SCREENED | SOFIA BLACK-D’ELIA
Getting Into Character With Single Drunk Female Star Sofia Black-D’Elia
Breakout star and actor Sofia Black-D’Elia, of Freeform’s boldly-titled Single Drunk Female, enjoys the message of hope that emerges across ten episodes in the series that is executive-produced by Girls’ Jenni Konner. Black-D’Elia shares a similar sense of humor with Konner, whom she describes as “quick, really smart, a good hang, and everything you would want in a show partner.” Launching her career on All My Children, and with roles on Gossip Girl, MTV’s Skins, The Mick, and more, Sofia’s performance in the dark comedy, currently streaming and recently airing its season finale, is beautifully nuanced and displays a level of savvy that makes her one to watch—leaving us wanting more. We first meet her character Samantha Fink in a dark place of addiction, one where Sofia focused on “finding the funny.” She loves playing someone who’s gaining confidence and becoming more hopeful, as opposed to the cliché flip-side of many on-screen stories centered around the journey of finding sobriety. We sat down with the 30-year-old northern New Jersey native tasked with helping to portray Writer-Creator Simone Finch’s semi-autobiographical story, to talk about the similarities and differences, the approach to the series’ subject matter, Gen Z, convincing costumes, and more.
When we meet Sam, we quickly see that she has a challenging relationship with her mother that she’ll navigate over the course of the season. What was on the page or in discussion about who Sam’s mother is, and how she’s contributed to Sam’s difficulty in life?
From day one, that was the clearest relationship of the series. I think Simone [Finch, Creator-Writer] has a really specific take on that dynamic, and it showed in the writing. So how Sam related or relates to Carol, and vice versa, really dictated a lot about the character for me. I found it so specific, and nuanced, and funny, and weird—and I could see, from the pilot, how these women might have grown up in this house together and how similar they are, which neither one of them would ever want to admit. That relationship always felt very clear to me.
The story presents a slice of life in suburban Boston: Sam, her friends, this town on the east coast. How has it all shaped Sam as a person, for better or worse? I come from a small suburban northern New Jersey town, and it’s so similar that I have to imagine this is just a universal truth of small-town suburbia in America. We always want to leave, and there are always people who stay behind. And inevitably, we’re forced to face them again. And that forces you to confront yourself, because you can’t hide from the people who have known you your whole life. I love that aspect of the story, because I really relate to it, although I never stopped going home, so I don’t know what it’s like to stay away and then come back after a long period of time.
Also, when we first meet Sam, she’s having her rock-bottom moment as a problem drinker. She assaults her boss at work. She then commits to an AA program and community service as part of addressing the charges brought against her. Why exactly is Sam at her rock bottom at that particular point in time? What has come to an unmanageable head? That’s a really good question. I’m always hesitant to say ‘rock bottom’ because from Simone’s experience, and the experience of a lot of addicts in my life, it’s sort of hard to pinpoint a specific rock bottom in your addiction. Obviously everyone’s experience is different, and I’m not trying to say that doesn’t exist for some people, but specifically with this character, and with Simone, I think it’s more of an accumulation of rock bottoms. The point at which we find Sam is an accumulation of moments. It’s not the first time she’s been drunk at work. Also, we needed an entry point to the story, and it was a tough thing to nail. It’s so hard in pilots, because you’re trying to give people the tone of the show before maybe you even know what the tone of the show will be. So it sort of felt like, well we’d like for it to be funny, there’s definitely physical comedy in this, but it’s a serious thing, and she’s really hurting someone. Then that’s when people like [cast member] Jon Glaser come in, who can’t not be funny, and that alleviates the pressure, takes some of the weight off of my shoulders. I keep reminding people it’s a half-hour comedy, because then I can play the truth of the scene and just let Glaser be Glaser.
This series is based on Creator-Writer Simone Finch’s life. Which parts of the story are truest to her own real experience? Her father did pass away in the same way that Sam’s father did, around the same age. She did start going to meetings with her mom, maybe not understanding that experience as much as she would’ve hoped. She did make amends to a lot of people that she hurt when she was younger. I think Simone would say that one of the biggest differences is that the character that Brit is based on has not forgiven her. And by the end of season one, not only has Brit forgiven Sam, but Sam is sort of the more put-together person, in a weird way. That veered more from her actual life.
How are the details of AA and the AA experience handled within the storyline of Single Drunk Female? What was important, and was there anything that Simone and production did NOT want? On set we discussed the subtle way in which the character James falls off the wagon. I’m really proud that we were able to do this, but I think none of us, Simone included, wanted that sort of moment you often see in stories, where the protagonist who’s come a really long way, maybe gets dumped, or something like that happens to her, and she ends up in a bar and she’s staring at a row of shots and just goes down the row of shots, downing them all, with a spiral into a cinematic relapse. In Simone’s experience, certainly in my experience and my friends’ experiences who are in the program and in recovery, it very rarely happens that way. We all really wanted to tell a story of hope, and of a character who is getting better, getting healthier, and finding more joy in her life. So I think it was a great choice. I remember Jenni [Konner, Showrunner] said that to me about James relapsing before we even shot the pilot. I’m not totally sure where the idea came from, whether it was from Simone or Jenny, and often it’s kind of a collaboration between the two, but I think it was a great idea, because it’s so often that the people you think are put together are really just people who have different struggles, and different triggers. It felt like a most realistic version of a character relapsing on our show.
How else is Single Drunk Female a modern portrayal of life in 2022, and of Gen Z? Our incredible costume designer, Cailey Breneman, worked so hard on the show and helped me discover my character, every single episode. I’m endlessly grateful to Cailey, and we both thought it would be funny and truthful of Gen Z in 2022, that Sam would wear, I hate to say this, but I’m going to say it—shitty, cheap stuff from Zara or H+M. While at the same time, she’s probably posting on Instagram and to Twitter about the environment. She’s wearing fast fashion and doesn’t think twice about it. In my experience, with my friends who I’m trying to break out of that habit, one by one, it’s pretty true. It’s like, I believe in this stuff, I want to make a difference, but do I really want to do that? How much work is it really going to take?
Why did you help choose looks with the costume designer? Was it because you’re similar to who this demographic is? Jenn Rogien did the pilot of the show, she’s great. And Jenn, unfortunately, couldn’t come with us to shoot the rest of the season. She recommended Cailey who, like I said, I couldn’t love more. Because of that transition, I felt like I was passing the torch from Jenn to Cailey, so I tried to communicate what we had landed on in filming the pilot. And also Cailey, like any great team player, welcomes collaboration and really enjoys that side of the process, as do I. We got on right away. It was really fun for us to send ideas back and forth and talk about where she would’ve shopped. Where are her clothes from? It was also really important to us that coats and accessories repeated themselves. Often on TV, no one ever wears the same outfits, and it never makes any sense to me!
Who’s wearing a new coat for each of seven days in a week? No one. Especially someone working in a grocery store who just moved back home and lost her job. We were very particular. It isn’t until episode six or seven that she’s wearing a new pair of shoes, and they’re Docs. Cailey and I talked about it. Ok, if she saved up for a new pair of shoes, and she lives in Boston, they’d probably be a boot, and she feels like a Docs kind of girl. We had all these conversations about what could she have realistically purchased. Listen, 90% of people probably don’t give a shit about this, but those details helped me from a performance perspective, so I’m always really grateful when a designer is down to get into the weeds with me.
This is also a story about starting over. About changing one’s environment, and friends, and job, and day-to-day routine. In the beginning of the story, Sam’s living the dream in New York City. She’s done the thing that people do: leave home to pursue a career. What messaging are we getting from the show so far, about going back to one’s roots, or about starting over in general? I hope the message is that it’s never too late to start over and that you can constantly reinvent yourself and strive to be better, and that’s not an unusual thing; it’s actually very human.
Sam’s promiscuity is a part of her experience as an alcoholic and during the season we learn about her past, and we see her try to tackle her present and her future when it comes to sex, dating, and relationships. Ultimately she forges a bond and develops an attraction to AA friend James, and we see the complications it brings. Being a part of a first year in AA means no relationships. Things get complicated even further at the end of the season when roles reverse just at the year mark and when they’re able to pursue a relationship. Sam’s in a place of strength in her sobriety, and James falls off the wagon. What do you think is important about this storyline about role reversal? Does it say something about human nature? About relationships? About life? I approached that moment from a Sam perspective, a self-centered one. In Sam’s mind, she’s the one who’s really struggling and she’s the only one who’s at risk of relapse, and everyone should be there for her. I hope that we get a season two, because I’d really like to see Sam have to be supportive of someone else—and not just be on the receiving end. She has this amazing sponsor and this really handsome, lovely guy who’s helped her through her first year, and now the shoe is on the other foot, and she has to reconcile with the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around her. Other people have problems too, something I think that people learn earlier, but Sam is a little stunted.
Is there a discussion about how James’s slip-up will be treated? Will we learn what caused his slip, or is the bigger question does that actually doesn’t matter? I think that’s probably a question for the showrunners. The few conversations we had during the course of season one, is that some people struggle with the threat of relapse when the shit hits the fan, and some people struggle with relapse when things are going really well. Success can be just as terrifying as failure. In the episodes leading up to James’ relapse, we see him succeeding in work, we see him finally getting the girl, all of these things that you would think would put him in a position of real courage and strength. I think, for a lot of people, not just addicts, success is really scary. That’s part of what influenced that moment. In terms of diving into it further, yeah, I’m definitely curious to see what Jenny and Simone cook up, if we get the chance.