After appearing on Showtime’s The Borgias and in Kristen Wiig’s Imogene, New York–based Mickey Sumner landed the part of the opinionated and driven Sophie, the brunette counterpart to Greta Gerwig’s title character in Frances Ha, a loveletter to a new generation of dazed and confused 20-somethings coauthored by Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach. The 28-year-old actor, who was raised on a farm in Wiltshire, England, was only given her piece of the script and didn’t see the final product until it premiered at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival. “I wasn’t aware of the themes of the movie, but I was aware of the importance of [Sophie and Frances’] connection and their friendship—how it sadly disintegrates. I think there’s an age, which I’m going through now, when you’re making decisions, graduating from girlhood into womanhood, and taking responsibility for your life. Sophie was finding it easier to be an adult than Frances, which causes separation.” Her critically acclaimed performance has lead to bigger projects, including a coveted role as Patti Smith in Randall Miller’s upcoming punk-rock drama CBGB, based on the life and times of the infamous nightclub
What’s [the thinking] behind your name Michael?
My parents said they wanted to call me by an angel’s name. So they called me Michael. Michael is the king of angels.
Since you didn’t see the whole script, was your sense of it sort of just seeing [Sophie and France’s] relationship and just how it evolves. Like did you see that and think, “I’ve never seen this in film before?
I don’t know if I was fully aware of the theme of the movie, because I just knew what my scenes were, and all I was really focusing on was the importance of our connection and friendship and how it sadly disintegrates, and how we almost sort of grow out of each other.
Did it ring true to you about relationships from being that age and or about female closeness?
Yeah, for sure. I mean I’m going through it now. It’s like an age where you’re making decisions about going from girlhood into womanhood and taking responsibility for your life and where you want to go. And I think sometimes with friendships, you find you’re not on the same path as your best friend, and you were in the same place. I just think Sophie was finding it easier in the beginning to be an adult than Frances, so it sort of caused this separation. But what I like in the movie is you realize Sophie has her own sort of crisis.
How did they originally approach you, because it’s not a full script. Did they tell you any of the plot outside of this relationship?
Not really. I sort of gleaned information as we went along. They weren’t not telling me, but there definitely was information that I didn’t know about myself that I learned later on, just because they were talking about what they’d just shot. It was really interesting to work that way.
Is it totally different from what you tend to do, like shooting from a full script?
Yeah. Everything I’ve worked on before, I’ve gotten a full script and a lot of time to prepare. This was really different, but I have to say, it was really liberating just to stay in the moment and just focus on the scenes. We shot pretty much chronologically, so I didn’t need to know what was going to happen, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
When you see yourself on screen, does it feel like you’re watching yourself or someone else?
No. I think especially with Sophie, she’s so far away from what I really look like. She’s a brunette. I dyed my hair brown for this role. I wear these massive glasses. I have an American accent. She’s so far away from what I think I look like, that I didn’t really relate. I didn’t connect myself to what I was watching. She just seems very separate for me. I mean, I love her. She’s great, but it was nice to have that separation, because it stops you from being overly self-critical and judging the performance and the way you look. I think that’s really great because I really could enjoy the movie.
Was that the first time that’s happened, separating yourself from your character?
I try with everything that I do to create a different person. I mean I tried to play Patti Smith, so that was a major departure from who I am. That’s the CBGB movie. I think it’s really important for me as an actor to find ways of making these characters different from me.
For Patti Smith, did you have to do intense research?
I did a lot of research. I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of YouTube video watching. YouTube is amazing, there’s so much stuff on her, like interviews and live performances, TV shows that she was on. It was such a good resource for me. I read Just Kids like 10 times, and sort of became obsessed with the music. I didn’t know her music so well before I got the role, but then once I got the role, I think listened to Horses four times a day.
She’s such a specific persona, she belongs to such a specific time.
She does. She has a really hard accent. It’s a real mix of Philly, Jersey, New York, Detroit. That was the hardest thing. There was a great coach on set, and she was really helpful, and then I rented a studio for a week and went in and just practiced singing on stage, because she’s got moves, that woman, and you have to learn them. That was really fun for me, just for my confidence in myself and standing on stage and rocking it. It was really intimidating. I had high anxiety for the three months leading up to it—not three months, maybe two months. I had like eight weeks to prepare, but I just felt like I didn’t want to fuck up. I didn’t want to do a bad job. I mean, she’s so loved.
You want to get that call from her after the movie where she’s like, “You fucking nailed it.”
I just don’t want her to think, “Oh, who is this clown?”
What’s the most surreal moment you’ve experienced? It can be drug related or non-drug related, or a dream, or a combination of all three.
My life feels really surreal right now. I think when you’re striving so hard to get where you want, and acting is such a strange thing, where you’re trying, you’re struggling, you’re auditioning and you’re being rejected and then things start to happen. And they’re starting to happen right now. When I was at the Lincoln Center with the spotlight on me standing next to Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and that was mean surreal in a great way, but definitely not where I thought I’d be a year ago.
Photography by Charlie Engman