"It's important to be creatively fulfilled outside of your auditions. So create... whatever that means to you. Do what fills you up. And don't let the professional work have so much power."
About Sonja Bennett – actor and writer
Sonja starred in her first major film role in the Canadian feature film PUNCH. For her performance she was awarded Best Actress by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle and received a special Artistic Merit Award from Women in Film and Video.
After the success of PUNCH, Sonja was cast in series lead roles on such shows as Cold Squad and Godiva’s (both of which earned her Leo and Gemini nominations), as well as roles in numerous features including CONTROL ALT DELETE directed by Cameron Labine; ELEGY in which she appeared opposite Dennis Hopper and Ben Kingsley; WHERE THE TRUTH LIES directed by Atom Egoyan; and FIDO in which she acted opposite Billy Connolly and Tim Blake Nelson. She also had starring roles in FATHERS AND SONS; CATCH AND RELEASE (in which she appeared opposite Jennifer Garner, Timothy Olyphant, and Kevin Smith); DONOVAN’S ECHO (opposite Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood); IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER (Leo nomination); RANDOM ACTS OF ROMANCE (Leo nomination), COLE (for which she received both a Genie and a Leo nomination); and YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING, for which she won the Vancouver Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actress.
In 2010, Sonja decided to apply some of what she learned from ten years making films in front of the camera to and took up screenwriting. Her first screenplay, CHRISTMAS IS FOR CATS, was awarded an honorable mention in the Praxis feature film screenplay competition. PREGGOLAND, Sonja’s second script was supported by Movie Central,Telefilm Canada and was selected for the Telefilm/CFC Comedy Exchange. The film wrapped production in April 2014 with James Caan and Danny Trejo in lead roles opposite Sonja. Preggoland premiered as a special presentation at TIFF, was awarded “most popular film” at VIFF, was nominated for the best BC film by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and won “best screenplay at the Fargo film festival.
1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
I need to be creating things to be happy, and I actually didn’t know that about myself until I stopped acting. I took a little break for a few years without really realizing the connection. During that break, I started picking up all of these hobbies. All of a sudden I started cooking, and every meal was like a new invention. I was trying to fill that void.
One of the reasons that I set out to write a film was because when I got into my thirties, being an actress became a lot harder. There was less to audition for, the roles were less exciting, and also fewer and far between. There were bigger gaps in those times when I wasn’t acting, and I’d get down. That void would be there again. Writing was something that I could do on my schedule, and that filled the creative void.
What I know now about myself is that I need to keep creating. It’s what fills me, makes me a happier person, and a better wife and mother.
How long did it take you to write Preggoland?
I came up with the concept for Preggoland – which is about a woman who fakes being pregnant to fit in with her friend – when I was actually pregnant with my first, who is now 5. So, it’s been 5 years since I started writing it, but 4 years since we started shooting.
So how did you keep yourself motivated during that time? How did you keep the momentum going for yourself?
I’m a very A type personality (which has also been a struggle for me as an actor, because that’s not what the lifestyle is…the 9-5 in some ways really suits me), so I’d set deadlines for myself. I didn’t even tell them to anyone else, but I took them oddly seriously. I can even forget that they are arbitrary and that I’ve set them for myself. On my calendar I see the word ‘DEADLINE’, and I still feel the panic of the deadline even though no one is waiting for it.
I’ve also had several people help me along this journey. My good friend Katherine Collins – who is a very talented television writer – has helped me a lot in this process of becoming a writer. She’d read my treatments and work. I’d tell her a date when I was going to send something to her to read, and I’d follow through… even though she wasn’t even waiting for it either.
Also, I have to say that having kids has actually made it easier. Before I had kids I did a bit of writing, and it’d be like ‘oh I have nothing to do today… I’m going to write.’ And it’d go on and on all day. It’d be 2, and I’d have done nothing. But when you have kids. It’s like ‘oh they’re having a nap. They’ll be up in about 90 minutes. Now go.’ You get a lot more accomplished in short bursts.
2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
Right before I stopped acting (or stopped auditioning) – and I just started again a few months ago – I was slogging it out (this was 3 or 4 years ago). I was being very proactive (as I always am), and I was auditioning a lot… but despite all this output, I had zero input. I was starting to get bitter. I was starting to feel jealous in a way that I hadn’t really experienced before.
I love actresses. I like other women that are open, and emotional, and vibrant. And I like going to auditions and seeing other women. I find that people – especially in Vancouver – are all genuinely excited to see each other. It doesn’t feel competitive because we all know someone is going to get it and there’s no point in disliking each other because of that.
But I could feel envy, jealousy and negative thoughts creeping in. I also started to really hate myself. I’d be looking in the mirror and thinking “ugh, I’m ugly.” But when I was pregnant and not auditioning, I would look in the mirror and think I looked great. I wasn’t obsessing.
My son who was 2 at the time when this happened – he was just learning to talk. I had an audition at 5pm, and were were up at 6am having breakfast. I was already feeling anxiety about the audition, even though it was like 11 hours away.
He looked at me and he said ‘mama’s sad. Mama has audition.’
I wasn’t looking at lines or anything, but he knew. And I thought ‘Oh, wow. He’s 2 and he’s completely picked up on the fact that I am feeling bad.’ I realized that I was completely faking it in my effort to be present with him, and he knew it too.
That was the nail in the coffin.
I thought ‘I’m not going to do this anymore. And I’m not going to come back until it’s fun and it feels like excitement not fear. Like it used to when I started in my early twenties.
So that’s what I did. It took almost three years, but I didn’t want to turn into an ugly person.
Do you think what he was picking up on was that you had given up on the audition before you’d even had it?
Yeah, absolutely. I remember one of the first notes I got in Theatre School. I was 19 and I was so scared of being kicked out. I just wanted to be there. They told me ‘we have a note for you and it’s a very big note.’
I was expecting it to be something about my acting technique, but what they said instead was ‘when you go up there, you have to say YES! With your whole being, and you’re kind of saying no.’ They said it looked like I didn’t want to be there; like being on stage was something I just had to get through, instead of actually enjoying it.
I think that was right. The day of that audition, I was just thinking ‘how many hours until the audition is done?’ Instead of (with excitement) ‘How many hours until my audition!”
Yeah, I think in some ways, with my attitude, I was shooting myself in the foot.
3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
I am happy. Well, I don’t know what the definition of happiness is,but for me it’s when I wake up and I’m excited to live and experience the day. And when I see the joy in what’s around me. That’s how I know that I’m happy. And I am happy right now.
4. What do you think is your greatest strength?
One way to put it would be work ethic – which doesn’t sound very romantic. My ability to self-motivate. I also don’t need the external world to fill me, or make me happy, or give me external validation anymore. It’s all wonderful, but I’m pretty happy motivating, criticizing, and inspiring myself. And I think not having to rely heavily on external validation has really helped me to not give up on things. I have my own barometer for what has value. I have a pretty strong bullshit detector inside of myself.
On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
I have strong work ethic and I’m very good at efforting, and pushing things, and driving things. But what I struggle with is stillness, reflection, and letting things come in. And all of that is so important for art.
I do yoga occasionally. Not long ago I was talking to my husband. I told him I was running late, and that I’d left class before savasana. He thought that was the best pose, and I thought it was the worst one. He said ‘You do the whole class so that you can get the reward of savasana’, and I said ‘no, savasana is torture. It’s at the end because it’s the hardest pose.’
My whole body is twitching when I try to lay still… but I think I will be a better actress and a better writer when I can access my softness a little more readily and easily.
So what would you have to do to make that happen? What are the steps that you would have to take?
I think it’s about being present. I mean, I don’t have the answers… but my guess is that it’s about practice.
I am present when I’m acting.
When I was shooting Preggoland and working, being present every single day – that first week – was exhausting. But then I started to become more comfortable just being there; listening and reacting and being in the moment. And because I was so busy – I was in every single scene and was sometimes even rewriting scenes that weren’t working – I didn’t have time to hyper focus on my ‘big scene’, which is what I’d normally have done. I just had to do every day, scene by scene. The more I did it the easier it became.
So I think I just have to practice being present.
5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
I think this is probably the wrong thing to say, but it’s the truth. It’s not very artistic.
We did this thing when I was in grade 7 – because my high school was grade 8 to 12 – where we’d get a grade 8s timetable and we had to pretend we were in high school for one day. You’d go to whatever classes they were enrolled in like a practice.
The grade 8’s timetable that I got was enrolled in drama. So I had drama on that day. In class we did some sort of improv thing, and at the end of the class the drama instructor was like ‘you, you’re very good. You should take drama. You could be a good little actress.’ And that little pat on the head was like ‘okay!’ With that positive enforcement, I thought, ‘okay! If I’m good at it I shall do it’.
I wish it was something that came out of me in a more organic way.
But we all have different starts. That moment obviously grew into something more, because you’re still doing it.
Of course. There’s lots of things I love about this industry. I love that being vulnerable makes us better at what we do. I think that’s so cool, and so unlike every other job in the world. I also love that my job requires me to connect with people. I love telling stories. And I’m also an adrenaline junky. I think there’s something addictive in the ‘who knows what’s coming next’ part of being an actress. t feels like a lottery sometimes, and that’s really addictive to me.
6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
I write every single day. Sometimes its only for 20 minutes, but I write ever single day. With the odd exception.
Say my family and I go on vacation for 4 days… I find it so hard to pick it back up after a break. I’ve learned to keep the muscle always moving. If you’re an actor, that means consistently training. Keep those muscles working… and not always because you have an audition, a deadline, or a goal. Sometimes for joy.
7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
This is an interesting one, because I’m not totally sorted on this.
When I was acting and in my sort of bad place, I was reaching out a lot to my husband, friends, and parents.
‘Tell me it’s going to be okay.’
‘Tell me I’m good.’
In career 2.0, I’m experimenting with not doing that.
I’m not giving my doubts so much energy and air time. Instead of trying to change the fact that I’m feeling insecure and having doubts, I’ve made the decision to not change it and just move forward. I allow myself to feel doubt, insecurity, or uncertainty… and I keep doing what I’m doing.
So, we’ll see how that works, but I’m finding it freeing to go ‘I can not feel the greatest and still do my work.’ It doesn’t need to stop everything. And maybe not giving it so much power by making it something that needs to be dealt with it… maybe it’s just part of it.
Sometimes you’ll feel sexy and sometimes you’ll feel ugly. All that stuff is happening, but you can still move forward, tell stories, and create things no matter how you’re feeling.
8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
Openness in every way.
Finding the joy in what you’re doing. I think, is a big one.
People want to be around people that are having a good time. That’s something that I learned from being on the other side, and being in the casting room for Preggoland. I realized, by watching actors come in, how much it made a difference when a person was genuinely happy to be there. Happiness is kind of contagious.
And then there’s being disciplined, doing your homework, and exercising your muscles. But I think that love and the joy take the driver’s seat. And the more I do this, the more I’m realizing that.
9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
Create your own work. I was just talking to someone about this recently. Obviously there’s the more tangible thing of ‘I wrote this movie, so I’d have a vehicle for myself to hopefully push my career forward.’ But on a different level, I really did create something that was for myself before it was for anyone else. I did it because it made me feel full and happy.
It’s important to be creatively fulfilled outside of your auditions.
So create… whatever that means to you. Do what fills you up. And don’t let the professional work have so much power.
10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money? This is a less specific question, but I’m just curious about your thoughts on the topic. Has your relationship to money changed over the years?
Because I’m very practical, what I have always done – and my husband is sort of the same as me, which is good because we do this together – is create a life that can be maintained with a minimum wage job should everything fall out from under us. Like, we rent out the basement suite of our because we want the mortgage payments to be low.
This is just an attempt to keep the panic at bay, and not be so financially desperate on the jobs. We may have taken this overboard (we don’t go on a lot of vacations), but it’s a way that we can feel safe. What happens if we lose everything tomorrow? Can I go and get a job at a coffee shop, and then can we keep everything we have. And the answer for us is pretty much yes.
We probably could have more fun, but I have a very frugal relationship with money.
11. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
I just experienced the most flow I ever have as an actor (I experience flow as a writer more easily).
In February I was doing a play that I cowrote called ‘Motherload.’ It did it with three other actresses, but I was largely responsible for my own material. We each told our own stories, and then we interwove them.
One of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, but had been too scared to do, was standup. I’m not really a comedian, but I’d fantasize about being a comic. So while I’m writing this play, I decide that I’m going to live out my dream, and I wrote myself some standup.
I was terrified.
The first few nights (it was a 3 week run, doing 8 shows a week), it bombed. I thought ‘why? Why? Why?’ And I started watching lots of Louie CK, and Chris Rock. They’re in these huge spaces, and they’re talking to 1000s to people, but they’re really in conversation.
Even though it made me more scared, I decided to really dare myself to be in conversation with the audience. And it was scary, because sometimes the audience was yawning, and sometimes they were frowning and didn’t like what I had to say and found it offensive. It was riskier, but when I did it… I found flow.
I also know that I became a better actor throughout that run, and I know that’s where I need to go.
I haven’t totally verbalized what that is, but I think it’s about being present, and it’s about really being in conversation. I need to continue letting go of my preconceived notions of the way that something should play out.
12. What are your favourite books?
The book that influenced me the most was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
I was doing some of the things already, but the thing in that book that hit me the most was the idea of ‘sorry, I’m a professional and I don’t wait for inspiration to hit. I sit down at 9am and inspiration is hitting.’ That book really helped me to take the preciousness out of creating art. It helped me to think of it as a job.
And then as a writer, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder has really helped me. I’m writing my third feature and I’m still referencing it. It’s simple. And I found it very very helpful.
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