This past July saw the fifth release from bestselling author, screenwriter and Park Slope mother, Amy Sohn. The Actress is a seductive, rags-to-riches Cinderella story where Prince Charming is not all he appears to be. Set against the backdrop of Hollywood glitz, the sexy page-turner, complete with film premiers, on-the-set scandals and duplicitous agents, also asks deeper questions about authenticity, loyalty, and power. How long can we look the other way when our values are comprised and hard-fought ambitions are at stake? While The Actress starred on the every must-read-beach-list, don’t let the season change stop you from delving into this captivating book. We caught up with the Brooklyn native to discuss her latest work.
Park Slope Reader: Congratulations on your riveting new novel The Actress. Your two previous novels, Prospect Park West and Motherland took place in Park Slope where you currently reside. Can you describe the genesis of this Hollywood-centric book?
Amy Sohn: It’s not a total departure for me—some of Motherland took place in Los Angeles, and all of my books have had screenwriters and actors as characters. I felt I had mined as much of the Brooklyn BoBo parents demographic as I could, and I was interested in writing something different, set in a different locale. I had been a child actress and tried it briefly as an adult in my early twenties but I wasn’t very good. I wanted to write about a young actress who marries an older man and finds out her marriage is not what she thought. I also wanted to explore the darkness of marriage set against the backdrop of modern-day Hollywood, without making it about material possessions and glitz and glam. I feel I succeeded in that last goal.
Who were your inspirations for the protagonist Maddy Freed?
Many young ingenues from the 1940s to today—too many to name. But the biggest influence on Maddy was Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. The book is an homage to Henry James’ book. I love the idea of a twentysomething whose inability to listen to anyone but herself is both her greatest quality and the source of her downfall. I found Isabel frustrating and I know some readers will find Maddy frustrating, but Maddy is authentic. How many of us can say we are proud of every choice we made in our twenties?
Maddy Freed possesses a dearth of self-awareness, yet is surrounded by strong, albeit flawed, female characters. Was this contrast intentional?
I think Maddy is self-aware, but she is also totally in love and that gets in the way of her better instincts. Bridget, her manager, was an important character for me—an older woman who rose up in Hollywood when there were few female role models. Even though Bridget is scheming, I understand her. She developed a tough skin because she had to, and now she’s remote and cut off from her own feelings. Kira is also one of my favorite characters, Maddy’s friend and acting partner. I wanted Maddy to have another voice out there showing her that there was another path to professional success than the one that Kira feels Maddy has taken.
The Actress has been referred to as “a Tom Cruise roman à clef,” with a smattering of George Clooney mixed in. Who were your influences for the Steven Weller character?
Steven is an amalgam, including men I’ve dated. That rakish older guy who seems really cultured until you start to scratch the surface, who claims to want an intelligent female partner but doesn’t want her to be smarter than he is. Good hair, great looks. He’s getting a little older and trying to figure out how to stay relevant. And of course, Steven was influenced by the Henry James character Gilbert Osmond, one of the best character names ever.
Your comprehensive knowledge of the Hollywood machine certainly required more than opening up “Page Six”. What kind of research went into writing The Actress?
I consulted with entertainment lawyers, divorce lawyers, agents, managers, and publicists. I talked to screenwriters and a New School acting alum. I read Hollywood biographies and acting manuals watched many, many movies. It’s great to have Netflix as your procrastination/research.
Prior to becoming a writer, had you ever considered becoming an actress?
I had some success with theater acting in childhood and then went off to college, tried auditioning for about a year, and realized I didn’t really want to do it. I wasn’t studying and I wasn’t losing weight, against my agent’s advice. I booked a Law & Order and did some regional theater, which was fun, but I realized I didn’t like the lack of control that actors have. Writing was a way to make art without having to be allowed to do it.
You’re no stranger to telling a sexy tale, and The Actress doesn’t disappoint in this area. Yet, the novel asks deeper questions about authenticity and fidelity. Would you say this depth parallels your growth as a person and a writer?
That is a very flattering question! I feel this is my most serious novel. It definitely goes into darker territory than the Brooklyn novels, though Motherland is also very twisted. I am fascinated by the internal life of a marriage. I’m also interested in the plight of young women in Hollywood. I don’t think it’s a healthy place for them, though some of that is changing now that there are more women writer-creators.
If Hollywood is symbolic of disingenuous would you say Brooklyn represents the opposite?
Brooklyn can be very disingenuous too—all the coded language around real estate and class. There are not as many phonies in Brooklyn, though. Here the first question at a party is “What do you do?” In LA the first question is “How old are you?” In a way they are the same question but the LA context is, “How can I evaluate you—physically or monetarily—in relation to your time on this earth?”
I also notice that in LA people always say, “You look fantastic!” to each other. That is considered a high compliment there. Here we wouldn’t be openly looks-oriented; that would be seen as shallow. And there is definitely less plastic surgery in brownstone Brooklyn.
Any clues about what Amy Sohn fans can expect next?
I’m working on a screenplay involving women and madness.