Why ‘Ratched’ Emmy Nominee Sophie Okonedo Sent a Letter to Michaela Coel

Article Image
Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Prolific on both stage and screen, Sophie Okonedo embraces every aspect of acting, from her voice and physicality to backstory and world-building. With a Tony Award for “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, as well as Academy Award, Golden Globe, and BAFTA nominations under her belt, Okonedo is adding to her roster of accolades with an Emmy nod for guest actress in a drama series for her work on Netflix’s “Ratched.” You can see her next on Amazon’s romantic anthology series “Modern Love.”

You attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. What did you feel that having that drama school education added to your career?
I think it was a really good foundation for me at the time. Before I went there, I didn’t have any family that was in acting. I don’t have a background in theater. At that time, my mom was a hairdresser who brought me up on her own. So going somewhere like RADA was an amazing experience for me, because I wasn’t that well-read around plays. I hadn’t read any Chekhov; I hadn’t read any Ibsen. I didn’t know all these questions that an actor would know. I got a chance to read a lot of plays, to read about different methods of acting in a three-year period. I think it would’ve taken me a lot longer to get all of that information into my head. 

One of the main things I learned there [is that] we did a lot of voice work. When I was there, I didn’t really get it. I found it a bit tedious. “Ugh, voice class.” My goodness, that has held me through my career, because it’s so important. It’s about connection. And when you’ve got connection, you usually will be doing something authentic. It was a brilliant lesson to have those intense voice lessons. I use it not just in the theater; I use it in film, television. So much about what I do is about finding the voice. That leads to your physicality. I’m someone who works through my body. Was I a better actor when I got out of drama school? I don’t think I was. But it certainly gave me some techniques and helped me to be better. 

On “Ratched,” you play Charlotte, a woman with multiple personalities. How did you prepare for the role?
Most of the jobs that I do, I just try to think deeply about the script and the part—the parts in this—and really try to think about what their lives were. I treated each character, each facet of her personality, as a different character. Rather than worry about her being one person and changing characters, I just tried to separate each one. She wasn’t remembering who she’d been five minutes before. I didn’t have to worry about joining them. Baby Taffy, [one of Charlotte’s alters,] had her own little world, and I knew who the mother was, and I knew what she saw each day, and I knew what she liked. I filled each character out, and that’s what I spent my time doing. I also worked on the voice and tried to find the different voices. 

I can imagine it’s much more time-consuming than playing a character who only has one backstory.
I did say I needed some preparation time. I didn’t feel like I could just suddenly film things the next day. Sometimes in television, you’re given things two days before [to prepare]. When I ended up playing Dr. Hanover, that was a last-minute addition that I had to work on quite quickly. The other characters, I did have time to think about them and what voice [they had], where they were from and stuff like that. I love creating a character. One of my favorite bits, as far as the actual filming, is the preparation. It’s not laborious; it’s an exploration. I read about different things and learn different skills. It’s a fun part of the job. 

Tell me about your first time on a professional set.
I was still at drama school the first time I ever went on a set. I was a deer in the headlights. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’d been at the Royal Academy for three years. I got this job in my final year, and I went and did it. Anything I might’ve learned at drama school went out the window. There was a learning curve. I’m amazed at people who do their first film and they’re fantastic. It’s taken me lots of gos to hone my craft. I’ve also had to do lots of theater, so that’s really helped me become a better actor for all the mediums. It doesn’t just help in the theater. Doing theater really helped to create characters, all around, deep down into the ground. You can use the stuff that you use in theater in film to get that all-around character. That’s what I’m always looking for: to be authentic. That can be done in many ways. Even if it’s in a naturalistic style or a theatric style, they need to be rooted in authenticity.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Relax a bit more; enjoy yourself a bit more. Don’t take yourself quite so seriously; don’t worry about what other people think too much. You’re always going to worry a little bit, because that’s human nature. I would love to say I don’t care at all, but I do. Turn the volume down a bit on that voice that’s giving you: “What would they say? What would they think?” 

What’s your worst audition horror story?
The ones going out for commercials. When I first started, commercials were quite rare things, with money that you could never earn in the theater, so you’d go out for them and they’d always get you to do really embarrassing things. I’d just done three years at drama school, and now I’m spraying on deodorant. It’s not what you felt like you’d gone and learned Shakespeare for, but it paid the bills.

It sounds like you got away relatively unscathed.
I’ve never been very good at auditioning. I did loathe it. Nowadays, it’s all changed, the way things happen. Auditions are very different. I’m not very good at sight reading, just picking up a script and reading it. I don’t really get good at doing it until I’ve worked on the part. I’m not instantly good. My work has built up over the years—people seeing me in things and then offering me parts. I never come into an audition and wow people. I’ve never really been that good at jumping into a room and being amazing straight away. I need to think about things a little bit. Over the years, I’ve often just decided not to audition for things, and perhaps have not done all the parts I could’ve done. I find [auditions] quite nerve-wracking and difficult. I know it’s a part of the job. I think it might be easier now that people can do self-tapes. You can be in control of it a little bit.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to get a role?
I’ve never done that! It’s not in my personality to do that. I have written to people just because I really love their work, not really trying to get anything out of it. I wrote to Michaela Coel not long ago to say how wonderful I thought she was. I’m not expecting anything from it; I just write people because I think they’re really amazing. Sometimes you just want to tell people. 

How did you first get your Equity and SAG-AFTRA cards?
What got me into the union in theater in America was “A Raisin in the Sun.” That was my first theater job. I’m not sure what the SAG job was, and I’m not sure what my first Equity [job was]. I’ve been doing this for 30 years; I can’t remember what the actual things that got me into the union were! When I started, I don’t think you had to do a job to get into the union. I think the rules changed.

What performance should every actor see and why?
Seeing Imelda Staunton onstage is incredible. She’s an incredible film and television actress, but she’s just a brilliant stage actress. If Imelda’s in anything, I intend to go and see it. Also, when I worked with Denzel Washington on “A Raisin in the Sun”—he’s an event. He is incredible to watch onstage. He’s a proper theater actor. We know what he can do on film. I played opposite him every show, and he’s just an incredible theater actor. That was a real treat for me every day. He does things differently all the time. His voice is so powerful, and he’s so energized and true. 

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Looking for remote work? Backstage has got you covered! Click here for auditions you can do from home!