By virtue of their profession, actors are more accustomed than most to monitoring their own emotions. Out of the possible ones on offer, Sophie Cookson argues that fear is an invaluable acting tool. “As soon as you stop getting nervous then you’re probably a bit complacent. I’m constantly terrified, but it’s never paralysing: it’s the adrenaline you need to focus. There are stakes involved so it shows you care. It doesn’t matter who you are, everybody gets afraid. I find that comforting”.
Sophie’s favourite part of being an actor takes place long before she attends a costume fitting or steps onto a set. “There’s a really amazing period of euphoria just after you’ve got a role”, she says. “You get a buzz because you’ve worked your butt off and you’ve actually landed the part.” This sensation, of course, doesn’t last: “Sadly, ‘I’ve got the job!’ is followed by ‘Oh shit, I’ve got the job’. That’s when that fear kicks in”.
In spite of the mild anxiety, she’s decidedly energised by the prospect of new challenges. Her passion is unmistakable when she discusses Gypsy, the upcoming Netflix series in which she plays Sydney, an enigmatic singer who becomes the object of Naomi Watts’ obsession. Although the latter is in virtually every scene, in some ways Sydney is the programme’s more difficult part. To perform the character, Sophie had to ask herself a question: how could she play someone bewitching enough to make a successful psychologist willing to risk her career and family? “You have to just play against it”, she answers herself. “As soon as you try to be a sexy, interesting person then it’s sickly and horrible to watch. We had to find the human connection between the two characters. I was watching Naomi play her character, seeing what makes her tick, rather than thinking, ‘I’m mysterious and alluring and I’m going to seduce you’ ”.
The attraction of the character is tied up with the ambiguity of her backstory and motivations. “Sydney is such a mystery, even to me,” Sophie says. “She has a knack of reinventing herself and being quite camouflaged. In a way she reflects what people want to see.” This prompted the actor to ask herself another question: how do you effectively play a character when you don’t know where they’re going? “At the beginning I made certain choices and after consulting with Lisa Rubin, the show’s creator, I stuck to those choices. I knew what I thought was true and I had to keep to that. But regardless of any actual answers, you’re not solely defined by your life story. You have certain qualities and traits. Sydney is impulsive and driven by her heart. All of the things that inspired her as a person I used as building blocks. You never quite know what you’re getting but that was exciting for me. I was always on my toes”.
Sophie believes that such flexibility is essential in performing. “Sometimes it’s nice to just show up and see what happens, other times a scene needs crafting to understand the essence of what’s going on. It’s necessary to do your homework about your character, but if you have that solid base you’re free to go wherever the part might take you. It’s like being ready to pounce. When you’re on the set, occasionally there’s a magic moment where everything just clicks between you, the director, the cinematographer, and the other actors, and you get taken by surprise. It’s pretty amazing”.
Attentive consideration of your craft can only take you so far – an actor’s career is defined as much by the roles they choose as by their performances in those roles. “I always think very carefully about it,” she says. “The beginning of your career is so important in terms of how you want to be seen or where you want to go. At the same time, as a young actor you don’t always have that much control. You want to be working and putting yourself out there”. This pragmatism may explain Sophie’s continued presence as one of the leads in the polarising Kingsman series, but she claims that she’s only done work that has stimulated her, whether that’s because of the director or the broader themes. While she recalls reading Gypsy‘s script and feeling that she needed to be a part of it, she explains that she was also drawn to appearing in a wholly female-led production. “I definitely had an aim that I wanted to work with a female director this year, and on Gypsy we have three, including Sam Taylor-Johnson. It’s produced by a woman as well as created and written by a woman. Even Naomi being the main character – traditionally that role would probably be a man. It was a special thing to be a part of, but maybe that’s because it’s all more rare than it should be”.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.