Interview & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“You just have to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly and fearlessly and not be self-conscious about what you create…”
Sophie Cookson caught the world’s attention with her film debut in the 2014 spy movie Kingsman: The Secret Service. The young British actress, who is clearly going places, has since appeared in the Kingsman sequel and worked with Dame Judi Dench in next year’s film Red Joan. Journal caught up with her in the West End to discuss her new play Killer Joe and her love of London’s theatreland.
You’re making your West End stage debut in Killer Joe. Tell us a bit about the play and what drew you to it.
Killer Joe is a play by Tracy Letts, set in the early 90s. It follows the story of a poor family living in a trailer park who, in order to pay off their debts, decide to hire a contract killer to murder their estranged mother so they can get her life insurance money. I play Dottie, the sister of drug dealer Chris who has hatched the plan. She’s had a childhood trauma and definitely isn’t like most other 20-year-olds. She’s been kept infantilised and as a result of this is often underestimated. It was really Tracy’s muscular, visceral writing that drew me to the project. The pace and intensity builds and builds to the point of explosion. It’s incredibly thrilling to watch and be a part of.
Is it an emotionally demanding role? How did you prepare for it?
Incredibly! I’m not sure how I prepared for it, to be perfectly honest! Sometimes with things like that you just have to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly and fearlessly and not be self-conscious about what you create.
What does having a live audience bring to your performance?
It’s really interesting in an intimate space like The Trafalgar Studios. It’s a very immediate, confrontational play, where at moments you can feel the whole audience almost holding their breath. The audience’s reaction creates an even more intense, claustrophobic atmosphere.
Do you find that re-living the play daily brings an evolution to the role of Dottie?
Absolutely. There’s no way that can’t happen. There are hundreds of components that make every single moment and if just one of those are different (which they inevitably will be) then you’re always creating something entirely fresh. As long as you carry on listening and doing the work every night, you discover something different.
Was there a defining moment that made you want to become an actress?
I wouldn’t say there was a bolt of thunder where I knew, but I had several teachers over the years who encouraged me and then I finally reached a point where I knew I’d always regret it if I didn’t give it a shot.
I read that you love nature. Are there any greener parts of the West End you like to escape to?
Well there never seems to be quite enough time to escape too far from the theatre, so I’m very lucky having St James’s Park next door.
Now that you’re based in central London, what are your favourite haunts in and around theatreland?
Well, Bar Italia is an institution! There’s nothing more fun than just sitting outside and observing all of Soho’s colourful characters.
Have you explored the area’s galleries and museums?
In the past yes, but not so much recently. I tend to get quite absorbed with whatever project I’m involved in and find it impossible to absorb or learn about something which isn’t connected to it in some way. But now we’ve settled into the run there’s lots of stuff I’ve got my eye on.
What was your first taste of London’s theatre?
I think the first thing I saw was Beauty and the Beast. I remember running through the auditorium and being in awe of the sound coming from orchestra pit, then singing in the cab on the way to the station. It was absolute magic.
You sing in your role in Gypsy. If you could do a musical, what would your dream role be?
Any Sondheim! Sign me up! I’ve always fancied a go at Sally Bowles in Cabaret too.
You’ve been described as the kick-ass English Rose; what film genres that you haven’t yet tackled appeal to you?
God, have I? As to genres – all sorts! I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Tell us about your new film, Red Joan. How did it feel to play the younger version of the character played by Dame Judi Dench?
It’s set in the 1940s and early 2000s. It’s about a young girl called Joan who studies physics in a male-dominated world. She ends up working on the atomic bomb for the British government and subsequently passing over secrets to the Russians – not for the reasons that you might assume. It’s loosely based on a true story and Judi plays Joan in her 70s, which is when she finally got arrested. She lived her entire life with not one person suspecting her of anything like that, not even her son. Obviously, it’s a very intimidating prospect being a young Judi, but she’s so funny and gracious it was a great challenge to step up to.