At 15, she followed in Brooke Shields' clamshells to star in Return to the Blue Lagoon. She traded again on her casual beauty, snagging supporting roles in Chaplin and Kuffs. But for the title role in The Fifth Element, Ukraine-born Milla Jovovich (say YO-vuh-vich), now a ripe old 21, put her no-fixed-address life as a supermodel on hold. For four months, writer-director Luc Besson had her in classes (acting, ballet, karate), sent her to the zoo to watch the birds and lions move, and taught her a new language of his own devising. It was all so she could play what she calls ''the most intelligent little animal in the world,'' a cinematic descendant of Daryl Hannah's Splash and Blade Runner creatures, whose modest mission it is to save the earth.
As it turned out, the toughest part of the role may have been working on drafty English stages in a costume that gives bandages a very good name. The design, by French couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier, ''was a bit embarrassing,'' admits the model-actress, who currently appears in print campaigns for Banana Republic and Calvin Klein. ''In the fashion world, most of the guys are gay and they have the etiquette not to notice. But those English guys working on the set were whistling and stuff.'' Having been a model since age 11, an actress since age 9, and a California girl from age 5, though, Jovovich knew how to get past that kind of scrutiny. ''My character's all about what's inside,'' she says. ''It's not really about her clothes.''