Amy Sohn’s sexy new novel, The Actress, has become one of the most talked about books of summer, and rightfully so. Having read it just recently, I can attest that once you start reading it, you won’t want to put it down. While the glamour and allure of a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Hollywood draws you in, the psychologically astute and riveting character studies keeps you reading.
In a Chicago Literati exclusive, I was able to interview Amy Sohn who revealed to me what went into the process of writing The Actress. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did and I hope you pick up a copy of her book soon.
Interview after the jump.
I spoke to friends who work in Los Angeles as agents, screenwriters, and managers. I read a lot of Hollywood biographies. I read Vanity Fair articles from the past fifteen years, especially about rising young ingénues – for a sense of how the women present themselves and how the journalists are complicit in it. I had long conversations with publicists, entertainment writers, divorce lawyers, and entertainment lawyers. I re-read Elaine Showalter. And I watched movies that had strong, leading portrayals by young actresses. The end of the novel has a list of some of my inspirational material, everything from Gaslight to The Yellow Wallpaper to Inside Daisy Clover.
How did you originally conceive this novel and how did it change for you through different drafts?
When I originally conceived it, I wasn’t sure how much of a psychological horror story I wanted it to be. It got darker as I progressed and realized that I am fascinated by tales of paranoid women and women driven slowly to madness.
In my second draft, my editor helped me devise a crucial scandal, in which Maddy chooses to defend Steven for the press and then comes to doubt her own loyalty to him. That was important because it gave her more agency. She needed to be someone who makes active choices as opposed to someone who is manipulated by others but doesn’t do much about her situation.
There has been (and remains to be) speculation over this novel that you based it off of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s marriage, however the character of Steven Weller more closely resembles George Clooney to me. Did you have a set idea of an actor when you began writing The Actress?
I had a handful of leading men in mind, both from this era and prior eras, as well as a handful of men from my own life who aren’t famous. Steven Weller soon became his own person, distinct from any of them. One thing I find fascinating about all the speculation is that it seems to look at The Actress as an exposé or work of non-fiction. Authors who are inspired by living or dead people (who the writers do not know personally) ultimately imbue the characters with their own qualities and personae devised solely in the author’s head. We can only “base” so much. The rest is imagination.
How did the character of Steven evolve for you through out the writing process?
He was very tricky because he needed to remain inaccessible until fairly late in the novel. At that point, even once I got into his close third-person, I found that he was still self-deceptive. Even when Steven is in his in own mind, he’s lying. I was interested in a character whose internal monologue is as filled with denial as his outward persona is.
I hope that he’s likable, charming, and rakish, but he’s also definitely born out of an earlier model of masculinity. In that model, there is not a lot of emotional, therapized relationship talk (even though he lives in Hollywood, where everyone is in therapy). I’ve met and dated guys like that, born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and there is something refreshing about them. At the same time, there are times you want them to be expressive and emotional so it can be very frustrating to be in a relationship. For Maddy and Steven, I took that to the nth degree.
What drew you to the character of Maddy Freed?
I liked the idea of a bright, ambitious young woman who nonetheless gets duped. Maddy is not a gold-digger, she is truly talented, and she doesn’t look like an anoractress, at least at the beginning of the novel. She is a millennial and she’s bold and she has a master’s degree and is very proud of her pedigree. But emotionally she has blinders on.
I also liked the idea of writing about a young, well-trained, talented actress who finds a dearth of quality roles. Costume dramas aren’t very successful any more (except on TV), so what arenas are there for the kind of women who can do that material? What kind of professional choices are they forced to make in this day and age? Is it satisfying to play arm candy in a movie when you have an MFA in drama?
You write wonderful and succinct descriptions of character interaction, and you have a gift for dialogue, who are your literary influences?
Bruce Wagner, Bret Easton Ellis, Nathanael West, Laurie Colwin, Hilma Wolitzer, Tom Perrotta, Charles Bukowski, Michael Chabon, James Lasdun, Susan Minot, Joan Didion.
Have you heard from Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes or George Clooney regarding this novel?
. No. That would be very exciting.
Are you currently on work on another novel? If so, when can we expect it to hit stores?
Right now I’m working on a teleplay and can’t talk too much more about it. Though it’s a work for hire, it continues my obsession with women and madness and also involves a fun and poppy era in Hollywood history. That’s all I can say right now.
Amy Sohn is the author of five novels, including Prospect Park West and Motherland. She began her writing career as an autobiographical columnist for the alternative weekly, New York Press, and has also been a columnist at New York magazine, The New York Post and Grazia [UK]. She has written television pilots for such networks as HBO, Fox and Lifetime. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, not far from where she grew up.