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Margarita Levieva as Lisa P. in Adventureland

Margarita Levieva

An interview with Adventureland's Lisa P.

Apr 08, 2009 Web Exclusive
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Margarita Levieva’s sultry slow-motion entrance in the summer-job comedy Adventureland, writer-director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad, is a sight to behold. Accompanied by the seductive groove of The Rolling Stones’ “Tops,” Levieva’s character Lisa P. paralyzes all male onlookers as she struts through an amusement park while savoring a snow cone. Although the Russian-born actress has little in common with the gum-chewing, hair-flipping Tilt-A-Whirl operator she plays in Adventureland, which is set in 1987, Levieva has made an equally strong impression on the press in New York, where she now is based. In 2005, New York magazine ran a full-page close-up of Levieva as part of its “50 Most Beautiful New Yorkers” feature. And last year, when New Yorker film critic David Denby reviewed Noise, a film in which Levieva played a Russian philosophy student opposite Tim Robbins, he wrote, “I would watch her in anything,” noting that she displayed “a fervent intelligence the likes of which we haven’t seen in American movies for years.”

Levieva (pronounced leveeva) is a former world-class rhythmic gymnast who grew up in communist Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. She immigrated to the U.S. with her mother and twin brother when she was 11 years old. Although she loved performing, she passed on an opportunity to study dance at New York’s Laguardia High School and went on to study economics at NYU, paying for her education by working as a fashion buyer. Ultimately, she committed to acting and was accepted into the Meisner Training Program at the William Esper Studio. In 2006, she starred in the Fox series Vanished, and the following year she played tomboyish Annie Newton, a lead character in the teen supernatural thriller The Invisible. The Sunday before Adventureland’s release, Levieva appeared on an episode of the NBC drama Kings, and she currently can be seen on Broadway in Impressionism, starring Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen. I spoke to Levieva by phone a few hours before an evening performance of Impressionism.

Lisa P. makes quite an entrance. Did you have a sense of how the scene would look when you were shooting it?

I actually didn’t. I was certainly intimidated by the scene. From seeing the movie, I’m sure you remember there’s a guy running through the park announcing that Lisa P. is back, and the way it was written in the script, every male person in the park is basically drooling and turning and looking. I was intimidated because I just didn’t know if I had that kind of impact, personally. [laughs] There was a group of young boys that was supposed to be standing there ogling me, and they wouldn’t look, and the AD had to say to them, “Whoever you think is the hottest person in your world, think of them, that’s who’s coming through.” So I thought that was kinda funny. Maybe not. Yeah, I didn’t quite foresee the kind of entrance, but I love how it looks. I love how Greg made it work. It’s just a fun— It’s just a great entrance into a movie. [laughs]

What does the P stand for in Lisa P.?

She never had a last name, officially. Greg and I joked about certain names, but his whole thing was, “I don’t want her to have a last name.” It’s sort of like Madonna. Lisa P. is just Lisa P. So we had some funny ideas, but none that will be revealed.

Lisa P. wears some loud ensembles. Did you have any input into her wardrobe?

I would say my biggest input was, I just said to the costume people “Guys, let’s go for it.” Because you know, Lisa P. is one of the few characters in the film that speaks for the period. I mean, everyone does, but because she goes overboard with everything, we just knew we could really use her as a voice for the ’80s. That’s why I said, “Guys, whatever you want to do to me, whatever you want to put me into, let’s just go for it.” She’s certainly an eccentric lady. [laughs] It’s one of those situations where, she thinks she’s got the best taste in town. There are those people that think they wear the greatest clothes, and from the outside, they’re quite laughable. So, I didn’t want to be vain about it. I didn’t want my ego involved. I said, “If I look ridiculous, great, as long as she believes that she looks hot.” So those hot pink leopard tights, I just love those. I just knew it was Lisa P. And of course, putting them on, I was like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe I’m gonna go outside wearing this.” But once I sort of inhabited the character, it was a lot of fun. And the turquoise dress on the date is just phenomenal; I loved it. Again, it’s one of those things that’s so hideous yet so glorious at the same time. So, we had a lot of fittings and tried things on. I really tried to have fun with her and not make it about me but more about the character and let her have fun with it as well.

What about those nails? What color would you call that?

The nails were definitely my idea. I mixed [laughs] two different colors; it was like a hot pink-fuchsia, and I put glitter on top of it [laughs], ‘cause I wanted it to sparkle. They were definitely tough for the first few weeks; I could barely close my own pants. I was there for the whole shoot, and then I had to go to a wedding in between, and I couldn’t get the nails off, ‘cause I only had like a day-and-a-half break, so I had to go to a black tie wedding with those nails on.

It was quite a change from your wardrobe in The Invisible.

Yes, a big change. This was the first project where I actually got to wear a lot of makeup. Because, a lot of films that I’ve done, there’s always been a thing of like, “We want to look natural. Less is more.” Here, it was like, “More, more, more.” [laughs] I really had to play a lot with the makeup and the hair.

What kind of impressions did you have of the ’80s before shooting Adventureland? Did Greg Mottola tell you a lot about the period?

We all, as actors, did our own research. I watched some movies from the ’80s. I sort of made the decision that Lisa P. was a dancer and that was her claim to fame, and watched some music videos and dance videos. Some of them were not even appropriate for the character. Greg did give me DVDs of break dancing, popping; I watched those for fun. It’s all online, so now we can research anything—people’s photographs from that time, costume shops and thrift shops and stuff.

After reading about your gymnastics background, I wondered how close you came to competing in the Olympics.

I was training in Russia, and I got to the highest level you could get for my age group at that time.

What age group was that?

I was 11 years old. I was a Master of Sports, they call it in Russia. I came to the United States and I started competing, and the first competition I went to, it was at Princeton, and I won first place there. I actually beat this girl, and, I’m terrible with names, she went off to the Olympics years later, and I couldn’t go. I went to the East Coast regionals, and I was going to the Nationals—I was New York State Champion for a few years—but I couldn’t go because I came here illegally, so I was told that the only way I’d ever be competing for the United States is if I had my United States citizenship, which I didn’t. I had no control over it, ‘cause I was here illegally. My other option was to go back to Russia and compete for Russia, which I obviously didn’t want to do since I was already living here. I continued training for several more years just because I loved gymnastics; it was basically my life since I was a little kid, but I knew that my Olympic dreams were basically over. It was pretty devastating.

What talent did you have that made you a good gymnast?

I would say the biggest one is perseverance, and growing up in Russia, as tough as it was, because it was communist Russia. We were sponsored by the government; when you’re sponsored by the government, the government owns you. They have control over how much we train, what kind of training you get, how you’re treated. It’s a pretty brutal environment, especially for a little kid, because it gets physical, and it’s not like it is in the United States. There are no lawsuits. There are no child abuse cases with coaches. They just do whatever they need to make the best gymnast out of you. And they work really hard; we train seven days a week. I went to gymnastics camp every summer. I trained sometimes before school, sometimes after school; I basically had no life. But I learned from a very early age to work really hard. It is a talent, but it’s also a skill that you learn. I really worked. I learned to work hard. That served me the most. I had a talent; I had strength. I had very strong legs, which was very helpful. Rhythmically, as a dancer, I love music, so I’m musically inclined, and I’m very physical. I would say it’s ballet but with more strength and with—I wouldn’t call it tricks, but—a bigger ability to do things, ’cause you’re jumping in the air and throwing things and trying to catch them—a move that takes you years to perfect. It looks very simple. It should look very simple if you’re good at it. So, it’s a very skilled sport, and one of the many things that I’ve learned from it is how much work goes into something that is good.

You mentioned that you love music. What kind of music do you like?

Wow. My iPod is very, very erratic, in the sense that I have a very eclectic compilation of music. I love classical music. I love opera. I love hip-hop. I love house music. I love old rock. I love world music. For me, music is something that moves me at a given time. I’m one of those people; I go through periods of music. There are certain songs that I hear and I can remember a specific period in my life, ’cause usually when I’m stuck on something, I get stuck on it for a while. And then I find something else. And then I just listen to everything in the meantime. I remember there was a phase, like, Jeff Buckley—actually, during The Invisible—I listened to him for a month straight, Grace over and over. But I love all kinds of music, and I get inspired in the moment and in the mood and it just moves me at that time. I just love music.

What inspired your interest in acting?

It was something that started very early on. I was always a performer, from being a little kid back in Russia and people coming over. I always wanted to do something, whether it was to recite a poem, or to do a dance in front of the guests. As a gymnast, I always participated in school plays, more as a dancer. The stage and performing really drew me, but being an immigrant, I knew I had to take a more stable path in life and have a career, and not push to the arts, because my family sacrificed a lot to bring me here, and I just felt like I owed something to them to do something serious in my life, where I can guarantee income and health insurance. But acting always has been part of my DNA, and when I was in college, I just remember my fantasy life was just so huge that I was constantly— I couldn’t decide on what I wanted to be because I was constantly seeing myself in all these different professions, but more like playing at them. I really wanted to be an attorney in a courtroom, defending a client in front of a jury. I really wanted to be a doctor performing surgeries. I wanted to be a politician traveling the world and giving speeches. I wanted to be a psychiatrist sitting in an office with a patient and helping them. But none of those things I really wanted to commit to fully, and I think part of it was that I just really wanted to play a lot of different characters and inhabit different roles. And I think that’s when I realized, “I have to pursue acting or at least give it a chance.”

What were you pursuing when you had that more practical mindset, before you committed to acting?

I majored in economics in college, so I thought I would be a businesswoman, either have my own business or work on Wall Street, learn from there. I also loved designing clothes, ‘cause I draw. But I thought something in business because I always had a good head for business.

At any point did you have an accent like the one you used in Noise?

No. Well, of course I did, but the funny thing is, the first accent that I had was a Brooklyn accent, because I moved to Brooklyn from St. Petersburg, and that’s where I learned to speak English. [mimics accent] So I used to tawk like this. I had a little bit of a Russian accent but a lot of the Brooklyn accent. People used to tell me that it was really cute, never to get rid of it. I had to.

When Impressionism came to your attention, did you know that Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen would be in it?

I did. I admire them so much as actors. Joan has been an inspiration before. I was in love with the play, but knowing that I would be side by side working with these people and watching them in rehearsal and learning from them definitely was a big part of my decision-making.

Had you done any theater before?

No, I’ve not. I’ve never done a play before. I went to theater school, but I started auditioning for everything out of school and started booking work that happened to be in film. The first few jobs were film jobs, and then I did a TV show, and then more films. I always craved the stage. I came to my agents and said, “I really want to do a play. I understand there are [other] opportunities, but I really want to do a play.” So I was consciously seeking out plays, and this one was on the table, and I auditioned for it, and they certainly made me prove myself to them, because I had about eight auditions for them. They kept bringing me back and bringing me back because I had never done a play and obviously I had never been on Broadway, so they were just concerned about my voice and my instrument. Is it ready for that kind of stage and that kind of audience, and would I be OK with the schedule? Understandable concerns, but I seem to be doing OK.

I was surprised to see you on Kings a couple weekends ago. You had scenes with Christopher Egan, who was on Vanished with you, right?

Yeah, he was also in the first pilot I ever did called The Prince, directed by Gavin O’Connor. Chris and I played twins, so it was a very funny thing. We played twins on a pilot, then he happened to get a role playing my boyfriend on Vanished, and then he was on Kings. I also know Sebastian Stan, who’s on the show. I knew some people involved and I wanted to be a part of it.

What can folks see you in next?

I have Spread coming out August 14, the movie with Ashton Kutcher and Anne Heche, and after that I’ll have to wait for the next job.

Is Ashton still a prankster?

He didn’t pull any pranks on me, luckily. He was very professional at our shoot because he was one of the producers, and there’s a lot to get done, and he’s very committed to the role, so I think he didn’t have much time for pranking. But maybe one of these days ahead during press.


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December 28th 2009

Levieva, a Russian Jew,[2] was born in Leningrad, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union (now Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation). At the age of three, she began the rigorous training program of a competitive gymnast.[2] As a member of the Russian rhythmic gymnastics Olympic team, Levieva continued to train for the next 13 years, winning competitions in Russia and eventually going on to compete in the United States.
When she was 11, Levieva`s mother moved her and her twin brother to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in New York City.[2] She attended high school in Secaucus, New Jersey. Levieva majored in economics at NYU and worked as a fashion buyer.[2] Her continuing interest in acting led her to be accepted into the Meisner Training Program at the William Esper Studio.
Levieva made a guest appearance on Law & Order: Trial by Jury in 2005. That year, New York Magazine featured her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in New York. In 2006, she starred in the Fox series, Vanished. Her feature film credits include The Invisible, the independent film Billy`s Choice, and Noise starring Tim Robbins, Bridget Moynahan, and William Hurt.

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