SOPHIE COOKSON IN LONDON, JUNE 2017. PHOTOS: BRIDGET FLEMING. STYLING: BOBETTE COHN. HAIR: LOUIS BYRNE FOR THE LONDON STYLE AGENCY USING ORIBE. MAKEUP: ADELE SANDERSON FOR FRANK AGENCY. FASHION ASSISTANT: AMY RYALL. DIGITAL TECHNICIAN: LUKE JOHNSON. LIGHTING: LAURA FALCONER. RETOUCHING: RUBIX LONDON.
Who are you when no one is watching? This is the question asked over and over by Netflix’s steamy new thriller, Gypsy, which follows Jean [Naomi Watts], a disaffected New York therapist, as she engages in increasingly erratic behavior. Among the riskier of Jean’s transgressions is her relationship with Sidney [Sophie Cookson], a havoc-wreaking siren determined to become a rock star.
For British actor Sophie Cookson, the duplicity of Gypsy‘s characters posed new challenges. “I needed to sit down and work out what the truth was in what Sidney was saying and what she was projecting,” she tells us. And yet Cookson is old hat at playing mysterious, self-directed characters. Her first film out of the Oxford School of Drama was Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman, where she played a tweed-wearing, gun-toting secret agent alongside Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a role she will reprise in the second installment of the Kingsman franchise, out later this year.
Ahead of Gypsy‘s release tomorrow, Cookson spoke to Interview from London about sex scenes with Naomi Watts, pretending to live in Bushwick, and her fascination with fear.
ELOISE BLONDIAU: How did you approach the challenge of playing such a complicated character in Sidney?
SOPHIE COOKSON: It’s really interesting. You first meet Sidney through her ex-boyfriend who’s in therapy. [Through him] you kind of get a sense of how nostalgic you can be for someone who’s just broken up with you. She’s a very enigmatic person. There’s no background on her. That was interesting for me—having to create that base, that story for myself. She’s definitely got a lot of layers, and for me it was about working out what she wants the world to see of her and what she actually is. I think she wants to come across as a super confident, really in-control person. But actually, she’s kind of a swan—gliding along but paddling fairly quickly underneath.
BLONDIAU: We see mostly see Sidney through the eyes of people who are obsessed with her. How did you dig underneath those perceptions?
COOKSON: Knowing so little about her, I focused on what made her tick. She’s passionate about music as an aspiring singer in a band, and she’s completely obsessed with Stevie Nicks—she names her dog after Stevie. So listening to a lot of Velvet Underground, Fleetwood Mac, that was pretty important. Also, in the script she’s always described in a feline way, so I tried channeling that tiger/lion aspect.
BLONDIAU: She’s a very sexually charged character. What was it like to play someone like that? It must have been exhausting!
COOKSON: [laughs] It wasn’t exhausting. It was really fun. I’ve never played anyone like this before. It was really nice to have someone who has a very clear energy to them, and watching how that affects other people. Her and Naomi’s character have such a classic amount of struggle—it’s a huge power game all the time. [I didn’t see] it as necessarily sexual; it was about who’s going to catch the other one out first. I love playing driven people who clearly have a motive. Sidney is so clever and she never let’s on how ahead of the game she is—she’s keeping people on their toes. Neither one of them wants to admit that they’re playing a game, but they definitely are.
BLONDIAU: Was it daunting to play such an intense love interest opposite Naomi Watts?
COOKSON: Working with Naomi was incredibly exciting, but it was definitely not the most challenging part of the job. Naomi is so giving and generous. So that was all fun. It was more that Sidney was this alluring femme fatale, but playing sexy isn’t sexy, so it was finding ways to do that, and also making sure she was likeable. Because Sidney isn’t very trustworthy and we don’t know how much we should emotionally invest in her, I was always making sure that the audience was with her and didn’t see her as this sad person pulling Jean away from her happy life.
BLONDIAU: What was it like to film in New York?
COOKSON: Amazing. I was living where Sidney would live [around Bushwick and Williamsburg]. It’s always a really cool thing to get to know the neighborhood. All of the songs that Sidney sings were constantly in my head. I was terrible; I should have done a lot more touristy things while I was in New York, but I just hung out in Sidney’s hood because it’s so different from anything I’ve experienced in my own life.
BLONDIAU: You’ve been in a range of different projects recently. Is it difficult to switch between genres?
COOKSON: I really feel our job [as actors] is to find a human experience in the character. So, for me, genre comes second; it‘s about script and the emotional journey of that character. [Genre] definitely has an impact, but it has more of an impact on the way the character is expressed. We all have the same core emotions of love, jealousy, rage—it’s just how they’re expressed.
Doing something like Gypsy, which is 10 episodes, you get 10 hours to explore that so in depth. That’s been fun. And really letting it evolve in a very natural way. I also enjoyed not knowing where the character was going. You definitely work in a freer way; you can’t close the doors because you don’t quite know what’s coming next.
BLONDIAU: What kind of projects do you want to take on in the next few years?
COOKSON: In the next five years, I’d absolutely love to do theater. I went to drama school and that’s where the focus lies. I’d definitely like to do that before the fear sets in. We studied so much Shakespeare in drama school and I’d like to go back to that. I’d really throw myself into something that would probably petrify me. Tennessee Williams. Something juicy.
BLONDIAU: What is it about fear that you’re drawn to?
COOKSON: I think it’s that feeling of, “Shit, maybe I can’t do this.” I love proving myself wrong. A lot of actors lack confidence—even if you’re doing really well, you kind of feel like this might be your last job. I enjoy the feeling of, “Maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” and then working really, really hard and thinking, “Wow, I like that. I did that.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind of person who jumps out of planes and enjoys bungee jumping or anything like that, but I definitely enjoy living quite spontaneously and going with the wind.
BLONDIAU: You seem to always have a lot of projects on the go. How do you spend your time in between films?
COOKSON: My goal this year was to travel and to see more music. It’s good to get away. I used to think that the times when you don’t work, you should be anxious and constantly by the phone and putting so much pressure on yourself, but I’ve really learned that all the experiences we have you can bring into the next job. So it’s making sure your brain and body are being stimulated so you can bring something new to the next role.
I went to Buenos Aires recently, which was amazing. And I went to Florence last week. I hadn’t been for 10 years. I find it really interesting when you revisit a place in a completely different part of your life, seeing how the experience differs from the last. You really notice how much you’ve changed. That trip was very instructive. You think it’s going to be exactly the same and then you realize you’re not the same and of course it’s going to feel different. Ten years ago, if I’d known what I would be doing now, I definitely wouldn’t have believed it.
GYPSY COMES OUT TOMORROW, JUNE 30 2017, ON NETFLIX.