Difference Is Meaning

by David Peak

The Actress Returns to the Beginning of a New Age
I’m disappointed we’re not going to be getting drunk. Mickey Sumner’s already ordered tea for herself, and she waves down the waitress for me in the café of the Jane Hotel in the West Village and orders me black coffee. The Velvet Underground’s “New Age” is playing too loudly over the sound system, making it difficult to talk.

She’s sitting against the night-darkened window, the lights of the Jersey skyline past the Hudson visible over her shoulder. Her look floats somewhere between Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts—maybe a shade of Bibi Andersson in Persona.

“I went to art school for painting,” she says. “I always wanted to be able to draw perfectly—draw the perfect line. And my lines were always fucked-up and all over the place. I got so stressed out about it. And I remember my teacher being like it’s your way of drawing a line.”

She folds both hands over her tiny mug as she considers the correspondence between self and form. “I don’t want to be like everyone else,” Sumner confesses, and it’s not difficult to see why she was cast as legendary rocker Patti Smith in Randall Miller’s upcoming Hilly Kristal biopic CBGB—both women have striking, if somewhat unconventional features. “I have a different face,” Sumner says.

Google Patti Smith quotes. She hammers on the point she doesn’t really look like anyone. There’s a lot of the insecurity of youth turned teenage defiance, coupled with a “years have passed understanding” that being different is more of an asset than anything. She has a different face. So what? Patti Smith likes the way she looks. And so does Sumner.

“Patti Smith has been my hero forever,” Sumner says, taking a slow sip of her tea. “I wrote her a love letter when I got the role. I felt like I needed to acknowledge it—that it felt like a privilege to be portraying her. I didn’t want it to be like an imitation. I wanted to find an essence.” This last word—essence—slides out of her mouth like a whisper, something variable.

“I had about eight weeks to prepare for that role. I rented a recording studio uptown which had a stage and drum-kit and a mirror so I could watch myself. [Patti] has a specific way of moving, especially for the song I sing [in the film.] So I had to learn the moves.”

This kind of dedication to her work bleeds through nearly everything Mickey tells me. It’s all about learning the moves, about acting as a discipline. Despite the fact that she’s portraying a punk icon in a distinctly un-punk time for New York City—what is CBGB now? A clothing store?—her dedication to her craft in the era of big-budget-bang-bang-bullshit is refreshing.

“I really love my theatre community,” she says. “I was involved with the creation of The Bleecker Street Company. And I made a play called ‘Rumspringa,’ written by Peter Zinn. I played an Amish drug-addict raver. It was my first play and we did it in the basement of the Bleecker Street Theatre, which is now the Culture Project, and from there we started doing tons of readings. Anyone who asked me to do a reading, I would pretty much say yes. I love readings. I think they’re so important.”

The music has switched to Bowie now, something from Ziggy Stardust. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve been playing these same albums for the last twenty years.

“As an actor, it’s like going to the gym. You meet young writers and you meet new directors. And you have an audience and you have a stage.”

Perhaps most viewers will come to recognize Sumner from her role in Noah Baumbach’s most recent film, Frances Ha (releasing in May, 2013), co-authored with actress Greta Gerwig (who also plays the titular Frances). Sumner landed the role of Frances’ bestie, Sophie, after nailing a cold reading and doing something like five auditions.

“Cold readings, for me, are good because I can’t over-plan them and I just have to work with the material. It’s not about learning lines—it’s about thinking on your feet. The thing with Noah’s writing is it’s so amazing, you don’t have to really make anything work. It already works. You don’t have to like be like ‘how the fuck do I say that line?’ Sometimes you read things that aren’t well written. And it’s really hard to like get them in your mouth and get them out of your mouth in a graceful, human way.”

“Is there anything you absolutely wouldn’t do?” I ask, before she gets up to go.

“Hardcore porn?” she says with either a thoughtful or concerned expression. “I never want to say never. But I think there’s definitely a genre of like torture porn? The girl is always half-naked and being raped and tortured and chained-up. And I don’t want to put that shit out. I think it’s really destructive and uncreative. People can make it. I don’t give a shit. But I don’t want to be part of that creative process.”

She leaves with that. I’m left with Bowie, images of destructive rape porn. I fucking hate Bowie. I think about not writing at all. I can’t stand by all the weird Sting’s daughter shit the turd editors at Flaunt want me to add in good conscience. In Gchat I tell them I’m not putting my name on the article if it has the Sting’s daughter line. It comes out of nowhere and it’s totally unnecessary.

Not because I care. I don’t. But because I’ve met a lot of famous people and she was one of the most genuine-seeming. Her being Sting’s daughter figures into nothing. If the article were about nepotism or entitlement or the way the sex our parents have really ruins everything for everyone involved in and out of the bedroom ... then I’d be all for it ... but that’s not the damn article I was told write. I’m talking about doing something new in the shadow of everything great and old ... I just don’t want it to be bitter. I want it to be self-loathing and hateful. It’s true. Mum and the Tantric Maestro’s Marathon Jams sounds like a wonderful picture book, full of lush colors!

Photography: Tetsuharu Kubota at TetsuharuKubota.com.

Stylist: Masayo Kishi at MasayoKishi.com.

Hair: Yoichi Tomizawa for Art-Dept.com.

Makeup: Aya Komatsu for Defactoinc.com using YSL Beauty.

Location: Acme Studios at AcmeBrooklyn.com.

Styling Assistant: George Quito and Sasha Dibeneditto.

Beauty Notes: Photo finish Foundation Primer and Photo Finish Hydrating Under Eye Primer by Smashbox Cosmetics, Perfect Touch Radiant Brush Foundation Gold Beige and Pure Chromatics Wet and Dry Eye Shadow Palette in No. 1 by YSL Beauty, and Twin Set Cherie Bow in Grey Sigh and Rouge Nude in Grège by Dior Beauty.