“If you have a dream role, write it yourself” with Rising Star Sonja O’Hara
Sonja O’Hara — the creator, writer, and lead actress behind the provocative and addictive Amazon Prime show DOOMSDAY — has emerged as a talent to watch. With an upcoming series and a half dozen awards under her belt, Sonja is the newest indie darling to be taking Hollywood by storm.
Thank you so much for joining us Sonja! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s funny to think how much our lives are altered by chance. I remember there was a girl I peripherally knew in elementary school who booked this significant TV role when we had to have each been around ten years old. Now, this was Ellen Page (of future JUNO fame!) but at the time she was just another awkward kid from Nova Scotia. Suddenly an acting career became a viable career path in my head. I started auditioning shortly after that and I just fell in love with it. Ellen was certainly a huge inspiration though!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh man. I made so many rookie mistakes as an actress early on. I remember being tricked into sticking around for callbacks all day to do “chemistry reads” with a young director. Only to discover later he was just looking for a girlfriend. Gross things that wouldn’t fly in a post #MeToo world.
On the filmmaking side, it might have been wearing too many hats in the beginning. There was a project I filmed in the middle of nowhere, and our chef decided she wouldn’t cook vegetarian food, and here we were, this group of like hipster Brooklyn artists who live on tofu, and we’re shooting these long days and starving. So I ended up directing a scene and then having to call cut and go inside and put a veggie lasagna in the oven. It was ridiculous. It was the ultimate indie project!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
One of my earliest (and least glamorous!) jobs after moving out to Hollywood was becoming a personal assistant to the Oscar-winning actress Faye Dunaway. Here was this gifted icon who was self-producing her own movie (at age seventy!) That was a huge “aha” moment for me. No matter what level you’re at, you’re ultimately in charge of your own trajectory. If you want to play great roles, don’t wait for permission. Create them yourself! This inspired me to begin studying screenwriting and directing. A few years later I made my first feature “Ovum” (Tribeca Shortlist) and my entire career changed!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have a development deal with Adaptive Studios (Netflix’s COIN HEIST) and I’m creating and acting in a new series called “Astral” (Trailer here.) I can’t really speak about the second TV project in detail yet, but I can say I’m developing it alongside the Executive Producer of a major HBO show! I think this project could really shake up the industry and I can’t wait to be able to talk about it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I believe in breaking down career goals into small doable tasks and then working towards accomplishing them each day. I’m a huge Type-A nerd and have my New Year’s resolutions as my iPhone wallpaper. I have them stuck above my bed. If you take small daily steps towards the things you want, you’ll find yourself flying through your To Do list. It also really helps to keep the existential despair at bay! [She laughs.]
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Thank you for saying that. I’ve been speaking on a lot of film festival panels about this, so I’m addressing my fellow filmmakers here. Something that’s struck me is how many writers tell me they’re striving to make the most commercial thing they can come up with, thinking that’s what the industry wants, or the way to break in. That hasn’t been my experience at all. I’ve found both audiences and decision makers respond to a creator’s deep personal connection to the material and to unique stories that are told with authenticity. The more specific, the more universal. Having diverse and underrepresented characters on screen is vital to me, so that’s reflected in all of my scripts. I’m an immigrant and I want to tell stories about women breaking out of patriarchal societies and finding their voices. Dark, provocative and cerebral work excites me, and I’ve found that it also excites those I’m pitching to because my passion is contagious. I hope to inspire others to make more personal and risky work!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
1. There will always be another audition. Coach, do your best, but then let it go. We ultimately have no control here so just find joy in the opportunity to act, and then move on.
2. Find your community of like-minded artists, and then support each other and collaborate. I speak from experience when I say that it makes life in New York and Los Angeles far more manageable and fulfilling.
3. No one is going to come along and hand you a career. It’s entirely up to you to be proactive and make it happen. Be relentless!
4. If you have a dream role, write it yourself. Self produce. Stop making excuses as to why you must wait for the world around you to align perfectly before you can make your passion project. Before I signed with my dream agency last year, I had no money and made all my films on micro-budgets and favors. But I found a way to keep creating and my low budget series turned out to be my ticket.
Our words have power and the things we say on social media create a footprint that teaches the world how to see us! By thoughtfully documenting my journey in this crazy business online, I’ve gotten incredible opportunities (like being a guest speaker at SXSW, pitch meetings with giant movie studios, and even acting roles!)
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m from a lower middle-class family and my mother chose to remortgage her house to fund my dream of attending acting school in New York City. She really is an incredibly giving person and has sacrificed everything for me to have gotten to this point.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would love to sit down with “The Leftovers” creator Damon Lindelof, or director Yorgos Lanthimos. I think they’re both geniuses and I would love to see how their creative minds work.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on Instagram at @manicpxydrmgirl, or follow me on my official Facebook page here.