THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER – ‘Single Drunk Female’ Star Sofia Black-D’Elia on Learning from Kaitlin Olson, Texting With Ally Sheedy and Nearly Quitting Because of Evan Peters
The New Jersey native (and newlywed!) on nailing the authenticity of playing drunk and sober, keeping gratitude front and center, and rising to meet the next phase of her career: “I do feel ready for it.”
Actors have long had to deal with the same occupational hazard in public spaces: hearing fans shout out character names as they pass by. And while Sofia Black-D’Elia, 30, has been acting consistently since age 18 (she quit a job scooping frozen yogurt at TCBY for her first professional job on All My Children and never looked back), thanks to a breakout turn as the title character on Freeform’s critically acclaimed Single Drunk Female, the New Jersey native is hearing more than “Samantha!”
“The nicest aspect of this job has been the amount of people that are either in recovery or know someone in recovery that shout how much [sober] time they have at me on the street. I’ve never had a job that’s given me anything more rewarding than that,” said the judge’s daughter, who previously turned heads on series like Skins, Gossip Girl, The Night Of, The Mick and Your Honor. “I also really love this character, and I’ve played quite a few that are maybe one or two dimensional — maybe a love interest, maybe a little manic pixie dream girl or whatever — and I really appreciate Samantha for being a fully realized character.”
Black-D’Elia, a newlywed after recently tying the knot with filmmaker Henry Joost, is quick to credit creator Simone Finch (who based the show on her journey through recovery), a creative team that includes Jenni Konner (Girls), Leslye Headland (Russian Doll) and Daisy Gardner (The Goldbergs), and frequent scene partner Ally Sheedy for making Single Drunk Female the ultimate (and most authentic) playground.
Critics have also been shouting nice things at Black-D’Elia, too. “Wonderful,” wrote The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Felix, while The Hollywood Reporter’s Angie Han called the actress “something special,” praising her range from “full-body drunkenness” to “equally arresting” as sober Sam with “quick comic timing.” The series, picked up for a second season, follows Samantha after she’s fired from a hip media job in Manhattan and forced to live with her mother (Sheedy) in small-town Massachusetts after rehab.
THR caught up with Black-D’Elia to talk about how the role has changed her life, what she learned about leading a show from The Mick co-star Kaitlin Olson, and why watching Evan Peters play drunk in Mare of Easttown made her want to give up.
I read that you loved performing from a young age and spent time as a dancer. When did you know that acting would stick? Was it after All My Children?
I had definitely started to fall in love with it by that point, but I still didn’t see it as a possibility for myself. I didn’t understand yet that it could be a real career because I had never met a professional actor outside of the All My Children cast. All my friends were going off to college, and so it hadn’t yet set in that I could do this. If I’m being honest, only very recently did I start to think, I guess I’m an actor and I don’t have to go back to college for something else.
When was that moment?
I don’t know that I can name a specific moment, but many times, especially in my 20s, I always had the thought in the back of my head that whatever acting job I was doing would be the last gig and I would have to find something else to do. Like, hasn’t this been fun?
Looking at your career up until Single Drunk Female, you worked steadily and moved seamlessly from TV to film, independent and studio projects. Aside from thinking you might have to do something else, what was your perception of your career was going?
The truth is that I tried not to think about it too hard. This is so cheesy, but I started to really fall in love with the craft of acting, and I just wanted to keep getting more experience under my belt. I felt really green for a long time and I just wanted to work on very different projects, genre-wise, and work with very different types of creatives to amass as much experience as possible. I was hoping that it would lead to one day being able to steer myself closer toward the craft that I had come to love and work on really challenging projects. When I look back on it now, I think what I was doing was really exploratory. There was some good shit, there was some bad shit, there was some stuff in between, but I learned from everything and I’m really grateful for those experiences.
Speaking of the good and the bad, are there any projects that you don’t watch or can’t watch?
I don’t watch the majority of things that I’m in. I feel like I learn the most in the act of doing, and I don’t get much from the experience of watching myself. If I’m a part of something that I particularly love the story and want to see what my castmates did with something, that, to me, is really fun to see. But generally, I’m not like, “Ooh, I can’t wait to watch me say a bunch of stuff.”
As far as what I’ve learned the most from, I love Single Drunk Female. I’ve learned so much about myself as a performer in the process of making it. But in terms of learning from other people, Kaitlin Olson [on The Mick] taught me so incredibly much about being the lead of a show and being a great number one [on the call sheet] and, comedically, you can’t help but learn so much just from being in a scene with her. She’s just so special.
After working consistently for so many years, what has the shift been like to lead a show and shoulder the responsibility?
I feel so much gratitude. I feel so much gratitude for the people that have given me opportunities over the years and to the creatives and executives on this show for giving me the opportunity to lead it. And I feel gratitude for myself for not throwing in the towel when some gigs maybe weren’t as fulfilling. Kaitlin is someone that also has a lot of gratitude. She’s obviously been doing some of the best comedic work on television for over a decade now on [It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia], and for her to get the chance to be the center of something [like she was on The Mick], was really fun. She always came to work with a smile on her face and an appreciation for everybody around her. That was something that I thought about as I went to work on this show.
You’ve said that you instinctually knew how to play Samantha. It’s a hard question to ask someone explain their instincts, but can you talk about how you got to the heart of who she is? Did you have any exposure to recovery?
Yeah, it is hard to explain. It definitely came with the writing. To me, the tone was there on the page, and with a half-hour comedy, that’s half the battle. I also really enjoy working with Ally Sheedy. Even from our first rehearsal, that helped both of us bring those characters to life so much and really informed the inner lives of these two women, their banter and how they deal with one another.
I’ve had a lot of exposure to recovery throughout my life, as I think almost everybody has. I was really excited about how earnestly Simone approached that side of the story. I find being earnest very scary and very intimidating but if you can get it right, it’s really rewarding. So, all of that combined helped [Samantha] make sense to me pretty quickly.
Let’s talk about Ally Sheedy. You’ve said that you were a big fan, so when you got to work, did you allow yourself a fan girl moment? Or how did you approach working together?
She makes it so easy because she’s so warm, so gracious, and she loves to work. It’s a joy to work with her. She’s really funny, really smart. Again, being warm helps carry weight with younger actresses who admire you and look up to you because she just kind of takes care of us in that way.
And apparently, she texts you a lot?
Oh my gosh. She texts me so much. She and my mom are very similar in that way. They both love to text.
Is that a new thing for you? Have you had a relationship like that with a co-star before?
Oh, no, my relationship with Ally is very special. I’ve never had a connection with another actress in this way. I love her as much on the job as I do off. We’re very similar in the ways that we approach the job, so that’s really fun as well. We’re both actors who could talk about scenes until it’s 2 a.m. so it’s fun to have that in my main scene partner. She is just so, so great.
What is your approach to the job?
We both love to improvise through rehearsals and push each other’s buttons a bit which is really fun with these characters, to kind of test the limits and then pull it back so underneath, you get the tension of their history. I think that’s really important. So, it’s fun to be able to do that with her because it’s safe, and she loves messing with me so much. I haven’t had a relationship or dynamic like that before. We’re not “go sit in your trailer”-type people, we’re “hang around on set and bullshit” people. That’s one of my favorite aspects of this job.
One of the many things you do so well is play a very convincing drunk. How did you prepare for the inebriated scenes? Did you watch any films or TV shows to get a feel for how to do that?
The truth is, growing up in northern New Jersey, I have seen so many gals like Sam hammered at a bar. All of that was sort of stored for me, luckily. The one thing I had to kind of figure out was what Sam was like once she gets past a certain point [of inebriation] because we all respond so differently. I will tell you that the thing that really freaked me out was watching Mare of Easttown either while we were filming or just before. Evan Peters did drunk better than any actor I have ever seen. After watching him, I said, “I think I have to quit. I don’t want to do this job anymore.” What saved me, honestly, was Ally reminding me that, tonally, you could not find two more different shows than Mare of Easttown and Single Drunk Female. Also, character-wise, they couldn’t be further apart. She said, “The good news is, you don’t have to do anything remotely similar to that.” Thank God she was right because if I was on a dark, hourlong miniseries and asked to play drunk, I definitely would’ve quit. That’s how good I think his performance is on that show.
On the flip side, what you also do so beautifully is move through recovery in such an authentic way. You can go into a bar and see drunk very easily, but how did you approach the sober side of Sam? Did you peek in on any 12-step groups?
That is Simone. I have to give her credit for so much, but especially the way every AA meeting scene was handled, down to the cookies that would be served. She had her eye on everything. As someone who went through the program and owes so much to the program, it was so important to her that those scenes be specific to her experience. We all sort of knew going into this that the biggest mistake we could make would be to try and encapsulate many people’s experiences in recovery. That’s a losing battle. We stuck as closely as possible to Simone’s experience because then we knew it would at least be authentic to her. She was on set almost every day and at any given moment, I could turn to her and ask, “What was month three like? What was happening to your body after a year? What was this like?” She was just so generous with me and I really owe her a lot because I couldn’t have done those scenes authentically without her help.
Considering that this job has been such a breakthrough for you, what has been the biggest eye-opener of leading a show?
The nicest aspect of this job has been the amount of people that are either in recovery or know someone in recovery that shout how much time they have at me on the street. I’ve never had a job that’s given me anything more rewarding than that. I just turned 30 and I’m very grateful to be working on something like this at this time in my life. It just feels really special. It’s a really special group of women whom I admire very much and love working with. I also really love this character, and I’ve played quite a few that are maybe one or two-dimensional — maybe a love interest, maybe a little manic pixie dream girl or whatever — and I really appreciate Samantha for being a fully realized character. I appreciate the women who write her in that way. I’m sorry to overuse the word grateful, but that really is the main thing that I feel.
I noticed you also signed with CAA recently. What does that signal for you professionally? And after playing a fully realized character like Sam, how does it influence what you want to do next?
It feels really exciting that there are all of these shifts and changes that have happened in my life all around the same time. It’s a bit overwhelming at times but also really exciting because I do feel ready for it. In the same way that working with Kaitlin on The Mick made me want to gravitate toward comedy, playing a character like Sam and being a part of a show like this makes me want to gravitate toward female characters that I can sink my teeth into. Not that I hadn’t always felt that way, but it definitely drives the point home. What’s shifted for me internally is knowing what’s worth waiting for. I’ve got the experience under my belt and I did that exploratory phase, and now is maybe the time to rest and recharge and really attack something when it feels worthwhile and exciting. Life is too short to do anything else.