Sonja O’Hara on Ovum, Nudity & Faye Dunaway
One of the many things I love about my recurring gig as a moderator for SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&As, like my recent chat with Jessica Chastain, is getting to meet up-and-coming actors in the audience. One such rising star, Sonja O’Hara — like Chastain, a wildly talented redhead — breaks out this week in two newly released movies, including Ovum, a dark, sharp semi-autobiographical satire of show business and the fertility industry, which she also wrote. I sat down with Sonja in NYC to talk about everything from her days working as an assistant to the famously difficult Faye Dunaway (who inspired one of Ovum‘s characters) to her nude scenes in Ovum and Doomsday, a wickedly cool new TV drama she created and stars in.
What was the genesis of Ovum? I was living in L.A., and I was sick of doing horror movies. I’d be cast as a cheerleader, then the second day on set, they’d say, “We added a scene where you’re jumping on a trampoline topless.” I was like, “Yeah, I really don’t want to do that.” I moved back to New York and did the struggling-actor thing of going out for theatre roles. That’s when I opened up Backstage, the actors’ magazine, and saw they were looking for egg-donor actresses.
Did you know they were looking for actresses to donate eggs or did you think it was an acting part? No, they made it sound like the role of a lifetime, and it was offering so much more compensation than anything else. Instead of a $12 stipend, it was like $10,000. I thought I was doing investigative reporting and I would go meet with them and get the origin for a story.
When did you decide you’d actually go through the process? I got there, and everyone seemed like they were already a weird character in a movie. I met this ovum coordinator, who was this android-pretty woman, and I thought, “None of this is real.” From there, they gave me a callback, and they wanted more modeling pictures, and I had to meet with their psychiatrist. They made me do the Meyers-Briggs test and asked me all these intrusive questions, probably because they don’t want psychopath eggs. I was selling the ideal version of myself, like when you’re going on a first date. I felt like I was creating this character, and as I went through each step, I was getting in deeper. Then I got chosen by a couple and from there, I was balancing my actor life and traveling around with syringes in my bag and injecting my ass with egg medicine.
So did everyone assume you were a junkie? Totally. It was nuts. I was going to auditions with big bruises on my arms because I had to give blood every morning. I had a Nickelodeon audition, and I was hiding these black-and-blue bruises and being totally sketchy. Then it was time for the actual egg retrieval. The first donation I did, I got an envelope of cash. I felt like I was doing something illicit, even though it wasn’t. I used the money to make the movie. What was happening on screen was happening in my own life. Everything was very blurred.
Well, they say “Write what you know…” That’s what I did. Then I had to donate eggs one more time to fund post-production. That was also very surreal. Then people kept offering me money to donate again, and I realized there are people who probably make this a whole second career. I did lose what would have been my final donation because somebody read about Ovum in the press, but I knew that was going to happen eventually.
But by then you had your baby—the movie. Yes, but I was still walking around the city imagining someone was knocked up with my baby.
Did you want to make your own movies when you were growing up in Canada? I started acting at a very young age, and my brother got cast in a TV series called Black Harbor. It was a drama about the fishing industry in Nova Scotia. I don’t think it made a splash in America. He got his union card, and I was wildly jealous at 10. Then a girl I knew from auditions, Ellen Page (Juno), got her break, so then I knew it was possible. I wrote a one-woman show in high school, but it wasn’t especially good. It was very melodramatic and dealing with being a burgeoning bisexual. It was about an eating disorder, and it was really over the top. Then I went to acting school in New York, and we had a make your own Web series class. That was the first time I wrote something, and people were like, “You’re funny.” And I was surprised by that. I knew one day I wanted to write and direct something really great and serious, but I imagined it was far off in the future and it would come after I had an acting career, not the catalyst that would get me an acting career. So things sort of came out of order.
Why did you decide not to direct Ovum? I’m in every scene, and I figured with the weirdness of trying to handle a pivotal performance, when I had investors putting in real money, it seemed like I should have somebody to handle everything. So I hired Matt Ott, who was great, but I was super-involved. I did a lot of the casting.
How did you cast Katie Morrison, who plays your fellow egg donor and eventual lover? I had this character, who’s this fetishized art model. At one point in my life, I had posed for art classes, so I wanted to write about that experience. We saw so many girls, but none of them had the je ne sais quoi that made them really appealing. We saw a lot of really beautiful straight girls who read like really beautiful straight girls and didn’t have any sexual chemistry with me. We actually cast another girl and filmed with her, but we recast the role and reshot it because she didn’t really read and it was so crucial. And now Katie’s career is blowing up!
How did you find investors? Weirdly enough, somebody who was a year ahead of me in high school and I didn’t know at all saw a teaser trailer we shot and posted on social media. He said, “I’m in finance and I want to invest.” That made it legit, and from there we were able to get several other investors.
How did you get distribution with The Orchard? We went to festivals and we kept winning. Nobody expected that, and a sales agent picked up the film. Then I found out we would be released by The Orchard, which is good because they have really great taste. It’s very flattering.
What has surprised you the most about the reaction to Ovum? Very recently a bunch of egg donors from this blog got to see a clip out of context and they thought I was making donors look like they were all doing it for money. It’s interesting because these were donors from other parts of the country where there isn’t as large of a compensation for it as in New York City. They’re doing it for more altruistic reasons. I’m only writing about my experience as a donor at high-end places in New York, where it is eugenics-y. But I don’t think egg donation is inherently bad. The idea of helping an infertile woman is awesome. So I hope people will see there are awesome things about egg donation but also really troubling things.
The tone of the movie is very specific — it’s serious and dark, but also very funny. How did you maintain that on set? In my mind, when we were shooting it, I saw Black Swan. But the reality is, you can’t take yourself too seriously, and so much of this manic actress injecting herself in bathrooms is weirdly comedic. I didn’t know if it would skew more into a drama, but by the time we showed it to the first audience, people were laughing, and I was really relieved. It isn’t all dark — there’s a lot of levity.
I was surprised by how funny it is. It plays well as satire because it’s deadpan, not wacky, but that’s a hard note to keep hitting when you’re shooting quickly. Right, when you’re shooting so many pages per day. And the element of working for a movie star — I had once worked for a certain infamous movie star, and I was stealing real conversations from that experience. I used a lot of my own life, but I also took creative leeway with it.
Do you want to mention who the movie star is, or are you keeping that secret? No, I worked for Faye Dunaway for six months. The infamous, wonderful Faye.
How much of the crazy movie star who wants your character’s eggs is based on Faye? She was definitely a challenge to work with, but I put her on so much of a pedestal. She had that Oscar on her mantel, so I did mirror what was happening with my character being starstruck. But obviously Faye had adult children and wasn’t going through this process, so it’s what I imagine she would’ve been like in a younger stage. Also, I had Rutanya Alda in the film, and she played opposite Faye in Mommie Dearest and wrote a book about it, so it all came full circle.
Has Faye seen the movie? I don’t know. I kind of want to send it to her. She has a really good sense of humor about certain things, and we ended up on a good note. But obviously I really want to impress her, so it’s kind of terrifying. And I have a dream of casting her in Doomsday, my next project.
Speaking of Doomsday, I’ve seen the first episode, and you do a nude scene in it, as you do in Ovum. Do you feel like it’s less exploitative to do nudity when you’re creating the project? Completely. The reason I got so frustrated in L.A. was I didn’t want to do nudity. I have no problem with nudity, if it’s a great film. I’m all about it in the right context. But I didn’t want the objectification. Whereas in my own films, as you point out, I get naked all the time…
I didn’t say “all the time,” but… (laughs) I know, but I’d rather have me do it than ask other actors to do it, because I know I have final cut and if something seems tasteless I don’t want it in there. I try to show sexuality and nudity in a non-gratuitous way. There’s a scene in Ovum where I’m injecting myself and I have a distorted belly. I wanted to show the ugliness of it, how as a donor you feel like you’re being objectified because you’re being picked out of a database of hot girls, but what it does to you is so ugly. That juxtaposition was fascinating to me.
And why did you decide to do nudity in Doomsday? I play this black-widow character who seduces men to lures them into a cult. I felt like it would be fun to skewer the roles I was being offered in L.A. but also give these roles real significance and depth and not just be one-dimensional slutty girls.
What’s the origin of Doomsday? It’s an hourlong drama I wrote about a matriarchal cult in New York. It explores the idea of how youthful idealism can turn into deadly extremism. I wrote it based off when I lived in L.A. and one of my first jobs was acting in Scientology propaganda films. But I didn’t know they were that. I thought I was just doing non-union industrial films. So I became really interested in the duality of these sects — what it’s like inside it, where you feel like you’re being protected and loved and part of a community. And then the polarizing outside part of it. I just started to marinate on what it would be like if a bunch of really idealistic people came together to make something great, and it gets corrupted. Now that we shot that first hourlong episode and it went to all the big TV festivals and won, it’s suddenly attracted big representation and now it’s getting shopped around. So knock on wood, very soon I hope I’ll be able to say we get picked up on a digital platform like Netflix or Amazon.
And you have another movie coming out April 11, the same day as Ovum? Yes, I’m also in Dan Simon’s Lonely Boys. I play this Lena Dunham-obsessed millennial, who’s the most annoying part of the movie, but it’s really fun and totally different.
Is it overwhelming or exciting to have these projects all come out at the same time? It is overwhelming. I feel like I’m annoying everyone because I’m all over everyone’s news feed.
I feel the same way about the movie I’m in, Landline! Yeah, but I’m excited that now people are getting to know my work, and I hope that means the projects will be seen in a big way. That can help launch the careers of all kinds of talented people.
What’s the ultimate goal — to write, direct and star in your own feature films? I would love to be like Brit Marling, and have a show like The O.A. that I’m starring in and writing for Netflix. But I also aspire to do incredible roles, like Amy Adams. So I want to balance being a filmmaker that challenges and pushes boundaries and also be an actor who’s in other people’s projects. I’d love to make a film every year like Woody Allen and then also get to go shoot other people’s movies. Forever!
Ovum is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Video On Demand April 11.