I've been following Sophia Walker's Stratford career since 2008 when she first caught my eye as Lady Capulet. Since then, she has lent her classical charm to wonderful portrayals of Lady Macduff (Macbeth), Hermia (Midsummer Night's Dream) and Juno (The Tempest) among others. In 2010, her winning performance as Julia in Dean Gabourie's excellent Two Gentlemen of Verona earned her a My Theatre Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
Read on for my full conversation with Sophia:
This truly is an honour, I’m so thrilled and humbled by the nomination. To be in a such a large company, surrounded by world-class actors and be singled out for your work, it means a lot.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?My grade 8 teacher was directing a musical. There were open call auditions and I sang “O Canada”. The reaction I got was so positive. I had a vast imagination, but I was also very shy. The audition was open, so everyone got to watch and my friends were so impressed; my teacher thought I had hidden talent. All that attention went to my head . I heard there were arts high schools you could go to in Toronto. So I went to Cardinal Carter, then from there to Ryerson where I did their 4 year degree program. I actually thought about going to the National Theatre School but my parents wanted me to get a degree, not just a certificate, so I went to Ryerson. I really lucked out
What actors and actresses have always inspired you? Are they the same today?Seana McKenna has been a huge inspiration for me. Her, along with Yanna McIntosh are two women I have so much admiration for. And they continue to be humble. They’re so intelligent yet such team players. So I try and gear myself in that direction.
If you could perform on any stage in the world, which would you choose?In Toronto- Tarragon, Soulpepper, Factory Theatre. I’d love to go outside of my home town, I’d love to go to Broadway. I’ve got a few friends who’ve had some success in New York, they keep telling me to try for Broadway.
What would you say are some of the specific challenges and advantages to Shakespearean roles vs. other playwrights?Shakespeare was written for all people, not just the king and queen: the educated class AND people who couldn’t read. He was writing for all people, so there are characters who can relate to all people. When you can overcome the technique that’s required, iambic pentameter, so many meanings to one word- there are so many technical things you need to know going in- a rhythm, a heartbeat. When an actor can tackle Shakespeare text and make it their own, you have more advantages when you look at other work. You learn to look at subtext and layers before jumping in, even when you go on to contemporary. You have more to play with in the classics. It’s like you’re a detective when you get a Shakespeare text, that could mean this and this could mean that- but where do I want the character to sit?
How did you get your start at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.In auditioned for the Birmingham Conservatory in 2005 when I was in my last year at Ryerson. My first play was Harlem Duet. It was the first time the festival had done a piece with an entirely black cast. It was a bit of a risk. The festival usually has an older white crowd coming to see the classics, this was a contemporary black piece.
What has been your favourite role to date?Julia, for sure. I was on such a great journey with her. I was in Toronto doing a lot of clown. Because of the vaudeville theme, I started to incorporate clown into my text. You have to bring a lot of yourself to the work, and explore in a very open and free way, then bring it down and contain it. Sometimes I would forget that my director is supporting me but needs to make sure that the understanding of the story needed to be told. When I could let my ego go and bring it back to the play it was a lot of fun. It’s easy to get lost in the poetry of it. It was a very bold thing of me to try and marry it with clown technique. I was making a lot of choices on my own: try things, do things my way. We had our moments when he said “I know what you want but you have to trust me”. It was hard. The reaction I got from people was “are you crazy, you have how much time to do this?!” But at the end of the day it was really great.
How was your experience working with Gareth Potter and Dion Johnstone?I’d worked with Dion before. I’d played his wife in To Kill a Mockingbird and Macbeth. He’s so smart and humble and so willing to play. We can go off on our own and explore. He’s a hard worker. It was a lot of fun to work with him. And Gareth- they both have worked quite a bit together (they were in the same dressing room), so they remind me of each other. They’ve both done the conservatory, been at Stratford for several seasons and they know how to tackle a text really quickly. It was fun, very sweet.
Do you have any dream roles you think are perfectly suited to you or something completely against type you’d love to try as a big challenge one day?A Raisin in the Sun, Bennie Younger, there’s so much about her that’s like me. She’s definitely a part I'd love to play. I love the really strong women, like Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. Dionyza from Pericles, she’s wicked, so smart, so bold. I used a monologue from one of her speeches and I just thought this is such such a rich piece.
Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?Djanet Sears.
Peter Hinton- you can banter with him, you really feel like you’re building it with your director.
I really like Des McAnuff. The thing that can be scary about Des is that if he sees something in an actor, young or old, he gives it to you and lets you play with it. He puts a lot of trust in you, he lets you go. It’s a danger, you could miss a lot of things, but you’re growing, you learn and you ask questions and you do what you have to do to get there. If he sees a quality in you that is right for the character, even if you’re not old enough or whatever. He casts a play with a keen eye. You might not be there completely on day one but there’s a sense on day one that it’s there and he lets you go off and develop it. Lady Capulet- I auditioned for Juliet, so when I was called in for Lady Capulet, it's always been an older woman. Nikki James and I, we're like sisters. Pulling off that I'm her mom was a challenge. Are people gonna really believe that I have the presence for this? Des put his trust in us and let us play; it's important that you trust that the director has the eye.
Who are some of your favourite people on the Stratford stage professionally and personally?I definitely love John Vickery, he’s such a ballsy actor. Great presence, great sense of humour. He’ll try anything at least one. He’ll do something that makes me say :"I cant believe you just did that”. It's great to see an older actor do that.
Seana and Yanna are such powerhouses. They make it look too easy.
Geraint Wyn Davies- that man has such a sense of humour and is so humble. When he works he is so focused. It's nice to see that he can be such a hardworking intelligent actor and be so normal.
And the late Peter Donaldson. I first worked with him in To Kill a Mockingbird. That man was another one who had a beautiful presence. Offstage he was a mentor, he made things seem like you didn’t have to work so hard, it wasn’t so complicated.
Do you try and see every play in the season? What were some of your favourites of 2010?I really enjoyed Winter's Tale, it was great. Jaques Brel really stood out to me. Do Not Go Gentle, I was really impressed with that. I didn’t get to see For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again; I tried twice and was turned away. It was impossible to get in.
Two Gentlemen of Verona took place in the studio theatre while many of your previous roles (Lady Cap, Lady Macduff, Hermia) have been in the festival theatre. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each space. Do you have a favourite?The studio is so intimate, because of the setting. The seats are so high, you really need to tilt and be award of your eyeline, if you don’t tilt back a lot of people will miss your expression and what you're saying. You feel close and you don’t have to work as hard, but you have to be really aware of tilting back. On the festival stage I'm more concerned with having done a full vocal warmup. If you’re quiet on the studio, people can still hear bits and pieces; it's totally lost on the festival stage if you lower your voice. I do a full body warmup for both spaces; you still need to make sure you're on voice and your voice is coming from a low place. The festival stage is really tricky, it has dead spots where you can't be heard from. It took a couple tries with older actors and directors walking me through exact spots where things work and don’t work. Its like you have to take a tour.
You’re scheduled to be back at the festival next season. What can we expect to see from you in 2011?It’s a quiet season. I'm understudying The Misanthrope, second narrator in Grapes of Wrath, and working in Merry Wives, a smaller part. It's a season for me to really work on film and television and do voice work. Having been in a repertory company straight out of theatre school, I haven’t had a chance to do other vehicles but stay a part of the company, take classes, do my clown. So it's a quieter season full of doing my own work as well.
What are some of the challenges of repertory? Do you ever find yourself mixing the plays up?It’s pretty impossible. When you're at a place like Stratford, the moment a show is over they need to load in for the next thing. The crew comes in and literally we take our bow, close off the backstage, go home, get dinner, you come back and the stage is completely different. The costumes are gone, the energy in the dressing rooms is different. The costume that you're wearing, you fall into the character easily. An you’ve done so much rehearsal you can't mix it up.
If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?The show I'm doing right now. I play a character who's working in a brothel. She was kidnapped from her village in the Congo and for 5 months is a concubine for a mahi-mahi tribe. We're a cast of 10. I have to dive into the character, into her world and her head space, it was scary to try. I peeled away a lot of personal stuff in front of people. To get over that and have people look at me the next day, to have so many witnesses in the room to see me breakdown like that to get to the character, I have to pat myself on the back. This is the first time that I'm playing a part where there's so much violence and scary images running around my head. Working through that in front of people, to go to that place you have to be completely naked, working on the character has been a huge stepping stone for me.
Is there anything you’d like to add?I just wanted to say thank you again. It's so great that you’ve taken an interest and I can tell people about what I do. I love the work. I always feel like I'm growing, I admire Stratford for that. I've grown so much in the 5 years I've been there. I remember being so scared my first day, I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I was surrounded by such powerhouses. You have William Hutt coming to my class- how did I beat out all these people to do this? I came from theatre school with no experience! Getting to play Julia and work with Christopher Plummer; year after year to have so much work to do. If I was an actor in Toronto I wouldn’t have gotten the experience of working with such great directors so early. I feel very blessed.