As beautiful-but-tough vixens in this month’s Sin City, Jaime King, Devon Aoki, and Alexis Bledel shine particularly brightly—and that’s no easy feat, considering the film’s cast also includes Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Elijah Wood, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hartnett, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, and Nick Stahl. Based on their noir-esque graphic novels of artist/writer Frank Miller, Sin City involves three interwoven tales, set in a seedy, crime-infested metropolis inhabited by gamblers, prostitutes, and crooked cops—a dark, visually arresting world created by Miller and director Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Til Dawn, Once Upon a Time In Mexico, Desperado) using state-of-the-art digital technology. The film is so eagerly awaited that when a 27-second clip appeared on the Internet last spring, it was downloaded over a million times, and it’s already spawned movie-trivia galore (example: Quentin Tarantino directed a few scenes for a fee of $1). Take that, Star Wars. Now go get ‘em, girls.
Jaime King is sitting in the sunniest corner of L.A.’s Four Seasons hotel cafe and, as corny as this sounds, seems to be the source of the light. She’s literally radiant: Her blonde hair is tied back so that her heart-shaped face is at its best advantage, and there’s something in the tilt of her jewel-blue eyes that makes her look otherworldly, even elfin. She has a ready, open laugh, a complete lack of actress-y artifice, and a giddy, enthusiastic way of talking—which might have something to do with the coffee she’s guzzling, earnestly thanking the waiter each time he refills her mug.
At 26, King is in the second phase of her career, and loving it. As a ‘90s supermodel, she went by her gender-bending nickname “James,” and was the unfortunate focal point of controversy when one of her photographs prompted President Clinton’s famous condemnation of “heroin chic.” Now she’s back to her birth name (which her mother took from Bionic Woman Jaime Summers), and she’s the very picture of health, which she attributes to “tons of water, and having fun.” Today, she’s wearing jeans, a peach-colored vintage blouse that she bought in Texas while filming Sin City, and a collection of bangles that clink together musically, occasionally exposing two tattoos—a tiny diamond on one wrist, a spade on the other.
“I think that a modeling background is a huge asset for an actress,” she says. “It taught me how to be responsible and how to communicate. It’s funny, I remember doing the shows with Devon years ago and talking about how we both wanted to act someday. And here we are! It proves you can do anything, if you focus on it.”
In Sin City, King plays twin sisters Goldie (a prostitute who gets murdered) and Wendy (a “cop-like figure” who teams up with Mickey Rourke’s character Marv to avenge her death). King laughs about the novelty of co-starring with Rourke, who was unrecognizable beneath heavy prosthetics. “Man, he was awesome to work with,” she says. “He’s so present in his scenes. It’s really intense. But I never saw him without his makeup! His face was all disfigured and scary-looking the whole time. I didn’t see him as himself until we met at a screening a couple months later.”
King wasn’t familiar with Sin City before filming and was shocked to discover what an ardent fan base Miller’s books have. “When it was announced that I was doing the movie, all these people started coming up to me,” she recalls. “One guy was like, ‘Dude, you’re working with Frank Miller? I have Marv tattooed on me!’ Frank is like the Beatles of comic books.” She was also very taken with Rodriquez, who has established his studio in an old aircraft hangar just outside of Austin. “Robert has such vision and integrity,” she says. “It’s so inspiring to see someone living his dreams and really creating something. Even his house is amazing—he built himself a castle! He writes in the tower. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Sin City was filmed entirely against green screens so that the graphic backgrounds could be added later. This presented a unique challenge to the actors, who were often not on-set together, even when appearing in the same scene. “It was difficult, but fun,” King says. “You literally had to envision your surroundings and who you were acting with. Like, some of my scenes were with Elijah Wood, but he was in London. I was acting with an X on the floor! But you just get into character and do it.”
This spring may be the busiest period of King’s career so far—she recently appeared in Pretty Persuasion as Evan Rachel Wood’s step-mother, and next she’ll star in Two for the Money with Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. “Right now, I’m having meetings about a ton of different projects,” she says. “It’s exciting. And even when I’m not working, I’m reading about screenplay analysis or studying other people’s performances. There’s so much to learn—and every role teaches me more about myself. Acting makes you reveal your innermost vulnerability. I have to push myself sometimes, because you can’t fake it. Every day, I have to say, ‘I’m open, I’m here, I just want to reach people.’” King smiles broadly, and puts her palm down emphatically on the table. “It feels good.”
Alexis Bledel is speeding down a Los Angeles freeway with her enormous saucer-like blue eyes trained on the road ahead. Her SUV is littered with evidence of a busy life—clothes, candy wrappers, empty water bottles, and random pieces of official-looking mail. A few minutes ago when we met on the set of Gilmore Girls (where the actress has spent the last five years playing wholesome, fast-talking teenager Rory), the first words out of her mouth were, “Wanna hop in the car with me and go to the mall?” She needs to pick up a last-minute Valentine’s Day gift for her boyfriend (former Gilmore Girls co-star Milo Ventimiglia), and her filming schedule is so crazy she never has time to shop.
“I’d get frustrated when we started the show because we spent so many hours on set,” she says. “I’d be like, ‘It’s all fake!” I’d crave reality, but never find it. You need some separation. That’s why it’s good to take breaks and do other projects.”
As a vacation from the pristine, perpetually-sunny world of Gilmore Girls, the mean streets of Sin City couldn’t be more extreme; and of all the actresses in the film, Bledel’s transformation is the most startling. Her character Becky is a young prostitute who lures men down dark alleys to their deaths. She wears tight leather pants, knee-high stiletto boots, and a studded western-style jacket that reveals copious cleavage (“prosthetics!” Bledel is quick to point out), while purring lines such as, “You couldn’t handle a woman tonight, the state you’re in.” She’s the most naive of the prostitutes, but still—Bledel’s performance is liable to break some of her WB-devotees into an uncomfortable sweat.
“I loved playing somebody so tough!” Bledel says, grinning. “I mean, even though Gilmore Girls has a very smart, sarcastic tone, it’s still a family show. So it was fun for me to do an adult role, because I’m an adult. I play a lot of teens, but I’m 23.”
Bledel’s career so far has been a series of lucky accidents. She was born in Houston to an Argentinian father and a mother who grew up in Mexico (“People are always surprised to learn that my first language was Spanish,” she says with a laugh. “I doesn’t quite match, does it?”). While she was still in high school, her porcelain-doll prettiness attracted the attention of a modeling scout. She first appeared onscreen as an extra in Rushmore, but she stresses that she never had any intention of becoming an actress—when she auditioned for the role of Rory Gilmore, she was studying film at NYU, hoping to become a screenwriter.
“It was confusing when I got it,” she says. “I was like ‘really?!’ I had no idea what I was doing, so I just learned as I went along. In the beginning, I’d totally miss my mark all the time. I’d step into a shot and be five feet from where I was supposed to be. That’s why in the first season Lauren [Graham, who plays her mother] and I are constantly linked at the arms—she was always pulling me where I needed to be.”
Perhaps the key to Bledel’s success is her nonchalance, which borders on fearlessness (“I think that not knowing what I’m doing makes things less scary,” she explains. “Because then you don’t know what you’re aiming for, or how you might mess it up”). Working alongside heavyweights like Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro in Sin City didn’t faze her, nor did doing any of the stunts the role demanded. “My character gets shot,” she says, “so I had to get wired up with squibs. I thought they might hurt when they went off, but you just feel a little jolt. It’s fun! I was kinda nervous the first time, but then I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it again!’ Suddenly, I was like an action hero.”
This ability to roll with the punches should keep Bledel’s career momentum going for some time, but the actress admits she has no idea what her future holds. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’m going to do when Gilmore Girls ends,” she says, staring hard at the road. “I don’t know…am I supposed to have a plan? I didn’t plan to be where I am now. Things just happen.” She smiles, and shrugs, adding, “I’ll just wait and see what comes up.”
Appropriately, when we reach the mall, Bledel’s gift for Ventimiglia turns out to be an iPod shuffle. She also buys one for herself.
Devon Aoki is text-book stunning. The daughter of famed Japanese entrepreneur Rocky Aoki (who started the Benihana restaurant chain) and German-English mother Pamela Hilberger, she has the coy exoticism of an anime heroine and the friendly, laid-back demeanor of a California schoolgirl. Her modeling career was launched when she was barely in her teens—Kate Moss famously helped things along by bringing a picture of Aoki into her agency—and by the age of 14 she was splitting her time between strutting the catwalks of Milan and cramming for English Lit tests (even when she was the face of Chanel, she maintained straight As). So it’s a little hard to believe it when she asserts that her big brother Steve, who runs indie-record-label-of-the-moment Dimmak (which has released records by the Kills and Bloc Party), has become even more recognizable than she is.
“Honestly,” she laughs, “It’s getting to where people come up to me in the street and say, ‘Hey, I know your brother!’ I guess he goes out a lot.”
Now 21, Aoki lives outside of L.A. with her mother and three of her eight siblings (who come from her now-divorced parents’ various marriages). “It’s a full house, with a lot of people,” she says. She branched off into acting with her role in 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, and has most recently appeared in D.E.B.S. (as Dominique, whom Aoki describes as “this French, chain-smoking, over-sexed uber-agent”). “I’m not trying to change my career completely,” she says. “I still really like modeling—but right now, I’m doing what intrigues me most.”
Her Sin City character Miho—a fierce sword-swinging assassin who protects the city’s streetwalkers—is nothing if not intriguing. “She’s bad-ass,” Aoki gushes. “Everything about her is precise and catlike—the way that she thinks and moves is very physical.” In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, she leaps off of a building onto the roof of Benicio Del Toro’s character’s car and, in one fell swoop, stabs two of his passengers and chops off one of Del Toro’s hands.
In order to achieve the level of fighting skills needed for the role, Aoki had to train for several weeks with a black belt named Grandmaster D (she giggles every time she says his name). “He literally invented the form of martial arts used by the entire Korean army—so he’s no joke,” she says. “This is a guy who grew up in a temple from the age of six, and who can split nails three ways with a karate chop and, like, rub his hands together and make fire. It’s ridiculous! When we started, we did a lot of flourishing moves with the swords, very fancy stuff, and then we simplified it so that it became just hard, cold slices. I practiced in my hotel room every night until I was good at it. At the price of a lot of fine furniture.” She bursts into a huge laugh. “Just kidding!”
Aoki relished the comic-book super-villain aspects of her role (especially the weapons, about which she enthuses, “I got to use this crazy staff weapon that Frank designed, and two samurai katana swords—the same ones from Kill Bill—and I had throwing stars that I wore as earrings, which were really cool”) and says that she was completely blown away both by Miller’s original work and Rodriquez’s adaptation.
“I had no idea what to expect—so when Robert showed me the footage I was absolutely floored. It’s graphic, it’s wildly beautiful, and it’s unlike any other film I’ve ever seen. The whole experience totally surpassed my expectations.”
Aoki knows something about surpassing expectations, but just being a sought-after model and budding actress isn’t enough for her. Following her brother’s lead into music, she’s currently recording an album (she plays piano and sings) to be released later this year. “I’m collaborating with a bunch of musicians,” she reveals, “but I can’t say exactly what it’s going to sound like yet.” Ambition and creativity clearly run at a gallop in Aoki’s family. Like her father, it’ll be interesting to see what she cooks up next.