There's a moment in Never Been Kissed when Leelee Sobieski, clad in a puffy jumpsuit and lab goggles, scoffs at Jessica Alba for not recognizing that she's obviously in costume as part of the DNA double helix. "I guess you'd actually know that if you'd passed bio," Sobieski fumes. It's a wildly unfair blow, given that she looks more like a scientist or fumigator than any molecule, but it parallels the ongoing issue Sobieski faced off screen:
No one could actually figure her out.
When she arrived on the scene in the late 90s, Sobieski looked and sounded like a baby Helen Hunt. She preferred vintage thrifting to runway gowns, and even when she should have been an awkward and gangly teen, her husky voice and demeanor conveyed an air of sophistication that seemed worlds apart from contemporaries like Alba. Speaking fluent French also helped.
But by her mid-20s, Sobieski slowly stepped away from Hollywood, changed her name, and began to speak out against the industry she'd grown up in. Why?
An unconventional princess
Liliane Rudabet Gloria Elsveta "Leelee" Sobieski sounds like a name fit for European royalty. And it might actually be. Legend has it one of Sobieski's ancestors was left as a baby on the steps of a church in a basket filled with jewels and a note saying they were, undoubtedly, of royal birth.
Her own upbringing was equally noble, if in a more bohemian way. Born to a producer-writer mother and a French painter-actor father in New York City in 1983, Sobieski grew up dividing her time between Manhattan and the south of France. Before she was discovered by a casting agent in her school cafeteria at age 11, she took flamenco lessons and rode horses. Afterward, she landed a string of starring roles that cemented her It Girl status and put her on the cover of Seventeen, CosmoGirl, and Nylon.
First, there was 1997's Jungle 2 Jungle (playing the 12-year-old crush of Tim Allen's long-lost son, Mimi-Siku), then 1998's Deep Impact (running from a giant comet with Elijah Wood), 1999's Never Been Kissed (as Drew Barrymore's delightfully nerdy friend), and 2000's Here on Earth (caught between Josh Hartnett and Chris Klein in the saddest love triangle ever). There was also that scene in 1999's Eyes Wide Shut, which she filmed at 14 and mercifully wasn't allowed to know the full context of until its release years later.
Even at the height of her stardom, however, she never really fit the teen star mold. She could confidently hold her own with interviewers who praised her maturity, but she also often left them completely baffled with her off-book antics.
Like the time she brought her decades older Joan of Arc co-star to an interview with The Telegraph and tricked the shocked reporter into believing he was her new fiancé. Or the time she confided in Jay Leno that she collects hair from celebrities she's worked with because "autographs are impersonal" and hair "has your DNA." Or when she rattled off a dirty joke about Red Riding Hood to Craig Ferguson. (More than one late night appearance ended with the host apologizing for not having time to actually plug the movie she was there to promote, so beguilingly weird were her anecdotes.)
She struggled with seeming older than her age, and with others—including her own parents—being happy for her to be "all grown up" while she was still very much a teenager.
''My mother will let me wear a miniskirt and a blouse with my nipples showing,'' she told the New York Times when she was 16. ''And once there was this black dress that had the sides cut out, and my father said in his accent, 'Zat lukes gret, rilly sexy.' And I had to say, 'No, it's too sophisticated for me.'''
Leaving a "gross industry"
Sobieski kept acting into the aughts in darker films like Joy Ride , The Glass House , and 88 Minutes with Al Pacino. There was also Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated work on historical miniseries Joan of Arc and Uprising. But by the early 2010s, she'd moved on to TV guest appearances on Drop Dead Diva and The Good Wife and a starring role on the short-lived 2012 CBS police drama NYC 22.
And then she decided to quit acting entirely.
In early 2009, she began dating fashion designer Adam Kimmel. By that May, they were engaged, and their daughter, Louisiana Ray ("Lewi" for short), arrived that December. A son, Martin, followed in 2014.
Her acting departure coincided with wanting to spend time with her kids and husband and, as she explained to Vogue in 2012, "Ninety percent of acting roles involve so much sexual stuff with other people, and I don’t want to do that. It’s such a strange fire to play with, and our relationship is surely strong enough to handle it, but if you’re going to walk through fire, there has to be something incredible on the other side.”
There was more to it than simply wanting to keep her marriage intact. Sobieski told AnOther in 2018 that she'd begun paying the rent on her parents' home when she was 15 and had felt immense pressure from a young age. Add to that the physical aspects of the job, and it just wasn't worth it.
“Things got complicated for me… So when I could, I stopped," she told the outlet. "It’s kind of a gross industry—well, they all are, when you examine them—but in acting you’re selling your appearance so much. I would cry every time I had to kiss somebody; I couldn’t stomach it. I would think ‘I like this person, so I don’t think they should pay me to kiss them,’ or ‘I don’t like this person, so I don’t want to kiss them’. Why is my kiss for sale?’ It made me feel really cheap."
She added, "I don’t know why it’s legal for a child to act. It’s a crazy double standard, and that’s super weird for me. Now that the MeToo movement has come forward, people understand more that it’s pretty gross and uncomfortable.”
Now 36, Sobieski goes by her married name, Leelee Kimmel, and when approached for an interview with VICE, she politely declined, replying that she didn't want to dwell on her "past life."
Instead, she's focusing on a creative career that keeps her persona separate from her work. Since 2016, she's worked as a professional artist, painting both on large canvases and in a virtual reality headset at her Upper East Side studio. She's shown her work in galleries around the world, including an exhibit in Paris this summer and another in South Korea next month.
Her paintings are bold and bright. A Basquiat-like scattering of color and energy that the New York Times noted sometimes displays a "sinister sense of paranoia."
“I thought that because of my past, my work would be judged harshly,” Kimmel told Artnet News last year. “I had to make sure that if everybody really hated [my paintings], I would still feel good about it. This is really what’s inside of me, and I’m not trying to be anybody else… Painting was always my goal."
The career change didn't come as a shock for those who knew her: She would often cover the floors of her movie set trailers in plastic so that she could paint between takes, and she studied visual arts for a spell at Brown in the early 2000s. Plus, the eccentric art world seems to suit her.
"Sometimes I ask myself, 'What happens if this is my last film? If I decided to paint, would I miss acting?'" she told the New York Daily News in 2001. "For sure. Could I handle it? Of course. I hope to do many things in my life."
Correction: This article originally said Sobieski was married to actor Matthew Davis; it has been updated to reflect that she was not. VICE regrets the error.