In Bloom with Sophia Di Martino
*Interview & Photoshoot completed before the SAG-AFTRA strike
Word & Interview: Beth Bennett
Photography: Beth Bennett & Evie Friar
EJ: So, I saw you were in Manchester last weekend?
SD: Yeah, yeah, I’ve got a lot of friends there. I went to uni there and my brother’s there. So I went to hang out with them.
EJ: Nice break from the London heat?
SD: Yeah. I love Manchester. It’s changed so much. It feels completely different every time I go.
EJ: You grew up in Nottingham, right?
SD: Yeah. It feels like so long ago now, I left when I was eighteen and I’ve moved around so much since then. I went to university in Salford and then stayed in Manchester for about ten years, then Bristol, then London, and now work takes me all over too.
EJ: Was it when you were in university that you began acting or had you caught the bug earlier on?
SD: I actually really enjoyed acting in school plays and…But I didn’t really know it was something that someone like me, where I’m from, could really do. I studied Media and Performance because I wanted to be in that world somehow and it felt like the most accessible way, really.
EJ: What was your first, I suppose, professional role then?
SD: I did a commercial for the University, actually, that was my first proper paid role in anything. I ended up getting an agent right off of that because one of the producers thought I could get more work. I ended up working while I was still a student and getting little parts in medical dramas and, just, loads of commercials. They always used to want me for commercials when I was that age ‘cause I had, like, pink hair and a nose ring so it filled the ‘quirky girl’ quota, I guess.
EJ: Oh, were they the kind of commercials where you have to pretend you can’t do a basic task without the product you have to sell?
SD: [laughing] Absolutely, yeah, I did so many. They were always fun though. And I got to travel all over the world to places like South Africa, Serbia, Barcelona, while being able to pay my rent so, I’m really grateful for those commercials. I’m very lucky I got to do all of that while still studying.
EJ: And to get it off the back of one of those cheesy uni commercials, as well. That must have felt quite surreal?
SD: It was actually quite a cool one, to be honest. There was this Scandinavian director and he had this unique style and it felt more like a music video or something than one of those typical noughties videos. [pause]. I mean, that’s how I remember it, it might be absolutely mortifying to watch back now.
EJ: Cue a furious search on YouTube when you get home?
SD: Oh, for sure. I’d love to see it again, actually.
EJ: So, you say you liked acting in school plays and the like while you were growing up; do you ever remember what it was that really triggered an interest in doing that for you? Something you saw that made you go ‘oh I want to this’?
SD: I loved movies. I’ve always loved watching films. When I was a kid, we had a small collection of VHSs that we used to watch over and over. It was only about fifteen or so of my mum’s films, nothing all that surprising. They were a comfort for me, and I think that’s really what led to me having a silly little dream about performing. It was a secret private thing, wanting to act. In reality, I knew I wanted to work in the industry but I was always more vague. I made the choice to go to university and learn how it all works, how to make films, how to write them. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to discover that maybe I could make it as a performer as well…It ended up working out because now I’ve got the added knowledge as well. Write, direct, act.
EJ: A triple threat then?
SD: [laughs]. Totally.
EJ: Do you remember any of those films in your VHS collection?
SD: Oh, Grease, of course. Dirty Dancing. Pretty Woman.
EJ: Proper classics, then?
SD: You know it. I actually…Thinking about growing up in Nottingham, I remember watching Twentyfour Seven and A Room For Romeo Brass in school as part of a Media Studies class and realising they were shot in Nottingham. I think seeing them was what really…It made it seem possible, you know? Working behind or in front of the camera wasn’t just reserved for people from certain places. Films could be made in my city, with people in them who had my accent, and it wasn’t all just about Hollywood all the time. Shane Meadows really helped me, and probably a lot of other people, realise that. It blew my mind at that age and then I discovered more films set in Nottingham like, you know the classic old film Saturday Night, Sunday Morning?
EJ: Yeah, yeah.
SD: Well, I didn’t actually realise this until recently but I was talking to my granddad about it, saying how much I love it, and he turns to me and he says: ‘Oh yeah, I’m in that.’
EJ: Wait, what?
SD: Yeah. I told him to stop being silly, thinking he’s just doing that funny thing granddads do but no. He’s literally in it. Basically, everyone in Nottingham, up to a certain point, worked at Raleigh, Boots, or Players and my granddad used to work at the old Raleigh factory making bikes. And so in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, there’s a scene where they use the clock-off at Raleigh and everyone’s cycling out of the factory as part of a montage and, yeah, my granddad’s in that. He’s really proud of it even though he wasn’t paid a penny.
SD: I’ve actually got one of the original posters of the film framed in my house and, yeah, I’ve always loved that film. I can’t believe I never saw him in it until he pointed it out.
EJ: So, from Saturday Night and Shane Meadows, you get yourself into uni and you’re doing commercials, then you’re driving an ambulance around in Casualty, right?
SD: Pretty much. It was my first regular acting paycheque and it was…I was able to get a flat of my own from it, it was when I was really like ‘Oh I’m doing it.’
EJ: Did you ever have a false sense of grandeur where you thought you could be a medical person?
SD: Oh no, definitely not. I was blagging it completely. I had no idea what I was doing.
EJ: I remember reading an interview with [writer/actor/director] Emerald Fennell once, I think around Call The Midwife, and she’d said she had this ridiculous notion she could help a woman deliver a baby after being on the show for so long.
SD: See labour, maybe I could help in some way, because I’ve been through that – I know how it feels. But paramedics and nurses that’s…I don’t think any part of me could do any of that stuff.
EJ: But could you drive the ambulance though?
SD: Yes! I’ve still got the special licence to be able to drive a three tonne vehicle so I’d be at the wheel, for sure.
EJ: Like Keanu Reeve and Speed?
EJ: So after Casualty, you’re doing odd roles here and there and then…Flowers.
SD: That’s still one of the highlights of my career. For me, it’s such a really special show. Not only because Will [Sharpe], my husband, wrote it, but…We all put everything into it and it really felt like a family. We still, the cast and crew, have a Whatsapp chat, we still hang out. It was a very intense experience that made us all so close to each other.
EJ: You played Amy Flower, a musician struggling with bipolar, her sexuality, and the chaos of her family’s dynamics – her dad, Maurice [played by Julian Barrett], confides in her first out of the family about his suicide attempt at the beginning of the first season. How did you find creating this character with so much depth in such a wildly unique show?
SD: Amy was such a character. I don’t think there’s another way to put it. Before her, I was almost typecast with playing the quirky girl next door and, even with the best of intentions, those characters just never really have that much substance. Whereas Amy…yeah, she’s still a bit quirky but there’s reasons for it, you know? She’s got multitudes about her. She’s complicated. She’s in pain. She’s struggling in such a way that’s quiet but her actions are loud. I really felt able to flex my acting muscles and show what I could do with a character like that.
EJ: And, I suppose, in that close knit environment, surrounded by people who are equally and genuinely passionate about the show, it’s a safe space to go further than you may have before?
SD: Yeah exactly. Olivia Colman, Julian Barrett, Danny Rigby, Dame Harriet Walter, and Will of course. They’re all so brilliant and they bring something out of you that you like to think stays in you even once the cameras are off. I’d love to do it all over again exactly as it was, experience it all over again.
EJ: Is there any of your projects that you’d want to revisit and change how you approached them?
SD: I don’t think so. I don’t have any regrets. Every mistake I’ve ever made has always taught me more than if I’d done it perfectly, you know? They’re a part of you, the mistakes, they’re your quirks and your humour and your anecdotes at parties. I’d rather go back and be a fly on the wall of those early commercials than do them again.
EJ: After playing Amy, did you find yourself wanting to continue to push yourself in the characters you played and the short films you were working on yourself?
SD: Yeah, I’m really drawn to characters that have that level of complexity but also a bit of a moral quandary. Like, oh they’re doing a terrible thing but maybe there’s a reason behind it. There’s a weight to their actions that isn’t entirely unjustifiable. Playing, or writing about, characters that have been left to survive on their own throughout these horrendous situations that’s left them in this sort of adrenaline fuelled mode where their fears come out in all sorts of ways from so angry to so upset to, you know, cracking jokes, it’s all about getting to explore the breadth of human responses. And I like a bit of mischief as well.
EJ: Do you find yourself drawn to the more chaotic characters?
SD: Absolutely. I enjoy chaotic people. I’m a bit of a control freak in my own life and keep /myself on quite a tight leash so it’s a nice release to play characters who are a bit more chaotic in that sense. It’s nice to access characters who are different to yourself. And I’ve gotten to enjoy more physical work as well, like on-screen combat.
EJ: Oh yeah?
SD: Oh yeah. I was very unfit, especially after I just had my first baby. I was never really the kind of person who did any physical exercise anyway. I hated running. I hated the gym. But when I had to do it for work, it flipped something in me and then being a new mum, I wanted to be strong, you know? It changed the relationship I had with my body and now that I know how feeling strong feels, I try keep up with it.
EJ: So you’re the heavy-lifter around the house then?
SD: I mean, I lift my kids, lift my weights. It’s just really good for your mental health. Which everyone says but…Oh god, I’m sounding so boring now, aren’t I?
EJ: No, no. You’re good. It feeds into it though, doesn’t it? The training and acting?
SD: Yeah, you become much more aware of how you move. As an actor, you’re already quite co-ordinated in yourself but the training really helps with the physicality of everything.
EJ: So when you’re playing these complicated roles and really altering your physicality for them, do you find that you can sometimes take them home with you after a shoot? Or are you able to just wash it all away?
SD: I’m quite good at leaving work at work. I get it all out of my system on camera and then I’m able to just…say bye. I think most actors work on a sliding scale of method, it’s not as black and white as it’s sometimes made out to be. I have a lot of respect for those who are able to stay in character all day, but it’s not for me. I don’t feel the need to take a character home. When I’m at home, I’m a parent, a wife, a daughter, a friend, I’m just Soph. I enjoy hanging up my costume and being me. So, really, for me, it’s the best part of my job, being able to play these chaotic and complicated characters and then leave it all on set and come back to my little life.
EJ: One thing I’ve also noticed is that in certain, more recent roles, you’re keeping your own voice, aren’t you?
SD: Yeah. Yeah. It’s nice because, in certain roles that I’ve been playing, it wouldn’t really sound right to have a proper RP accent. These characters are a bit rough around the edges, they wouldn’t speak with that intonation, that degree of harshness that comes with that accent sometimes. The way they talk is more than the dialogue and, in some contexts, my own accent reflects the world the character comes from more accurately. And it’s nice because it means that, maybe, I can do for others what films like Room For Romeo Brass and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning did for me back when I was younger.