Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” is full of big surprises. When it premiered at Telluride last September it seemed to materialize out of nowhere, having been shot in secret quite successfully the previous year. Another welcome surprise of the film is the unheralded arrival of young British actress Mickey Sumner, who earned praise in her completely believable and often heartbreaking portrayal of the title character’s (co-writer Greta Gerwig) best friend. Sumner fits so seamlessly into Baumbach’s world that it seems incredible that the film is only her second substantial role in a feature.
That’s certainly about to change, however with the now New York-based actress portraying punk icon Patti Smith in Randall Miller’s upcoming “CBGB.” She also happens to be the daughter of Sting, giving her an interesting connection to 1970s rock and roll themed film. We sat down with Sumner to talk about the real life close friendship that sprung between Gerwig and herself during filming, and what it’s like playing a cultural icon that you also happen to be a worshipful fan of. IFC Films opens “Frances Ha” in limited release this Friday, May 17.
What was the experience like as an actor coming into a film as exclusively cloaked in secrecy as this one? Was it as mysterious to you as it was to the rest of us?
It was pretty mysterious to me. My first audition was just “Untitled Noah Baumbach Movie,” there will be no script, you’ll get sides once you’re in the room. And that was it. And Noah was always on my top five directors to work with, so at that point I was, whatever you want! That’s fine! I actually really enjoyed the cold read. There was no time to prepare, no time to overthink, no time to be like, how would Noah Baumbach like me to read this line? You just get it, you read it, and you just go with your instincts.
Once I got the role of Sophie, I still didn’t get a script. I was just given my pages piecemeal, day by day. And I felt like this is an experience, and I don’t need to control this. I don’t really like asking questions anyway. I’m very British that way. It’s not how I was raised. I think it’s an English thing where you just do as your told. And that’s how I sort of felt about this project, was that I trust Noah, and I trust Greta, and I’m going to play along and not ask too many questions and just do a good job with what I’m given. I think it was really liberating for me.
It wasn’t until the third callback when I walked in the room and Greta was there. I didn’t even know Greta was in the movie.
Did you know Greta before?
I met her once at a friend’s house, but we weren’t like friends. I admired her work but we weren’t buddies. And then I was like, “Oh! It’s a Greta Gerwig movie. OK.” I auditioned for two roles, and they were working that out. And then finally I got a callback as Sophie, and at the end of it Noah asked me how I would feel about dying my hair, and wearing glasses, and I was like, “I feel great about it! I feel great. I would totally do that right now for you.”
I’m assuming the other role was Grace Gummer’s role?
How did your relationship with Greta develop? Are you close friends now?
Yeah! Now we’re very close. And people are like, how did you work on becoming friends and, first of all, it’s pretty easy to be friends with Greta, she’s just lovable and loving and you want to just be around her. But also… we made a movie together. Which is the best way to make best friends with someone. You’re in a very contained unit and you’re working really hard for the same goal and you spend a lot of time with each other.
Well, I think the reason people are asking that is that your friendship, and the love your characters have for each other, is so convincing on screen. It’s the driving force of the movie.
I think a lot of that is the writing. The friendship was there on the page already. And I think one of the things I sort of thought about is that best friends don’t ever need to show everybody that they’re best friends.You’re never in public going, “Oh my gawd, I love this person!” You know, you’re kind of harsh and rough with your best friends. Sometimes you don’t even look at them when you’re talking to them. You know that they’re there and you have that intimacy. And that’s how I wanted to play Sophie, is yeah, they’re best friends, but I’m not going to be touching her hair.
They’re not those kind of characters either.
No, but I don’t think real women touch each others’ hair to show everyone they’re best friends!
This interview is continued on page 2…The shoot managed to stay so secretive and yet you still managed to be all over New York. Was it kind of a gritty and intense on-set atmosphere?
Yeah. I mean, no trailers. Noah had us traipsing around on the subway for days on end. Well, not days on end, but a long time. It was sort of guerrilla filmmaking. And I think that’s sort of what I love about Noah. He didn’t have like a special chair. We ate lunch standing up altogether. No one was treated differently. We were all part of a team making this one thing that everyone felt protective about. And I think Noah demands a very focused, disciplined way to approach work. It’s fun, but it’s work. He demands the best out of everyone. And that’s what you get. And it creates an atmosphere where everyone wants to do the best they possibly can. That’s my favorite kind of work environment to be in.
It seems like he’s definitely a perfectionist. I’ve heard about him doing tons and tons of takes for every setup. Having this as one of really your first features, is there a big takeaway you get from working with someone like that?
I’ve never worked with a director who does more than four takes, and he does between thirty and seventy takes of everything. I definitely feel like I’ve been spoiled, because that’s a real privilege. You get to explore your movement in a scene and you can change things up and try new things or let things happen. There’s less pressure to deliver a result. In the beginning, I didn’t know how he worked. No one told me how he worked. So my first day I was like, I’m clearly doing something wrong. We keep doing this! I got very paranoid. And then I realized this is just the way he works, and by the end if we didn’t do more than thirty takes it was like, wait! There’s something wrong! I enjoyed it.
Does this feel like a breakout year for you? All of a sudden your name is attached to so many different projects. Does it feel different at all?
It definitely feels different. I’ve been doing this since I graduated college in 2007. And it definitely hasn’t come over night. I’ve been slogging it out, auditioning for everything, doing off-off-off-off Broadway plays and student films.
And now you’re playing Patti Smith.
And now I’ve played Patti Smith! It’s surreal, I think. It’s really easy to tell people you’re good, when they don’t believe you, you know, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” and you’re like no, no, I’m an actress! This is what I want to do! But when people start telling you, oh, you’re in this and what’s next? I don’t know, there’s a sort of pressure.
Well, this movie is pretty solid proof that you’re for real.
Thank you! It’s definitely a surreal moment and I want to enjoy it but there’s definitely a weirdness of being taken seriously. I mean I’ve always wanted to be taken seriously but now it’s actually happening.
I guess the obvious question about the “CBGB” movie is, did you discuss the movie, the role, with your father at all? It’s kind of an interesting connection.
My dad never met Patti Smith at all back then actually.
But both groups did play CBGB.
They did both play CBGB around the same time and that was kind of the extent of it. I think I asked my dad what it was like. It was the first place he ever played in America. He got off a plane and went straight to CBGB.
Was that like an attraction of the project for you or did you ever have a moment of, this is something I should distance myself from because it’s so close to your family?
No, not really. I think I separate… I mean, he’s my dad so I don’t really associate him with The Police and… I get this opportunity to audition for Patti Smith and Patti Smith is one of my heroines and it just seemed like, OK, yeah, I’ll try it! And I tried and I succeeded, and then I really got scared because I was like, fuck, now I have to do it. I felt a lot of responsibility to deliver to her but also to her fans, as she has many. I didn’t want to disappoint. But as soon as I got on set and had my wig on and was on stage I felt like, ok, this is for me now. If I only get an essence of her, I don’t have to imitate her or be exactly like her.
Did you get to meet her at all beforehand?
No, but I met her three years ago at an event. I just went up to her as a shy fan and told her I loved her book.