SOPHIE VON HASELBERG IN NEW YORK, APRIL 2017. PHOTOS: KINYA. STYLING: ALPHA VOMERO/SEE MANAGEMENT. HAIR: GONN KINOSHITA USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE. MAKEUP: ROBERT GREENE FOR HONEY ARTISTS. STYLING ASSISTANT: KIYANA PANTON.
Before enrolling in Yale Drama School, Sophie von Haselberg struggled with the idea of becoming an actor. Though she’d been interested in storytelling since childhood, and had spent time on set with her mother, Bette Midler, her B.A. was in sociology and East Asian studies. Moreover, her mother had always steered her away from entering the industry. “I probably wanted to be an actor when I was five,” von Haselberg explains, “but I wouldn’t have told anybody because my mom would’ve gotten mad at me.”
Now, three years after earning her M.F.A., von Haselberg is comfortable and confident in her decision. The projects on her résumé thus far are of high quality: she made her film debut in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, appeared alongside Anna Gunn in the female-led Wall Street thriller Equity, and played a member of Bernie Madoff’s legal team in HBO’s The Wizard of Lies. Her first project as both a producer and actor, the short film YOYO, co-starring Martin Starr, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. As of this week, you can watch the New York-based actor on the new season of Netflix’s flagship political drama House of Cards.
HOMETOWN: New York City, New York. We were in L.A. until I was seven and then the earthquake happened, so that sort of pushed us out. I’ve been a New Yorker since then. I have a real soft spot for L.A. and I do spend a decent amount of time out there. This year I was there for a couple of months and coming back to New York, I was just like, “Oh, that’s right. It is my home. I forgot.” I definitely feel the most tied to this city.
DISCOVERING ACTING: It was something that had been percolating since I was really, really young. It was in the back of my head—I always knew I was going to end up doing it—I just took a very circuitous path. I did school plays until I got to high school, and then I started dancing instead. There was always some performance thing growing up.
I spent a lot of time trying to do other things. Finally, I was living abroad in China [after college]. I was by myself, and I think there was something about being so far away from my parents and friends that allowed me to be like, “Fuck it, I’m going to do it.” I moved back to New York and that was it. I just really committed to it and I’m so glad that I did.
I think it’s that funny thing where people have a certain image of you—an idea of you and who they want you to be, who they think that you are. I love to be loved, so I found myself trying to fit into the box that I was seen in. It was probably more in my own head than anything else—everybody’s been so insanely supportive—but I do think there’s something about being away and really being alone, where you get to be like, “Wait, what do I want out of my own life?” and not, “What does somebody else want for me?”
Acting is storytelling in the most personal, empathetic way. Especially because I fully devoted my life to it later than a lot of other people, I’m still so chuffed with the fact that I actually get to tell stories for a living.
THE ART OF AUDITIONING: From a young age, my mom was so fervent about me not going into this business, partially because she was like, “It’s a lot of rejection.” [But] I grew up thinking, “It’s not rejection—they just wanted something else.” That’s still how I think: it’s not a rejection of you as a human or of you as an actor. If I don’t get something that I wanted, it’s like, “Alright, eat a chocolate chip cookie, onto the next.”
In general, I actually really like auditioning; it’s a chance to act and show somebody what you’ve done with the character. There have definitely been times where I’ve been like, “I’m going to see what it’s like if I just go in and fly by the seat of my pants,” and, turns out, that doesn’t go down so well. There’s a world in which you can overthink something—if something is simple, accept that it’s simple and don’t overwork it—but there are other times where if you think that it requires a lot of work, it probably requires a lot of work, so put in the work.
FIRST PROFESSIONAL ROLE: The first thing that I shot was the Woody Allen movie Irrational Man . I had just graduated. There are so many stories about the way that Woody auditions; it’s not the standard audition process. I was like, “Even if I don’t get this, I’m so delighted that I get to have this experience that feels so quintessentially New York, so show business.” I think I was nervous, but my body and brain just decided to totally ignore it, so I felt super comfortable. It was only after that I realized, “Oh my god, that was completely insane.” In any other state of mind I would’ve been flipping out.
THE BETTE MIDLER CATALOGUE: [Growing up,] I didn’t watch all of my mother’s movies by any means. She didn’t really bring her work home in that way; she was not a person who was standing around always talking about what she was working on and how excited she was for me to see it. It got to a certain point where I think she realized I’d hardly seen any of her movies, and she was like, “Okay, maybe we should show you one or two just so you have a sense of what I do.” Now I’ve seen a bunch of them. Watching my mom is a really emotional experience for me. I remember watching Beaches and The Rose, and just being such a mess after. I know that those movies are turbulent for a lot of people, but I was heaving—sobbing. It’s definitely hard for me to separate my mom from the character.
FORGING AN INDIVIDUAL PATH IN THE FAMILY BUSINESS: I’ve definitely been in for auditions where people have been like, “Oh, you could play Bette Midler in a biopic.” And I’m like, “Ha-ha-ha.” In other auditions, people know. I like to think that because I went to school and I’ve been out for three years and I’ve done enough projects that I’m proud of, hopefully that’s not the first thing on people’s minds. But I understand that obviously that’s always going to be a factor, and so be it.
I’m at a point right now where I love to work so much that if somebody offers me a role, chances are I’m going to do it. I’m just excited to be a working actor. I’ve been passionate about everything that I’ve made, which is so exciting, [but] I’m sure that there will come a time when I’m doing a project and I’m like, “This is not exactly what I expected it to be, but hey, here I am. It’s a gig. It’s fine.”
PRODUCING PROJECTS: I love being an actor; it’s my favorite thing. It’s the only thing I would ever want to do, but I also love the idea that I actually have a creative say in the work that I’m making. I think it’s important to have your own creative voice, especially as a woman in this current political climate. I think to be making your own work is essential for a lot of people. I understand why other actors don’t have the drive to do that, but I have found it very rewarding.
HOUSE OF CARDS: I play the chief of staff to a governor. He and I are both new characters so we have our own storyline going on. I definitely did my research. In the script, I certainly understood my role, but I was also like, “Hey, Wikipedia, what does a chief of staff to a governor do?” just so I didn’t show up looking like a total newb. I have friends who are actually in politics, and they were like, “So you’re basically impersonating my life.” “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
UP NEXT: I’m working on a few things that I’m producing, which is exciting. I don’t want to jinx anything. And then waiting to see what the next acting job will be.
SEASON FIVE OF HOUSE OF CARDS AND THE WIZARD OF LIES ARE NOW AVAILABLE VIA NETFLIX AND HBO RESPECTIVELY.