Q & A: Sonja Sohn on ‘Burn Notice’ and Her Advice to Actors
One of my all-time favorite shows is HBO’s The Wire, David Simon‘s grim and gritty look at inner city Baltimore and Sonja Sohn, who played Detective Kima Greggs, was an integral part of that show.
Since The Wire ended, she’s popped up on Brothers and Sisters, The Good Wife, was a series regular on ABC’s Body of Proof was recently in a crucial role on USA’s Burn Notice as Olivia Riley. Before I went on holiday break, I did a conference call with Sonja about her role on Burn Notice and she also talked about what draws her to certain roles and her advice to actors.
Check it out below!
What is it about these action roles that really draws you to them?
Sonja Sohn: Besides the fact that they are jobs? They are acting jobs and I am an actor. You know, it’s almost as though, I mean I would almost pose that question a little differently – not that I am going to step on your territory – because I am approached with these opportunities to take these role, right? And these happen to be these roles that, you know, I am offered, that I am landing. And I think that there’s something about – think there is a strength, you know, I think every actor, I think every actor, and even every person really, you know, walks around with a certain essence. And that essence is perceived, you know, through, you know, in a sensorial way, you know, whether it’s conscience or unconscious by everyone that they come in contact with. And I think there is an essence of a certain kind of strength that I put out and, you know, certainly, you know, the basic, you know, toughness. No nonsense, you know, kind of energy that I think makes it easy for me to portray those rolls.
And what was it about Olivia though, that really drew you to this particular character?
Sonja Sohn: You know, I love the fact, you know, I played, you know, cops and tough characters before, strong female characters before. What I loved about Olivia, was she was in charge, well I can’t say some of the things I want to say actually; because these are things you need to find out by watching the show.
Let me see, what I can say. I love the fact that she was in charge. You know, let’s say for instance, you know, let’s just compare to characters that play on the wire, who follow the orders, you know, I like playing the character that was giving the orders. I like, you know, she, you know, there is a whole strategy that she can see that she is playing out. You know, that eventually, you know, you will see throughout the arc that she is playing out. But she is always playing that out in her mind. And because she is charge and she is giving orders you can see that. As opposed to when you are taking orders you may have some sort of conflict about the order that you being given but you basically have to carry out the order. Whereas she gets to create the strategy for her objective here, which is capturing Michael.
With each demanding physical role that you tackle, is your workout and dietary regimen different based on the character that you envision in her head?
Sonja Sohn: That’s an interesting question. I don’t feel as though I have taken on that female James Bond roll just yet. So I haven’t had to change in my dietary regimen, you know, and my exercise regimen too much. You know, when I land that role, I will tell you yes.
You know, just for me in terms of just, you know, for me my dietary and physical exercise regimen, you know, my health and wellness regimen in general is more influenced by just the way I want to feel as a human being. But also, you know, being an actress and being in front of the camera you do have to be conscience of that, and so it’s more tied into just understanding that the nature of my job, you know, image is a big part of the job. And how you are – and how the camera captures you is important. But like I said its more influence by, you know, just my personal choice so on what kind of shape I want to be in. you know, I might want to be walking around 25 years from now, so I should be eating and exercising.
You just talked about a James Bond type role, is that something that actually you would look for? I mean, like what’s your ultimate dream role?
Sonja Sohn: Wow. You know, that’s very, that’s a good question. I mean, after doing – I will say something, it was never a role that I was – that I was, that I, that was at the top of my list to be honest with you until I did Burn Notice. And after I – after Burn Notice, I just wanted to keep going. I was like, oh my god I have got to – I had so much fun with this, and I gotta say, most people know or associate me with The Wire, and I had a great time with that show, it was a great group of people, you know, there was a whole other kind of love that I have for that show and those people. But, I have to say I have never guested on a show and had so much fun.
On this set, you know, doing the job, doing such a physical job, but also with the writers and the producers and the actors and everyone involved. It’s, so that’s one of the incentives. That doesn’t exactly answer your question does it, but when I left that show, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t even left it yet. It might have been three episodes in it and I went, “Wow”. I don’t actually see myself, you know, being a female James Bond, you know, like doing the – necessarily. But I was thinking about James Bond and playing, this is terrible, I am not a huge Bond fan and I still have yet to see Skyfall. In a way I could see myself playing M in a James Bond film. Or being a partner of someone like a Bond. But in terms of what my dream role would be, you know, at this point, I’d love to – I’ve played a lot of cops recently. And tough cops, and whose femininity doesn’t really come through. At this point I am certainly looking to play a role – that, you know, (unintelligible) to play a more effeminate character, but my ideal role would be something like the role that Jessica Lang played in Blue Sky.
What’s your advice to actors?
Sonja Sohn: Well, that’s really broad. When you say advice, I mean, give me, be a little bit more specific.
Somebody who is already in the industry, has had some parts here and there but wants to go a little further?
Sonja Sohn: So already in the industry, has representation, has, you know, been, has had some – is a working actor, not having had any sort of great exposure. Are we talking about that kind of actor?
Yes, sure yes.
Sonja Sohn: Yes, that sounds good, right. You know, I would say, I think some of the factors that play into an actor’s success, has a lot to do with that actor’s ability to stay buoyant and to not become bitter. And drown in disappoint of not obtaining the roles that they want. And to actually take those disappointments or those feelings and use them to motivate yourself to become more proactive in terms of, you know, in getting roles. And when I say proactive, I mean at the end of the day your representation is essentially – drums up the interest and makes appointments for you. You don’t necessarily do that, but you do that in different ways, in terms of just being professional on the set.
Coming prepared, and not letting all the personal feelings, you know, you bring your personal stuff into your work. I think it’s very, very important. But on the side, when you are not working and maybe you have, you know, you have down time. Maybe it’s been months or maybe even a year or so when you’ve got work. I think it’s important to be creating on some level. So act, because you love to act. Not simply because you want to be seen, and you want to make money. You know, understand the real reason why you got into the business in the first place.
And cultivate that energy, you know, that love for what you do, and then if you have any kind of gift or palate to create material for yourself, I think it’s important to also cultivate that and to nurture that. To nurture those gifts and to activate those gifts, even if you are doing something in a small club or black box theatre for a weekend. I think those are things that feed, you know, feed an actor and increases your ability to walk in a room when it’s time to read for a role. You know, you bring all of that in the room with you. You could be prepared, you can nail the audition and there will be 10, 15 people who may nail the audition. But the deciding factor, you know, who gets the job is going to depend a lot of times on more than who gave the best audition.
It depends, you know, it depends on a lot of other things that you have cultivated and brought into the room with you that are not even, that may not even be conscious to the people who are, you know, have the power to grant you that job.
And, just being kind of mentally and creatively and spiritually healthy. You can’t under estimate that. I think if you bring that in the room with you, that means you also bring confidence, and that’s a give in that you are going to bring work in.
Is a guest starring role any different from a series regular role for you and what are the obvious differences?
Sonja Sohn: I think I pretty much answered that question just now. For me, a, you know, a principal role generally speaking, if you are on a, you know, a show that’s on the air for an extended period of time, there is a different kind of – you have a lot more time to understand that character and to develop that character.
You come into a show for a set number of episodes, you have to pretty much get in that doorway, and not only just get in the door, but, you know, get in that door and get into the interior of the character. But you’ve got to try to know as much about that character and be able to communicate that without the luxury of the time to develop it. And, then, you know, I kind of go back to the comment – to what I said before – the comment I made before which is I think a lot of guest roles, especially those that you have an opportunity to play over the course of a few different episodes, those generally speaking I think are meatier. A lot more – you are given a lot more to do and your story line a bit more of a feature. Sometimes in a long term show, especially if you are an ensemble cast member and not the “me” of the show, it’s easy to sort of get into a bit of a rut as well.