Romy and Michele unfolds like a fever dream, with overlapping fantasy sequences, long choreographed dance breaks, and two wildly famous women — Kudrow was at the height of her Friends fame, and Sorvino had just won an Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite — playing clueless 20-somethings whose favorite activities are mocking Pretty Woman and eating cafeteria hamburgers. Its sheer existence is something of a fever dream, too: Schiff has said that the movie was one of the lowest-tested in Disney’s history, with the studio considering dumping it before its premiere. But to her astonishment, it went on to make $29 million at the box office, garner the three-star approval of Roger Ebert (who praised its “charm and sly intelligence”), and become an eminently quotable cult classic for an entire generation (I can’t envision my own ’90s childhood without thinking, “I’m the Mary, and you’re the Rhoda!”).

Sorvino’s performance is particularly revelatory, demonstrating an effortless comedic range and a delightful lack of pretension. But after Romy and Michele, things stalled for her; in 2017, she revealed why, as one of the first women to speak out about being harassed and then blacklisted by Harvey Weinstein. In the years since that story broke, Sorvino has experienced something of a career resurgence: This year, she starred in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, as well as in Melora Walters’s indie art-house film Waterlily Jaguar. Mira FaceTimed us from her husband’s home office in Los Angeles (not Venice Beach, tragically) to talk about why she did a goofy comedy after winning an Oscar, what she changed about the script, her ongoing friendship with Lisa Kudrow, and her own experience as a high-school weirdo.

What do you remember about the first time you heard about Romy and Michele?
I remember I had an offer on it, and I’d read it, and I thought it was laugh-out-loud funny. While I was reading it, I was cracking up. And that’s only happened to me a few times, that I’ve read a script and it’s made me laugh. I was a big fan of Lisa’s, and she was already attached to it. I just thought it was really terrific. I thought it needed a little bit more validation for our heroes in it, and spoke to Robin Schiff about whether they could have a moment where they give the mean girls their comeuppance, so together we wrote the “I don’t give a flying … frog … what you think” scene. That wasn’t originally in there. I just felt very strongly that they can’t just be idiots — they have to have a moment where they’re truthful and strong and courageous — and she was all for that.

My agents at the time questioned it because it was a little lowbrow, with some gross-out humor here and there. Some of which is toned down and some of which is not in the movie anymore. They questioned — I’d just been nominated for an Oscar — whether it was the right choice. But I so related to these characters because I was a total nerd in high school. I was totally unpopular, and had my two best friends, and it was kind of us against the world. I related to [Romy and Michele], and I loved the spirit of it, and the celebration of friendship and being unique. But I also loved that they were two idiots who think they’re smart. It’s so funny to see two people who are cocksure that they’re right when they’re, you know, not.

So I said yes, and it’s just been an amazing ride. I’d say it’s more popular now than it’s ever been. If you go on Instagram — I started following the hashtag #romyandmichele out of curiosity — it’s crazy. Every single day there’s a ton of new entries about it. It’s a 23-year-old film!

What are some of the best things you’ve seen on that hashtag?
Of course everyone dresses up as us. Sometimes for Halloween, sometimes for Pride, sometimes just because. Or people will tag Romy and Michele, even though it’s just two best friends together, two people who love each other. That’s so cool, that we’ve become the emblem of deep friendship.

But my favorite thing is when people do the dance at their wedding. And that’s happened several times. They’ve re-created the choreography of our dance. Straight couples, gay couples. And there’s a third person there, so it’s abnormal for a wedding, but it’s really sort of heartwarming to know that something you did has touched people so much that they want it to be part of their biggest day.

Regarding your agents’ fears, what gave you so much confidence in the film? How did you know it would work?
I just really believed in it. I had this gut instinct that it was tremendous and that the people involved were going to turn it into something truly special. It was just my gut. It wasn’t a tactical [choice]; I wanted to do it. And I knew how I wanted to do her. I heard her voice in my head.

Where did the voice come from?
Romy’s voice is somewhat based on my sister. When my sister was younger — she’s two and a half years younger than me — she had this best friend named Murph. We grew up in New Jersey, but somehow they both sort of spoke in this [breaks into Romy’s voice and laughs insanely]. They didn’t have the chuckle, so much, but it was that weird sort of pseudo Valley Girl twin-speak that they had. And I just made it a little bit lower, because I felt that Romy is the guy in the relationship. She’s the John Wayne, in her head. So it made sense to have a more masculine tenor to her. And I wanted her physicality to feel like a football player in drag. Like, when you see her marching to places in her high heels, it shouldn’t ever look graceful. The only time she gets to be a tiny bit graceful is during the dance. And even then — I’d taken a ton of ballet in my youth, but I wanted to make it look less accomplished and more in the spirit of a gymnast dismounting, versus the slow elegance of a trained dancer. Sort of just proud of herself. “I’m doing the Snoopy dance now.”

What do you remember about meeting Lisa?
That she was super nice. Super beautiful. Lisa’s a really beautiful woman. She’s got these incredible eyes. And I was so impressed with her intelligence. Lisa is so smart. She was almost a doctor; she comes from a family of doctors and was pre-med in college and decided she wanted to be an actor. The medical community’s loss, our gain. When you talk to her, it’s like, “Oh, wise counsel, what should I do?” [Laughs.] She’s nothing like the ditzes she’s become so successful for playing. She’s very brilliant and kind. And measured and thoughtful. She does have a sarcastic humor about life. And she’s funny as she talks. But different from the way her characters are funny.

Did you click right away or did it take time?
I’d say we clicked pretty much right away. We had to spend a lot of time rehearsing. We had to rehearse the dance for about three weeks. All that time spent workshopping just naturally bonded us. The idea that we had for who they were jelled right away. And that relationship was very organic. It really slotted me back into my own high-school best-friend relationships, so it didn’t require so much tooling. And we’re still good friends. We’ve been in touch a lot during COVID-19. I’ve reached out to her several times. She lost her mother a few months ago, and that was very sad. But she’s a force. She’s an amazing person. I’m going to do her [genealogy] show Who Do You Think You Are? And last year I did her game show that she produces, 25 Words or Less. It’s always a joy when I get to see her or talk to her.

Was your offscreen relationship at all like theirs? Or was it its own dynamic?
I really enjoyed making her laugh. I really enjoyed kind of being the goofball in our pair. Each friend in your life brings out a different dynamic in you, a slightly different version of you. And she naturally brought out my funnier side. Because it worked for the movie. But not with everybody am I humorous. Some people I’m very serious with.

Do you consider yourself a more serious person in general?
Put it this way: When I got Mighty Aphrodite, which was my first gigantic break, which was a comedy, my father said, in reaction, “Mira? Funny?” So I think it’s a hidden side of me, but it’s my favorite mode. Comedy is where I’m the happiest. When I was doing Modern Family for a couple of years as a guest star, I loved just doing crazy, wacky things. In the more comedic scenes in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, I loved when I got to be funny and improv. In real life I don’t think I’m funny — maybe a few moments in a day I say something funny. But it’s my favorite mode of performing.

So what was your family’s reaction to Romy and Michele?
I was raised rather strictly; I was a real goody-goody in high school, and my mom is a very religious person, and my father was a very authoritarian Italian dad. So things like the “Oh, Ramon” scene — I sat there in the audience with them next to me and I’m like [mimes covering their eyes]. There have been several movies where I’ve had to cover their eyes, and some their ears. I’m not really sure what they thought. I think they enjoyed it. But I was stressed about the sexual humor in it.

Did you get to improvise at all in Romy and Michele?
I’m trying to think … The Madonna [outfit] — me whacking Lisa with my hair, that was something I just started doing. I just started swinging my ponytail around. Stuff like that came up. Little moments between us — like taking the last chip, and her going, “Do you really need that?”

Is there a specific scene that sticks out to you as particularly memorable to film?
I really liked the hamburger scene. Although I hated the fat suit. It was so hot. Originally they stuffed my mouth full of cotton to make my face fatter, but I already have kind of a fat face, and it was so uncomfortable. I couldn’t talk with the pieces stuffed in there. So we took that out. But it was like 100 degrees outside and I’m wearing this synthetic fat suit. I was heavier in high school, though not that heavy — but the look with the bangs and the long brown hair, that’s what I looked like in high school. Michele, with her kinky-wavy hair, looked a lot like my friend Elizabeth from high school. We were always at lunch together. I just remember we’d sort of be telling jokes about the other characters that we were supposed to be laughing at — like the weird older teacher who walks by. I’d whisper stuff to Lisa and we’d actually crack up. But it’s so sad when Billy Christensen comes and she’s so in love with him.

And any of the dancing scenes. I think I taught Lisa the weird little kick-open-side-to-side thing we do [at the club], because I used to do that with my friends in high school. “Kick, open, side to side!”

What was the most difficult part of getting that main dance down? How many times did you have to film the routine?
It wasn’t that difficult. I think the choreographer used our individual strengths. They knew that I had some dance training, so I’d do a tour jeté in it and some turns across the room. Lisa wasn’t as much of a dancer, so she’d be more supportive, holding that sort of goddess/god-statue pose at the end. But we had to shoot it many times to get it from many different angles. At one point they even shot us overhead. So I think it took two and a half or three days to shoot.

What do you remember about filming the old-age scenes?
I found it scary! To do the masks, you have to breathe through a straw, as they do a cast. I felt very claustrophobic just doing that. But seeing myself like that was actually frightening because it did look a little like my grandmother, but much worse. The facial shape — I guess my bone structure is more like hers than I realized. The way your face rearranges itself as you age, it was like looking into the face of my mortality. It was actually scary to see myself that way. [Laughs.]

And of course, it’s sad that they aren’t friends anymore. For a movie that was a comedy, it had a surprising number of sad moments. Like the scene where I’m in the bathroom at the reunion and she comes in and we make up, and I’m crying at the mirror — that was surprisingly heavy. I remember thinking, For a comedy, I’m sure crying a lot. I feel like I have this specialty as an actress, which is a weird specialty: I call it “cryling.” Crying and smiling at the same time. It’s somehow something I’m called to do a lot.

To return to you in high school: Did you have a Billy Christensen?
I’m a person who’s had crushes since nursery school. I announced to my friends and parents that I was engaged to a boy named Rusty when I was 4, and that I was going to marry him and go cook for him. Every year I would have a crush. In fourth grade, it was Peter. I had this crush on a boy — I feel like Romy is more juvenile than even high school. So I had a crush on a boy in third grade named John. Maybe you have to bleep out names?

No, we don’t have to.
Okay. So I’d just come from this other school, and I was friends with this group of girls, and whenever we saw John — we all had a crush on him — we’d collect John Germs. He’d sit in a chair, and when he’d get up, we’d go, “I got John Germs! I got John Germs!” Like cooties. He found out about it and he hated me from that point on. He absolutely hated me. I became his arch-rival. We ran for student-body president, and he won. He was part of this whole group in third and fourth grade that used to have boy-girl parties — in third grade! — and play spin the bottle and seven minutes in heaven. What town was I from?! I don’t know. I was so not a part of that invite list. They’d all kind of mock me because I had this crush on John. So I feel like he was the Billy Christensen of my youth.

And in high school I had a big crush on a guy, and he was so cute and so smart and so nice, and he couldn’t have been less interested in me. But he let me hang around his group because I was in the drama group. And the year after he graduated, my art-history teacher suggested that perhaps he was not interested in any women. I was so shocked. My eyes were like saucers. It was sort of like in Romy and Michele, where they show the picture of the drama group [in the yearbook] and the two guys are looking at each other. All the guys I kissed onstage in the drama group later became openly gay. [Laughs.] I don’t think one of the leading guys I worked with was interested in women.

As a theater kid, I relate. So you were nerdy but then became this Hollywood star. Did you ever have the dream Romy and Michele moment of coming back to a reunion and being like, “I made it!”
I think the weird part is that I was still afraid to go back to my own high-school reunion. Even after having made Romy and Michele, after having won an Oscar, after getting married and having kids, I was still afraid of the mean kids. They ruined my life, in a way. I was very surprised when some of the girls who were the meanest to me sort of reached out to me online later. I was like, “Wow. You wanted nothing to do with me when I was in high school. But now that I’m a well-known person, you’re ‘getting back in touch?’” And they were so obnoxious to me. They were like the mean girls in Romy and Michele. 

When was the last time you watched the movie?
I went to a retrospective screening of it, a prom party for the 20th anniversary, maybe three years ago. They invited all of these fans, and Robin and I went and introduced it. When I walked onstage, it was as though I were a rock star. I’ve never had this experience any other time. Everyone was cheering and screaming, and it was about a three-minute standing ovation. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t believe how much love there is for Romy and Michele. It blew me away. My family and I watched the movie from the balcony, and everyone knew every line.

What do fans of the movie say to you?
I had this experience at the Louvre Museum about ten years ago, maybe more, when some girl came up to me and tapped me. I turned around and she said, “I’m the Mary!” And I looked at her blankly. And she was like, “I’m the Mary!” And I was like, “Oh my God. You’re doing Romy and Michele lines! Have we hit that [moment]?” Because when I was a kid everybody would do Animal House lines. I couldn’t believe we’d reached the level where total strangers were coming up to me and saying the lines. That was another benchmark of like, Wow, this project is different.

Knowing the way your career unfolded after this movie, how does it feel to have this sort of new information about the way this movie was received? To realize that it and you are still beloved after all of these years? Does it surprise you?
For what we put out there to land and resonate, it’s really special. It didn’t surprise me then, but it surprises me now. I felt at the time that the movie should not have been rated R. I felt our target audience was younger than the studio thought it was. It wasn’t just for people in their 30s, it was for people who were in high school, too. With an R rating at that point — we didn’t have streaming — your parents weren’t gonna take you more than once to see that movie. Apparently, all the money at that point in time was made by repeat audiences, and a kid can’t go back to the movie theater with their friends on their own. That was a calculated error. We should have made it PG-13. Apparently, it was Janeane Garofalo’s use of the F-word that made it an automatic R; if you use it in a sexual sense, it’s an automatic R. Which is pretty crazy. “Go blank a sheep; go blank your mother” — that was the R, right there. So I wasn’t surprised that people liked the movie. I think we were a bit disappointed that it didn’t do better at the box office, but it has gone on to be one of the more enduring comedies of that era.

How do you think it fits into the arc of your career?
I think I sort of veered away from comedy after that. So I’m not sure at that point that it had much of an effect. I started doing darker stuff, like At First Sight and Summer of Sam. And then I did a super, super-dark film, a small one that nobody has seen, called The Grey Zone, about the only successful rebellion at a concentration camp during the Holocaust. So I went in a really opposite direction and started exploring other stuff. I do feel that having done Romy, it was like, “Let’s have her on Will & Grace and Modern Family and Bamboozled!” I don’t know that it had a direct effect on my career then, but it’s perhaps my most beloved role. If you polled 100 people on the street and gave them a list of all the films I’ve been in, the one they’ve probably seen or like the most is Romy and Michele.

In the years since you spoke to Ronan Farrow about your experience with Harvey Weinstein, and the way it affected your career, do you feel like things have gotten better? Are things on the upswing since that conversation?
They have. Surprisingly. I actually thought it would end my career for good and I’d never work again. There haven’t really been whistle-blowers before that who continued to work. If you look at people who brought these accusations forward, they were not believed and they were shunned. Surprisingly, the [interview] gave people a new view of me and my potential. They saw a reason for why my career had faltered, which wasn’t necessarily caused by me. It was being blacklisted, which is a pretty potent reason. I wasn’t in a studio film for a decade and a half. I still worked in indies, and I still worked on television, and I did some work I’m very proud of. It’s not like I stopped working. But the level of the projects I was allowed access to, there was a ceiling to it. In a strange way, I’ve seen the kindness of people in power who thought, Wait, maybe we should give Mira another shot at things. Because we now understand. And that’s been very gratifying.

That’s really great. My last question: I did this column with Minnie Driver recently, and she told me a great story about how your dad approached her at the Four Seasons during a meeting with Bonnie Hunt to star in Return to Me, and told Bonnie to cast you in the movie instead. And I saw you post about it on Twitter
[Laughs.] Oh my God, I saw that. I love my dad, but I’m sorry, Minnie! That’s just terrible. But you gotta love dad. “My family above all else.” It’s very sweet of him to suggest to a director while she’s having an interview with the actress Minnie Driver that his daughter should be cast as the lead. That’s very dad. It’s a little embarrassing, but I love him for it.

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Mira Sorvino Answers All Our Romy and Michele Questions