Mickey Sumner can currently be seen as Bess Till in TNT’s hit series, “Snowpiercer.” Her first acting performance was Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed film, “Frances Ha,” that screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2012 New York Film Festival and the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, as well as the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival for which she received the Breakthrough Performer Award. From there, she was seen in “Girl Most Likely” by Shari Springer Berman (2012 Toronto Film Festival), Tim Blake Nelson’s “Anesthesia” (2015 Tribeca Film Festival), “The Mend” directed by John Magary (2015 SXSW), James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” (2015 Sundance Film Festival), and the comedy “This is Happening,” co-starring with Cloris Leachman and James Wolk as well as Doug Liman’s film “American Made,” and “Battle of the Sexes” by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. She had a cameo role as iconic rocker Patti Smith in “CBGB” with the late Alan Rickman and the lead role in “Missed Connections” by Martin Snyder. Her other television credits include AMC’s series “Low Winter Sun,” the Showtime series “The Borgias” and in the Super Deluxe digital series “Caring” by Maggie Kiley. She made her Off-Broadway and Atlantic Theater Company debut in Craig Lucas’ “The Lying Lesson” directed by Pam McKinnon while her other theater credits include the “24 Hour Plays” on Broadway and Tomorrow Morning (HB Playwrights Foundation).
Tara Karajica talks to Mickey Sumner about her directing debut, “I’m Listening,” a short film she also stars in, and that is part of “With/In,” a collection of short films focused on issues during the pandemic, that has just premiered at this year’s Tribeca Festival.
What made you want to become an actress? Was it a conscious choice or was there something else on your mind before you decided to dedicate yourself to acting?
Mickey Sumner: I went to Parsons School of Design in New York and was studying Painting and Sculpture and Video Performance Art. I made friends with a bunch of kids from NYU and Bard and they were all in the film program and they were making short films, and when the actress fell out of the short film that they had to make that weekend, I shyly offered my services. I was in front of the camera for about five minutes and realized that this was what I wanted to do. It was a big realization! I really like painting and I really like making sculptures, but it wasn’t totally satisfying and the feeling I got from acting and being collaborative on a film set and the adrenaline and the physicality of it, felt like full body satisfaction.
How did With/In come about? How did you get on board both as an actress and a director?
M.S.: So, my mother, Trudie Styler, was producing these short films for the anthology With/In. She asked thirteen families to participate, the idea being to create something within our quarantine space, our lockdown space. I’ve never directed before, but she called me and asked me if I would be interested. I was separated from my whole family. I was with my husband and child in a tiny cabin on a tiny island in British Columbia. I’d been filming my TV show when the lockdown happened and we sort of got stuck. Although it was a pretty good place to be stuck, I was separated from my parents and my siblings, and when my mom reached out and asked me if I would be willing to participate – I describe it as like a creative lifeboat – it felt like I could be collaborative with my family and my mom who was, I think, in Italy at the time and my sister, who plays Siri and who was in London at the time. It just felt like such a beautiful opportunity to feel somewhat together even though we were so far away.
Can you talk about the execution of the short in quarantine? That must have been really difficult!
M.S.: Maven Screen Media sent me a package with one iPhone and some equipment – lighting, stands, hard drives and sound equipment – and I got a crash course in all of them. And then, I was really lucky; my friend Adam [Van Steinburg], who is the current camera operator on Snowpiercer, the show that I’m on, who I had been working with for two seasons, I asked him if he would come and quarantine with us, so he moved in and lived with us, and between me and him, we made this movie. He’s an amazing camera operator and DP. And, it was me and him and then my husband boomed sometimes and he helped with our son and it was just this very tiny filmmaking unit and it was so fun. That was a joy for me, working on a massive budget TV show, and then going from that to this very makeshift “figure everything out” sort of filmmaking. I just loved that. I loved the challenge.
The pandemic gave you an opportunity to do something else professionally, which is directing. Can you talk about that experience from another point of view? How has the pandemic changed you on both personal and professional levels?
M.S.: It’s such a good question. I think for everyone, that’s been a sort of collective trauma, separateness, grief, loss and death, and I feel like my perspectives on what I find important personally have changed. I still haven’t seen my family, so I’m dying to see them. I haven’t seen them since January 2020. I’m still in Canada. I think my love and appreciation for the privilege of spending time with family has been highlighted. And then, professionally, I think it was such an amazing opportunity to be given to make something out of such an insane time for everyone and such a time of anxiety and fear and then be able to channel it into something creative and, ultimately, beautiful. It feels like a time capsule for this moment in global history that is unprecedented and just to capture it – or an aspect of it in eighteen minutes – and that people can see in the future, was really exciting to me.
The short tackles isolation, the use of technology and the safety that comes with it but also from it, the loneliness, the abandonment from the father who leaves and from where she is – she’s abandoned in a cabin in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere and she’s alone with her son – but also motherhood and uncertainty on again various levels. Can you talk about that and capturing all of it from both the acting and directing points of view?
M.S.: It’s so funny because there are so many things I was having to think about as a new director that I don’t know! I can’t really remember very much of my creative process apart from just being like: “We got to go! We have four days to do so much!” And, I was like: “Oh my God! The kid! We got to break! We got to eat! He’s got to eat lunch! Oh, he’s got to have a nap!” I honestly should have written a diary. But I think there were two things that I was really concerned about. One was the house, the beauty of the landscape. I wanted to really utilize it and I felt like it already gave itself to the story of isolation. Then, something that I also kept thinking about was this incredible privilege of space. Alex is stuck in this house because of her own sort of sadness, depression, grief and fear, and she’s actually as safe as she could be. There’s no one around who could possibly give her this virus. And then, I think I also wanted to make sure that Siri was just as much an important character in the frame and in each shot with Alex and the son. And so, it was Siri who obviously was just my phone and the voice. But then, there was the absent father. I was constantly trying to include the absence of him in the framing of each shot, like around the dinner table there was one chair that was just sitting empty…
How was it to work with your mother and your sister, even if it was remotely?
M.S.: I’ve worked with my mom before as an actor, when we were both actors together. And then, she directed me in a movie that she made, but I’ve never directed her and it was definitely an interesting shift, but I loved it and she was so great, so generous and patient with me, and supportive. And, me having to step into the directorial role with her, who’s a seasoned actress and a director, and finding the confidence in myself to ask her to try new things was really interesting and good for the both of us, I think. And then, I’ve never acted with my sister and, obviously, her performance is all voiceover, so we got to play a lot, but she was in London and I was in the cabin and she would just send me voice files and I would then call her up with notes and then she would try again. But she nailed it! She was such a good Siri!
Are you planning on continuing to direct in the future?
M.S.: I think that I’m a self-confessed control freak. It’s obviously a collaboration but, as an actor, there’s so much that I’m not privy to and I have so little control, especially in film or TV. You have the moment they say “Action!” and the moment they say “Cut!” and even then, you don’t know what take they’re going to use, you don’t know what coverage they’re going to use, you don’t know if they’re going to completely cut out your character. And, I think being part of the process from conception to delivering was so humbling and really thrilling. I found it so exciting and I love learning from the editor; I love learning from the composer; I love learning from the DP! I just thought it was a crash course in filmmaking. I didn’t go to film school, but I felt like that was a sort of expediated high-pressure, high-anxiety film course.
Can we talk about your roles? Which one is your favorite? And, do you prefer TV or film?
M.S.: I don’t have favorites. They’ve all been so different and offered me different opportunities to explore different aspects of myself, so I’m grateful for all the roles that I’ve played. I am currently playing Bess Till in Snowpiercer and find her deeply complex, challenging and fun, and tough, vulnerable and complicated, so I love going to work everyday to play her. I think Alex in I’m Listening was the closest I was to playing myself. I didn’t have costume; I didn’t have hair and makeup and I was playing a young mom. And, I think that was the hardest. It was hard for me to play someone close to myself. I like hiding myself behind characters and this felt pretty close, and I was also directing myself, so that was a challenging time to come out of myself, analyze and guide myself into different directions, but not be self-aware during the takes. I think the next one I direct, I would not like to act in it. I’d like to just focus on directing.
There has been so much talk about women in film in the past four years. What’s your take on it? Do you see any change?
M.S.: To be honest, thank God it’s about f*cking time that women in film are being highlighted, taken seriously and given opportunities! I don’t think we’re there yet; I don’t think we’re done yet. I think the fact that we have to sit around and do these panels where it’s about why women are important in film, which I literally had to do last week, and the very fact that we have to ask that question and sit around this table and talk about why it’s important that women are represented and that women get to tell the stories from a female perspective just proves that we have so much more work to do. And, I think that it’s great that the conversation has started and that production companies and studios are now looking for female storytellers. But honestly, I don’t think there’s anything that we should be grateful about. It’s just like: “Why wouldn’t it be that way?” I’m not going to feel gratitude about it; I’m just going to be like: “Good! Let’s keep going!”
I agree completely with you! Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your acting? And, has it informed your directing now?
M.S.: I think I’m a feminist, but I’m also a humanist in the sense that I believe in equality. And, I believe it’s important that we’re telling stories and representing stories that have been horrifically underrepresented. And, I think as a storyteller, as a person with a platform, that it’s my obligation to make sure that I am part of that change and not part of the problem.
Do you have a favorite film by a female filmmaker and a favorite female filmmaker who you would love to work with?
M.S.: There are so many! My career really began playing Greta Gerwig’s best friend in Francis Ha, and now she’s gone on to be an incredibly successful film female filmmaker – or just a filmmaker – in her own right. I think that I would love to work with her; I’d love to be directed by Greta and hopefully one day that might happen. I’m also a massive fan of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and think that the characters she writes are just so deliciously real and funny. So, she’s on my list. And, I also love Miranda July. I always think that what was done so well was Booksmart by Olivia Wilde. I thought that was such a good movie and I found that so inspiring. And, I can’t wait to see what’s next from her!
What are your next projects?
M.S.: I’m filming season 3 of Snowpiercer and I’m currently writing a feature script about motherhood, specifically my unique journey with a son with disabilities and the first year of motherhood. But that’s in the process. I’m still in the very vulnerable stages of writing. But hopefully, I’d like to get that made next year – direct that. And then, I just can’t wait to wrap the show and go and find my family and give them a hug.
Photo credit: Lindsey Byrnes, courtesy of Mickey Sumner.
This interview was conducted (remotely) at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.