Activism is a long tradition in our family—to be of service.
For Mira Sorvino, activism has always been a top priority, so much so that the Oscar winner even considered giving up acting for her humanitarian efforts in the past. She’s perhaps best known for raising awareness on human trafficking as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and as one of the leading voices of the #MeToo movement after going on the record with Ronan Farrow for his groundbreaking exposé in The New Yorker. A true champion of justice, her far-reaching efforts are all-encompassing. It only makes sense that, sometimes, her two passions have a way of colliding.
Based on Erin Jade Lange’s novel, Paul A. Kaufman’s Butter follows its titular plus-size adolescent (Alex Kersting), who’s having a really rough go at it. His doting mother, Marian (Sorvino), despite her good intentions, is also enabling, showering affection primarily with food not realizing the harm it’s causing. Meanwhile, his father, Frank (Brian Van Holt), is emotionally absent. The non-edible comforts in Butter’s life are his saxophone and catfishing a pretty girl from school, who believes she’s corresponding with a sensitive jock from a nearby town. As he grows ever more despondent, Butter hatches a macabre plan: to eat himself to death live on the Internet.
Anthem spoke to Sorvino about her humanitarianism—past and present, and on and off the screen.
Butter is now playing in select theaters.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
The amount of good you’ve done is incalculable at this point. Where did this all come from?
Oh thank you. I have to say that I got it from both of my parents. My mom participated in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a very young woman. I think she still might’ve been a teenager then. My father’s greatest cultural heroes were Dr. King and Desmond Tutu. We grew up in a house that talked a lot about social justice, prejudice, and the Holocaust. My mom volunteered at a suicide hotline and that was how she spent her afternoons. She used to come home and tell us stories about how she would literally talk somebody off of a ledge. Those service-orientated ways of giving back were very much instilled in us from an early age. When I went to Harvard, I volunteered doing elderly outreach where I would visit a woman who was over a hundred years old. I would bring her the news of the day, and sit and talk and hang out with her. I wrote my thesis about racial conflict, trying to understand the roots of prejudice in both the local and the general sense. I worked on a public service project as soon as I graduated, trying to get a love of learning and writing into junior highs across the country. I worked on a documentary about anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union. So up until I started acting, so much of my time was spent doing this kind of activism and advocacy and social justice work. And then, I’d say for ten years, I had to really focus on getting my acting career off the ground. But when I was pregnant with my first daughter, Mattea, Amnesty International asked me to volunteer at an evening about the disappeared women of Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico. After I gave this speech for them, they said, “We want you to be our Stop Violence Against Women campaign spokesperson.” That’s how I learned about human trafficking, and once they started taking note of my activism on that, they asked me to be their Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. I’ve been with them ever since. That’s one of the best parts of my life. I really, truly love advocacy. I love working for survivors and trying to help amplify their voices. Also, with the #MeToo movement, I was personally, naturally a member of that community. When we all found a collective voice, that felt powerful, to be able to step out of the silence and help each other. So activism is a long tradition in our family—to be of service.
That’s stunning. And empathy is obviously critical, and I don’t know that it’s easily taught. We’re told empathy can be instilled through books, mindful parenting, and experience. My feeling is that movies don’t get enough credit, especially outside non-fiction documentaries.
Yeah! Honestly, strangely, I felt that the films this year—I’m in the Academy so I watch them all—had this slight feeling of hopelessness and pessimism. Maybe it’s because we’re coming out of the pandemic, or we’re still in the pandemic. With so many of the big films this year, I was surprised by their overall negativity. I was really kind of shocked. I said, “Wow, this is so dark. This is so negative. It’s so nihilistic.” I think people need uplifting stories now more than ever, and I don’t mean candy-coated. I have to say, I loved the film CODA. I thought it was really beautiful. It showed growth and challenges and a community that we really don’t look into that much if we’re in the hearing world. I thought Troy Kotsur’s performance was so beautiful. That’s what I’m looking for more of: beauty. I do think that, the more material like that is out there, it will bring you empathy for people that you didn’t know were like you but are. Like Butter. Here’s this kid that people write off just because of his size. They’re going to just completely disavow any similarity they might have with him if they pass him in a hallway or on the street because his physical size is so much different than theirs. It’s almost like they turn off the concept that he could be just like them in every other way. I think this film is really important because we see the world through his eyes. He’s an amazing character and the actor portraying him is an amazing person. That’s what we need to develop empathy—to relate on a heart-level to other people and their struggles.
I really felt that Butter is another instance where your two passions are intersecting. Although it’s tackling very different social issues compared to say, your work on the Human Trafficking series or Sound of Freedom, it feels like movement filmmaking all the same.
It has a powerful message. I loved the anti-bullying, suicide prevention, and anti-body shaming vibe of it. It’s peculiarly funny and human, too. Somehow it’s accessible, rather than a downer. My character is a little ridiculous, but she ultimately has a heart. I enjoy playing these characters that are a little bit daft, where then you ultimately see that they have a beating heart underneath it.
You’ve said in the past that comedy is your favorite genre. Is that still true today?
It is, yes. Absolutely.
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is one of the truly great comedies, and that film also has this anti-bullying message. Romy is bullied in high school and that experience stalks her, long after that chapter of her life has ended. Did you at all relate to the tragedy of that?
Sure! Honestly, I was not the most popular kid in high school. I mean, I had my really wonderful friends, but I was definitely not in the “A-group” or in with the cool kids or in with the cool clique or in with however you wanna word it. So I kind of related to Romy and Michele’s feelings of being outsiders, yet loving each other so much that they didn’t really need the others, you know what I mean? There’s nothing crueler than a cruel teenage kid. There’s nothing crueler than a high school bully. I actually think junior high school is even worse because kids are more insecure then. And, literally, people do kill themselves because of bullying. Now with the online component, it’s so much easier for people to amplify that cruelty—casually, clicking and sending it to someone else. And commenting. Trolling. It’s not a small thing. It’s a huge thing. But ultimately, I think Romy and Michele does have a positive message. I don’t think it’s overpowered by a sadness.
Oh there’s no disputing that.
They conquer the insecurities that come from wanting other people’s approval. And it’s hard. I think everybody would like to be affirmed that they’re of value. But we somehow have to find that value within ourselves, and in some of the people that we love and know love us. It can’t be some external standard. The Instagram world is so phony. It’s like, “Oh wow. I’m nothing because I don’t have the perfection that my favorite model or actor or actress has in their posts” or “Their life looks so great.” All of that. And, you know, when we put out a post, all of us are also like, “Well, are we going to pick our worst picture? Or are we going to pick our best one?” [laughs] “Are we going to break them up a little bit? Are we going to make it look like we’re always happy?” No one is always happy, right? In each life, there’s a significant amount of rain falling. It’s just a weird time to be alive right now. Because of the pandemic, more time than ever I think is spent online, as opposed to in-person or out there really doing things and having real experiences. Our horizons become bounded by the square of those screens. In Butter, he’s pretending to be a kid that he is not. It’s got that Cyrano de Bergerac element to it with the catfishing: pretending to be a cuter, thinner guy. There are so many different relatable themes in this. I think it’s a good movie for kids. I think it’s a good movie for parents. Even with my character, there’s something to glean because she does infantilize him. She is part of the problem. But she can change and learn to be there in a more significant way, in a way that he needs her to be there rather than babying him.
Being a mother must give you added insight into the pressures that young people face.
Definitely. I have a few teenagers right now, and one tween and one nine-year-old. I can see that impossible—this is not a slur, but Kardashian—standard, which can only be achieved through surgery and a lot of alterations. That’s a really hard thing for teenagers to look at and be like, “I’m fine the way that I am.” So [Butter] definitely appealed to me on that level, too. Alex [Kersting] is a pretty amazing young man. He’s our star. I really enjoyed working with him. He actually had to gain weight for this role because in the story he has varying stages of weight loss or gain, which I’m sure was hard for him. So much about the movie is positive. It has something for everyone.
I watched this one interview with Paul Kaufman and I really admired that, at the very beginning, even before he zeroed in on this particular subject matter, he simply wanted to make a film that would have social impact. I found that incredibly noble and pure-hearted.
Yes. I can absolutely attest to that. That’s what he expressed wanting to do all along. He wanted it to be used in schools and have it become part of a national dialogue for teens to dissuade them from wanting to kill themselves. And I think he made it in this very palatable way so that it could be oddly entertaining, even if it’s dealing with such dark subject matter. When you talk about plans of an online suicide, I mean, that’s very dark. But somehow he made it an entertaining ride.
When Marian is having a heart-to-heart with Butter near the end of the film, it feels like you’re not only speaking to him but speaking to each and every one of us. You’re somehow in that moment breaking the fourth wall without actually breaking it. It’s what you take away.
That’s a scene I fought for. I really wanted that scene in there because it was important to me that they had this growth in their relationship—that she came around to being there for him in the way that he needed her to be. I don’t know that the scene was originally in the script, but I advocated for it to be in the cut because there was a certain period of time when it wasn’t in the cut.
I could always sense that you have great instinct, and this is going way back to the mid-to-late ‘90s. I know people had discouraged you from doing Romy and Michele because it was too “low-brow.” And you took a chance on Guilllermo del Toro [for Mimic] and Antoine Fuqua [for The Replacement Killers] when they weren’t established directors at that point.
Yeah, I saw who they were before anyone else knew who they were. I wanted to work with them. That’s cool that it felt that way to you. That’s awesome. I think other people might’ve been like, “She should’ve played it safer and gone with a formula. That would’ve kept her very successful, playing a narrow range of roles.” But I always wanted to challenge myself. That is the fun of acting: you get to explore so many different worlds, genres, and tons of characters and material.
Paul said he came around to the realization that, after directing procedurals depicting a lot of violence, he wanted to turn a corner. Butter marked a new chapter. I wonder if you have similar markers in your filmography, where things have gotten more or less enticing to you.
I mean, as actors, we don’t have quite as much choice as filmmakers do. It’s more subjective to what comes across our desks. But I’ve definitely turned down stuff that in my mind were cruel, nihilistic, and ugly. I’ll be like, “No way. This is not something I want to be a part of.” Violence. Porn. No substance. No empathy. No humanity. I mean, violence plays because the world is filled with violence, right? The world is filled with death and sorrow. But then that has to exist in a universe where those things matter—those things have to make you feel and make you care, rather than just being slick and gratuitous. It has to make you feel deeply when something bad happens to somebody or when somebody does something bad, rather than it just being a mood poem or a tone poem for violence as a brushstroke. I have been trying to gravitate more towards comedy when I can because I always prefer to uplift people and make them laugh. I’ve been doing this show Shining Vale, which couldn’t be more different than [Butter], but it does touch on mental health. It’s comedy-horror. It’s also about being seen, being healthy, being heard, and mattering. It’s quite funny and it’s quite spooky. It’s definitely meant as entertainment, but it does a kind of deep-dive into issues people face in the middle of their lives. Are they where they wanted to be? Are they living the life that they thought they were gonna be living? Do they matter to themselves, and do they matter to other people? There’s definitely an exploration of suicidal ideation in that one, too, even though it is a comedy. So I think comedy digs a lot deeper these days, especially when they’re in the right hands, like with Paul Kaufman, or with Jeff Astrof and Sharon Horgan [the co-creators of Shining Vale]. These topics are deftly explored.