Sophie Kennedy Clark: Hippie, Convent Girl, Nymphomaniac

Published November 26, 2013

ABOVE: SOPHIE KENNEDY CLARK AT THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL.

If you’ve ever wondered what Judi Dench is like, Sophie Kennedy Clark, who plays a younger version of her character in Philomena, will tell you: “She is the most luminous and warm and witty woman and you just immediately take to her…She exceeds your expectations, which, for Judi Dench, are already very high.”

Born in Scotland, Kennedy Clark made her film debut in Dark Shadows. “I went and met Tim Burton for the audition, which was completely amazing because he’s unmistakably Tim Burton,” she enthusiastically recalls. “It was a tiny little part, but to get to see a film of that level was an incredible insight into the movie world.”

Before she started acting, Kennedy Clark modeled for British heritage brands such as Burberry. Before she became a model, she spent a year in New York taking acting classes. “I was 17,” she explains. “I found somewhere to live online and it ended up being in a reformed factory loft with an artist. The artist said that I was renting a room, but when I got there it was a futon in the corner of the loft,” she continues. “I was kind of living like her pet girl for a year. It was the most out of the ordinary experience to go had from the northeast of Scotland—middle of nowhere—to a kind of bohemian urban commune in New York City.”

After Philomena, which comes out today, Kennedy Clark will appear as “B” in Lars Von Trier’s highly-anticipated and already somewhat controversial Nymphomaniac, and as Millie in Eliza Graves opposite Ben Kingsley and Kate Beckinsale. “In Eliza Graves, I play crazy,” she says happily. “Going from hippie to nympho to convent girl to lunatic makes life a little more interesting.” It has been, as Clark concludes, “a good first year and a half in the industry.”

EMMA BROWN: Randi told me that you’re hilarious.

SOPHIE KENNEDY CLARK: Oh, sweet Jesus, she’s brilliant!

BROWN: She said that you were a little bit worried about how your mother would react to Philomena and the way it challenges the Catholic Church.

KENNEDY CLARK: My mother is not a Catholic, but she’s always tried to drag my brother and my sister and I to church from a very young age and we have always put up a little bit of a rebellion against it.  I was like, “I’m doing this film and you’ll never guess what the church have done now, Mum. I’m never going!” [laughs] But I wasn’t so much worried. I wouldn’t want to change my mother’s faith. There’s no part of me that wants her to suddenly be atheist or spiritual or something. I was more concerned about Nymphomaniac coming out, because my parents are huge fans of Judi Dench and Stephen Frears. So this was a bit of a savior for Nymphomaniac, actually. 

BROWN: Your scenes take place in a different decade to Judi’s and Steve’s. Did you get to interact with them at all?

KENNEDY CLARK: My bits were filmed last. I met Judi at the tail end of her filming. And meeting Judi Dench for the first time, the woman is luminous. Little did I think that I’d even get the part when they said it’s to play a young Judi Dench—I never really looked in the mirror before and thought, “You know, I look a bit like Judi Dench today,” or no one had ever said that. I only got to spend a small amount of time with Judi at that point, but I went and spent time with [the real] Philomena because she’s the only person that could tell me how she felt, what the convent was like, what the treatment that they went through was like. It was slavery; they were worked to the bone without any money.

We’re so far removed from generations that knew nothing about sex or getting pregnant, and how religion can be so instilled in your upbringing that you wouldn’t even think to question it. Within a lot of people’s lifetimes, this happened, and it’s kind of mind-boggling.

BROWN: What do you say to the real Philomena: “I’m sorry this terrible thing happened to you”?

KENNEDY CLARK: I had to go meet her for the first time, by myself, at her home in St. Albans. The train journey was quite possibly one of the most painful train journeys—I was going to go into a woman’s house and speak to her about what was probably one of the most heart-wrenchingly awful experiences. To ask a stranger, “Can you tell me a little bit about losing your child?” You’ve got to be a very special, certain type of person to happily share that story in warm and lovely way. There are so many different aspects of the film that you could pick upon as the theme, but for me it’s about forgiveness. Even in the face of adversity and through all the horrible things that happened to her, she was able to move on because she managed to forgive —which was through her religion. You can’t completely demonize religion, because she may not have been able to cope without that kind of solace.

BROWN: I heard that you had to pretend to give birth in your audition for Philomena.

KENNEDY CLARK: Auditioning for Philomena was such a traumatic experience because I had three callbacks, and I was absolutely positive that I was just an option. For the last the final audition, they told me that I was going to be doing a scene where I’m losing my child, which, on a Tuesday morning, you need like a hole in the head. They rented out this big room below the casting office for me to run around screaming and crying. I tried and build myself up. I’m not a mother; I’ve never lost a child. And the casting director opens the door and she goes, “Sophie, there’s been a horrible problem.” And I’m like, “What? You’ve given the role away?” And she’s like, “Nope, we couldn’t get the room downstairs.” Stephen Frears was doing the casting and he called me in to this tiny little casting office and said, “Well, darling, you’re going have to do something, aren’t you? Why don’t you just give birth instead.” So, two minutes notice, I slump back in a chair with my legs akimbo and I’m like, “They’re going to regret this, I’m going to scream this roof off because this is not what I had prepared for.” So that was probably the most traumatizing audition experience I’ve ever had.  Nymphomaniac was basically just reading to the camera. 

BROWN: I was looking at the posters for Nymphomaniac. Stellan Skarsgård’s one is…

KENNEDY CLARK: Bold.

BROWN: If anyone made that face during sex, I would be so alarmed.

KENNEDY CLARK:  Udo Kier’s, for me, really takes the biscuit. That kind of undead eye-roll.  That’s almost enough to put you off sex. I never actually managed to really tell my parents about that. I don’t know if you’ve ever said the word “orgasm” to your folks, but I certainly have not. I didn’t really think they’d come across it, but one of my dad’s friends came across it and sent it to him. I got a text saying, “You look like you’re being crucified.” There was not moment where I was like, “I wonder what he’s talking about?” I was like, “Shit, they’ve seen it. I don’t think Santa is going to be coming this year.” I feel like my whole world is crumbling, but, they’re kind of amazing photographs. It’s that kind of ugly-pretty. I’m amongst enough good actors for it to feel all right.

BROWN: Yeah, if they could get 12 people to do this…

KENNEDY CLARK: Exactly. It was weird, though: you walk into a room and the photographer’s opening gambit to me was, “Sophie, are you ready to be a part of the sexual revolution?” Then you have to take your top off and just start. They had weird jazz, elevator music in the background. You’re standing there, in a room full of Danish people who all just think this is completely normal. You’re trying to get into it and they’re like, “Do you want 15 minutes by yourself?”  And you’re like, “No, no. I do not! I’m blushing, and now I need 15 minutes to stop going red.”  But it was one of those days: ” God, if my friends could see me now.  I am standing topless in front of a Danish photographer pretending to have an orgasm.”

BROWN: It must be hard to recreate. It’s not like you are generally staring in the mirror when it happens: “This is what I look like.”

KENNEDY CLARK: Yeah, and there’s that part of you as a female going, “I don’t want to look atrocious.” But, at the same time, you don’t want to look like the girl that’s trying to look hot either.  You want it to look gritty and convincing.  They sent me a couple of options and some of them were just monstrous. I could not unleash them amongst the general public. [laughs] Lars’s work is so brilliant that I think you can get away with doing this with him. With other people, it would be questioned, but with Lars you’re kind of in safe hands. You’re in very arty hands.

PHILOMENA IS OUT TODAY, NOVEMBER 27.