Mickey Sumner shines in a fantastic supporting role playing Sophie, the lifelong best friend of Greta Gerwig’s titular heroine, in Frances Ha, co-written by Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach. Shot in black and white against the backdrop of New York City, this modern comic fable about the 20-something generation explores love, friendship, self-doubt, and finding your way in life. Sumner and Gerwig’s natural on-screen chemistry makes their characters funny and relatable and fuels some of the film’s most insightful and best comedic moments.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Sumner who talked to me about the liberating experience of playing a role without a script, how she identified with her character, working with an amazing cast, Baumbach’s directing style, her reaction to seeing the film premiere at Telluride, why she loves being in front of the camera, and what she learned interning during summer holidays with her godmother, costumer designer Colleen Atwood, on the sets of Beloved and Planet of the Apes. The daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler, Sumner also discussed landing her first serious acting role in The Borgias, playing out her rock star fantasy as Patti Smith in CBGB, and her new romantic comedy, Misconnections. Hit the jump to read more.
MICKEY SUMNER: I didn’t read a script. I wasn’t given a script. I was only given my pages. I was only given the scene that we were going to shoot the day before, so nothing spoke to me apart from Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and then the scene that I was given the night before, which was a really liberating way of working, I have to say. It was a lot about instinct and trusting Greta and Noah and trusting myself and being present and in the moment.
Can you identify with Sophie based on your own personal experiences?
SUMNER: Yes. I was 27 when we shot it. I’ve definitely been in relationships with friends where I wanted to do something different than I know a friend has. It’s that complicated balance between wanting to do what you know is right for you and not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. I think that’s a part of growing up and the growing pains of speaking up for yourself and telling your truth and being able to communicate, and knowing that if it’s a real friendship, it’s going to last those weird or quick transitions. That’s what I love about the movie. You see that no matter which way these two women go, that love is there and solid.
One of the concerns expressed in the film by both sexes is about being undateable. Do you think that’s a genuine fear on the part of a lot of men and women today?
SUMNER: Yes. I feel like I’m undateable, totally. (laughs) I don’t know whether it’s the social network age where it’s like there’s too much choice. Also, especially in my age group, I feel like a lot of people are very career-driven and there’s pressure to be successful. You put off relationships. You put off those intimate relationships because you’re just work-driven. It’s a very sweet term, undateable. I also think the whole concept of dating is deeply flawed, so maybe it’s a good thing to be undateable. There’s a difference between being unlovable and undateable.
SUMNER: It’s an amazing cast. I honestly feel very blessed. Greta is one of these queens. I just feel like she has this regal-ness to her. It was very easy. People keep asking me, “How did I prepare to be her best friend?” It’s like, “Just meet Greta Gerwig. That’s how I prepared.” You want to be around her, and you want to share things with her, and you want to be in the same space as her. Adam is such an incredible actor and professional and deeply kind. It was one of those shoots where every person working on it was just doing their best. That was inspiring, and it was such a great experience for me. Patrick Heusinger (who plays Sophie’s husband, Patch) is a Julliard-trained, great theater actor, great TV actor, great film actor, and just fun. None of us had read the script, so we didn’t really know. Because I’d been working, I was in more of it, so I knew. But Patrick was like, “What is this movie about?” We were all like, “I think it’s about this,” but telling it from our perspective. And then to watch it, I first watched it at Telluride, and to see the whole film.
What did you think when you saw the completed film?
SUMNER: I totally forgot that I was in it. I was really moved. It’s so rare that you see a movie that you are genuinely moved by on a real level, and you relate to it, and you come out feeling uplifted. There are so many times I come out of a movie feeling depressed, either because it was badly done or because there was a sort of pessimism. Noah and Greta created this beautiful balance. It was not sentimental at all. It was totally optimistic, but it’s also real. It’s about real struggles. Noah writes people with all their greatness and their flaws, but it’s never in judgment. That’s what’s so amazing about working with him. You feel free to say something which might not be the kindest thing, but you know you’re not looking like the bad guy or the bitch. You’re everything. You’re three dimensional, and it’s so rare.
SUMNER: It was a very small crew and he demands a lot of focus. Everyone just focuses in. We did a lot of takes. We did between 40 and 70 takes of everything. A lot of the shots are long shots, so you have to get it right. There was no improvisation. The script was so solid, and you really get to play within that. Because you have so many times to do it, you find new things each time. He creates a very quiet environment that you feel totally safe in, and it’s work. It’s about working and there are no egos. He doesn’t sit in a director’s chair. He has lunch with us. We all ate lunch together. We were all trekking around New York City on the subway. I felt like I was a part of this wonderful family.
What was the experience like shooting on location in New York?
SUMNER: I’m English and my favorite movie is Manhattan. There I am making a black and white movie in Manhattan with Noah Baumbach, who’s always been among my top five directors. I was like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
What did you learn about yourself or take away from the experience of making this film?
SUMNER: That I don’t want to not do this. That I want to keep acting and I want to keep working with high quality artists. I might be a bit spoiled now because they’re so good at what they do. I think the only way you learn is to surround yourself with people that are better than you.
What did you enjoy most about being a part of this film? What aspect was most rewarding?
SUMNER: I love to work, and going to a specific set every day with that caliber of people and writing and being with Greta and learning from her was an amazing experience. And then, even after that, travelling with Noah and Greta to the festivals, and seeing our movie, and seeing how people respond to it, and feeling like I was a part of this beautiful piece of art, that’s a whole other exciting, rewarding experience.
SUMNER: I did.
What did you learn at an early age?
SUMNER: My godmother is Colleen Atwood, the costume designer. I would go and intern with her on movies during my summer holidays. I worked on Beloved with Oprah Winfrey. I was in the aging department, so I’d be aging the dresses and dirtying them up. And then, I also helped her with…actually I didn’t help her. She was helping me, but I was also around for Planet of the Apes. She always used to take me to the costume shops. I actually thought that’s what I might have wanted to do when I was a kid, to costume design. But then, being on set and watching the actresses in the dresses in front of the camera, I was like, “I just want to be on that side of the camera.”
You did a lot of short films and then you booked The Borgias for a few episodes. What was it like landing that role?
SUMNER: That was the first job that I booked where I was like, “Oh, this is for real. Showtime is not hiring me for fun. They’re paying to fly me to Budapest every three weeks. I’m legitimate.” It made me feel like I’m an actress. I’m a working actress, and it was good for my confidence. It was a great experience. I’d never done TV before.
What did you learn on the short films as you were cutting your teeth?
SUMNER: I learned that I liked to collaborate. I loved talking to the DP and then talking to Lighting. On student films, everyone is pitching in to do everything, and I never felt like I was a part of a group before I started acting. I always felt like I had friends in this group and I had friends in that group, but I never felt like I had my group. I think making movies and being in theater and TV, there’s this beautiful little family. It’s so intense that you form these little families, and that’s what I loved.
SUMNER: Yes, I have a cameo in CBGB. I play Patti Smith. That was pretty insane and fun. I got to play out my rock star fantasy for a day, which was great. I don’t think I need to do that again, but what an honor to play Patti Smith.
You also have a role in Half the Perfect World?
SUMNER: That’s a cameo. I haven’t seen it so I can’t really talk to that. I shot that three years ago and I’m in it for about two seconds. I play someone’s boss. I don’t know when it’s coming out.
Is there anything else you’re working on?
SUMNER: I have a movie coming out on May 7th. It’s going to digital release. It’s called Misconnections. It’s a romantic comedy. I shot it just before Frances Ha in New York. That’s a really cute, fun movie. I play Lucy Foster who’s a very driven, ambitious lawyer that thinks she misses the man of her dreams in a revolving door, and she tries to find him on Misconnections, which is a program on Craigslist. It’s about the internet and all the disasters that can go with that.