Ivana Milicevic, Banshee Ass-Kicker

The stunning Croatian tells us about staying sane in Hollywood, forgiving a cheater and landing the “role of a lifetime” at 38.

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At the Roxbury Café in Beverly Hills, actress Ivana Milicevic knows nearly everyone who walks by. There’s the cute waitress who chats about trimming her hair. There’s the guy who owns a gym upstairs. He taught Milicevic a few fighter moves she’s now using in her starring role on Cinemax’s Banshee, a pulpy new drama from producer Alan Ball (True Blood).

But Milicevic is maybe too familiar with our waiter. She practically heckles him, calling out, “Where’s my burger, Filip?”

“I didn’t know you wanted one,” he says.

She rolls her eyes. “See what I deal with?”

Filip, as it turns out, has her burger ready. He’s also her younger brother, one of two who followed her to Los Angeles after she moved from Michigan in 1992. The middle brother, Tomo, became a rock star upon arrival. He’s the guitarist in 30 Seconds to Mars, with the actor Jared Leto.

After the three siblings got their bearings in LA, they convinced their Croatian émigré parents to abandon home in Troy, Michigan for sunnier climes. They’ve owned the Roxbury Café for eight years now.

“This is where I take all of my meetings,” Milicevic says. “I have a really good family. Love will always be more important to me than power.”

In a far more destructive way, love also rules her small-town Mom character on Banshee, set in Pennsylvania Amish country. Carrie Hopewell is a reformed jewel thief but that’s a secret from her husband Gordon, the district attorney. When her former lover and crime partner arrives in town, posing as the new sheriff, her unassuming life is threatened.

Banshee, developed and written by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, marks a career turn from Milicevic’s roots as a model and sometimes-standup comedian who nailed small parts in movies like Casino Royale and Head Over Heels. It stands to be a defining role – the show was awarded a second season, barely two weeks into its first.

Milicevic talked about the show’s parallels with her real life, as well as her early years in Los Angeles when seemingly every part with a Russian accent came her way.

You left home for Los Angeles to pursue modeling when you were seventeen. That’s a bold move.

Looking back, I can’t believe I made that happen. Most of all, I can’t believe my parents let me do it – not that they could’ve stopped me.

Why leave home so young?

I thought, “If I don’t get out of here, I’m going to marry the first person I have sex with and I’m going to end up working in my parent’s donut shop.” They had a Dunkin’ Donuts in Michigan and I worked there for one summer before I started modeling.

Donuts to modeling – that’s quite a leap. Were you rebellious at that age?

I left home, so in a way, I didn’t have to be wild because I was already free. My wildness was just fun. I didn’t get into drugs. I just did whatever I wanted, like having cookies for breakfast.

Tell me about your first official Hollywood job, the one where you called your parents and said: “OK, this is real.”

Probably Seinfeld. It was fun but my goodness, they took it so seriously. You see why that show was so, so good. They never stopped fixing it. On shooting day we were there until one or two in the morning because they were constantly honing the jokes.

What was your role?

My character tries to seduce Jerry so that he won’t tell anyone that my boyfriend is a terrible tennis player. We’re both Russian so we had the accent. And that marks the first of many jobs I had while faking a Russian accent.

I watched your reel. You sound like a regular Muscovite.

I was really lucky to have a shtick like that. The cool thing is that I often don’t look quirky enough to do funny things, but slap a Russian accent on me…

Did the work flood in after that? More morally corrupt tennis players?

It was stop and go. I was never very ambitious. I’m not lazy exactly but I just tend to go with the flow, trusting that the jobs I got were meant for me, and the ones I didn’t get were not.

That sounds pretty mature for a young woman.

Well, there were also some youthful bad choices like, “I already have a ladybug costume for Halloween. I’d rather go to this party than stay at home and work on this audition I have the next day.” I’ll never know if I would’ve gotten that part but I lived that awesome night and the costume was a big hit!

You were in Casino Royale – what’s the best part about being a Bond girl?

My parents were so excited. It’s amazing the response you get even though I was hardly in it. But I think you get the badge for life, as long as you do some Bond girly things.

What’s a Bond girly thing?

Often a bathing suit is involved. And some mischief – in my case I poisoned Mr Bond. And then often you die.

Have your looks defined what roles you get offered?

In my twenties, it was a lot of hot girl stuff. I don’t remember ever having an opportunity to play anything like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, not that I would’ve known what to do with it then.

Could you have handled getting famous at 22?

When my friend Kristen Zang and I were 16, being models, we really thought we were the answer to everything. When you’re that young and you’re getting that much attention, you don’t know any better. But coming to L.A. was a nice wake-up call. You see zillions of women exactly like you everywhere.

Did it bum you out that you weren’t getting the challenging roles?

Not at the time. I was such a kid for so long, I just wanted to play fun, cute women. Even my part in Mind of the Married Man, one of my first breaks – it was still light. This is why I love Banshee so much. I now get to play things that I wasn’t ready to play back then.

What do you mean you weren’t ready?

I needed to live more life, to have more heartbreak, more family drama and sickness.

What was going on in your life right before Banshee?

I fell in love with a guy in Australia and barely did anything for a few years before I got the role. This ex of mine had a son, so I thought, “Oh, this is what it’s about.” I can relate to marrying someone like [Banshee character] Gordon Hopewell, who’s a good, upstanding man. Yet, you love this other frickin’ dude whom you have no business loving. And no one will ever understand it, and everyone will try to talk you out of it.

Why were your friends trying to talk you out of it?

It was so passionate but he behaved badly. But I still had my feelings. Karma, I guess. I just loved that dude.

What went wrong?

Well, let’s just say he messed up a lot but I kept being there for him. It’s hard to explain but the way I dealt with the trauma was to be forgiving and loving and kind. The alternative would have been to be bitter. Ultimately, I healed faster and better and more completely.

I was going to ask you about a time you recovered from a setback.

Well, I consider setbacks more like mud covering something shiny – underneath the mud, the shine is there. Just before Banshee, I hadn’t worked very much, and what happened with that guy shook me to the core. So when I came back to America, I was almost completely out of money. But you meditate, you go to Pilates, you read your scripts, you do your job. And all of a sudden, here comes Banshee, a part I couldn’t have played right without that experience. She’s a twisted character who loved someone she couldn’t love. And I knew just how to play that. The universe doesn’t waste our hurt.

Do you believe in fidelity any more, after being burned like that? It sounds like Mind of a Married Man to me.

I think the stats are that half of women and half of men are unfaithful – so clearly half of them can be. Maybe it’s not natural to be monogamous, if we’re going by our animal nature, but nature is what we were put on this earth to rise above – I think Katherine Hepburn said that in The African Queen.

Let’s talk about sex. One of your first scenes in Banshee is you, um, enjoying yourself with your husband’s help.

If there was going to be an oral sex scene, at least it was reversed from what you usually see. And oftentimes, a scene like that doesn’t look real. The geography, so to speak, is all wrong.

Please tell me that you had some sort of guard on.

Are you kidding me? It was like armor it was so thick. In some ways I felt less in that scene than others where your bodies are touching and you’re rubbing skin-to-skin.

Well, you are on ‘Skin-emax.’ There’s a reputation to uphold.

Ha! Well, I don’t think it’s any worse than what Paz de la Huerta did on Boardwalk Empire, which was an awesome, bold performance, by the way.

Was there a time when you decided whether you’d show full nudity as an actress?

I always knew I would do it. I mean, I am European. But I was pretty prudish about it while my grandparents were still alive. I’ve turned down parts where I would have to do nudity. My Catholic leftovers were like, “You can’t do that. You’re not allowed.”

What changed your mind?

I grew up, I guess. The sex scenes add to the boldness of the show. And I get to play this complicated character with such a rich backstory. For Banshee, it’s totally worth it.

Banshee is on Cinemax, Fridays at 10pm.

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