Sophie Kennedy Clark struggled to find an agent after film school – now she’s racking up the roles and finding inspiration in the life and work of Hollywood icon Mary Pickford. Interview by Alistair Harkness
Sophie Kennedy Clark is recalling the best things about working on last autumn’s acclaimed BBC missing-baby drama The Cry. “Oh my God, it was one of those scripts that when I read it I was like, ‘NO! Shut the laptop. I can’t believe that. I need a glass of water’.”
Cast as Kirsty, best friend to Jenna Coleman’s stressed-out new mum, she also loved working with the former Doctor Who star. “Jenna Coleman was just glorious,” Kennedy Clark beams.
But maybe the best thing about the Scottish/Australian-set mini-series was getting the chance to work in Glasgow again. “I don’t get to do that too much,” says the 28-year-old Aberdonian. “And a lot of the Australian actors all came over to Glasgow so I showed them round. I love Glasgow. Any excuse to go back to Sub Club!”
Her gig as an unofficial guide to Glasgow’s hipster night spots notwithstanding, Kennedy Clark’s career has been on the up since scoring a major role opposite another Doctor Who star in another Glasgow-set BBC mini-series – 2010’s David Tennant vehicle Single Father. Since then she’s been on set with Tim Burton (she had a small role in Dark Shadows), starred in the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, worked with Lars von Trier on his controversial film Nymphomaniac, and won a Scottish Bafta for her role as the younger version of Judi Dench’s title character in Philomena. She’s also just been cast in Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the book by Camilla Gibb and, more imminently, can be seen headlining London riots drama Obey, which toured the festival circuit last year and will be released more widely this year.
“It was fun playing someone so nonchalant and casual,” says Kennedy Clark of her role in Obey as a slumming-it, squat-dwelling party girl called Twiggy who bangs on about social justice while swanning around in a negligé and leopard-print coat. “She’s a good time. She’s the white rabbit that will take you down the rabbit hole. You want to go on that journey. Anything she’s doing will be the most exciting thing to do.”
Kennedy Clark gives the impression the same might be true of her. She’s something of a born performer. Growing up in Aberdeenshire, her grandfather was the Scottish singer Calum Kennedy and her mother is the musician and broadcaster Fiona Kennedy, who flirted with acting herself as a kid with a brief role in The Wicker Man. “Yeah, she gets her head cut off! But my mum always tells people this story that when I was four she asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to tell stories.’ When that is so seeped into your being you get the creative bug and there’s no medication for it; you have to do it.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t really act as a child. She was more interested in how films were made and when she left school at 17, she moved to New York and enrolled in film school. “I just wanted to know how it all worked, and when I was at film school you just get asked to be in each other’s shorts, so when I got back I thought I should try and get an agent because I thought I could do this acting thing.”
That proved trickier than expected. “I had the arrogance of youth and battered on the doors of many different agents, all of whom said ‘No’. And eventually one said … well, he said ‘No’ again, but he did give me some advice about trying on my own and I got my first ever job without an agent, which was Single Father. Then I called up United Agents and said, ‘I’ve just got this job’, and they said, ‘Welcome to United Agents’. So it was a bit of a chicken-and-egg, what-comes-first? situation. But after that I was incredibly fortunate. I worked with some great auteurs very early on, which was amazing. No schooling can teach you the kind of lessons you learn being on set with these kinds of people.”
She remembers no-nonsense director Stephen Frears in particular teaching her a valuable lesson just as she was gearing up to shoot her big scene in Philomena. “He took my roll-up off me, had a drag, then leant in and said, ‘Good luck’. And then he stole my roll-up and walked off!” She bursts out laughing. “And then you realise that’s why he cast you. He trusts you to pull it out of the bag.”
She loved working with Lars von Trier too, though she admits that at the time she didn’t really know much about his reputation. “He has one, for sure,” she says. “But I really enjoyed working with him. He’s a great director. I know a lot of people can say many things about him, but I don’t have anything bad to say about him. And I’m not too shy for a bit of controversy. That’s what art is for. You need people to push boundaries.”
On the subject of pushing boundaries, she’s also been playing Hollywood pioneer Mary Pickford for a forthcoming biopic entitled Why Not Choose Love: A Mary Pickford Manifesto. “I haven’t seen any of it yet, but the director, Jennifer DeLia, has quite an arthouse vision for it.” That makes sense, given Pickford was not a conventional film star.
Transcending her silent-era status as “the girl with the curls” (“My wig’s going to steal the show: it comes down to my hips; it’s like a mermaid”), Pickford went on to co-found film studio United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks.
“To get to play a part that is also shining a light on a very cool woman, the first ever female producer, is great. Why does nobody know about her? It’s crazy.”
Kennedy Clark has been suitably inspired. “I’ve just produced my first short,” she says. “KT Tunstall’s doing the music; I’m in it. Hopefully that’ll be something I can take to film festivals. It’s called Gutterpunks. After playing Pickford I was like, ‘I’ve got to get my hands dirty in this business.’”
The Cry is available on DVD, blu-ray and download now. Obey will be released later this year.