The Wylde Interview: Sophie Cookson




When you meet an actor whose star is rising, who is being hailed as The Next Big Thing, it often goes one of two ways.

The first is that you are presented with an interviewee who is a gamble. They are either a beguiling genius or mad as a snake — you can’t decide — and are as likely to self destruct from their own hype as amount to a serious acting talent.

The second is that you meet someone like Sophie Cookson, a dead cert. This is a budding actor so sane, so self-assured, so unflinchingly focused that there is no doubt in your mind; this person has to be The Next Big Thing.

It helps, of course, that Cookson was convinced of this long ago. As a child growing up in Sussex, she wanted to play at being everything — architect, vet, chef. But she sensed that acting was her true calling. “I always thought I would regret not trying for what might have been if I didn’t go to drama school,” she explains. Smart move. Before she could even graduate from the Oxford School of Drama, Cookson had landed the role of Roxy in Matthew Vaughn’s graphic novel adaptation Kingsman: The Secret Service, swapping flinging her mortar board for honing her craft alongside Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

“The moment I got the part was overwhelming, and it got even crazier during the premier and tour,” says Cookson. “I kept wondering how is this happening? When is it going to stop?” But Cookson’s feet are still firmly on the ground — she shows no affectations. Her conversation is measured, insights intelligent and her choices confident. Yet all the while, hers is the kind of self-assurance that is warm rather than remote; she makes you feel at ease. She quips that, in fact, at drama school the idea of doing a blockbuster movie doesn’t even enter your head. “Quite the opposite… we were prepared for the fact that we might never work — that all of this might never lead to anything!”

Clearly, that lesson didn’t apply to Cookson. The equation of her talent minus fame is precisely why Vaughn chose her (Cookson allegedly beat Emma Watson and Bella Heathcote to the role of Roxy). “Matthew is always very keen to cast new people so that the audience doesn’t have a preconceived idea of who they are,” she explains. “So that when they come on screen we don’t have assumptions about where their character’s journey is going to go.”

So how has life changed for Cookson since Kingsman? “Being in the film hasn’t affected my daily life in any way whatsoever — it’s been a lot easier than I thought — no one recognises me!” Being able to revert to life as usual has probably been an additional lucky break for Cookson; such a stratospheric rise from drama school student to fully fledged movie actor could otherwise be overwhelming, especially for someone who — I hazard — is fairly private. During our interview, while Cookson is engaged, interesting and willing to chat, she is also firmly in control — this is someone who doesn’t want to give too much away. Does the prospect of fame worry her? “It’s a bit of a scary thought. If your life is intruded upon on a daily basis and you can’t function as you’d like, then it’s really damaging. I suppose I’d just have to compartmentalise things.”

In other ways, Kingsman has been immediately life-changing, opening up doors in Cookson’s career. Most recently, she has just finished shooting Huntsman, in which she stars with Chris Hemsworth and Emily Blunt. This is a prequel (of sorts) to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, in which the fates of the Eric and Ravenna are intersected before they met Snow White.

And almost simultaneously, Cookson has been working on Lee Tamahori’s Emperor, scheduled for release next year. She stars alongside Adrien Brody and Bill Skarsgård to play the lead role of Johanna of Ghent, a young woman who infiltrates the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to avenge the death of her father. “It’s a massive change — having that sort of responsibility! It’s a huge journey. You’re the first one on set with the director in the morning, and the last one to go home at night. I definitely reached a point where we were four weeks in and I was feeling exhausted; but that’s also what you thrive on — constantly pushing yourself.” 

Cookson explains that this — to push herself to her limits — is her main career goal. “I’d love to always be taking on something different and testing myself, whether that is a new genre, or working with a director who has a completely different approach, or an entirely unexpected character. I think there always has to be something new that drives you in your work.” 

Does that mean she wouldn’t consider revisiting a high-octane action movie like Kingsman? “I’d definitely do something like that again. Kingsman was an amazing film — it taught me that although I thought I had limits, I’m actually capable of much more.” By this Cookson is particularly referring to the fact that she did her own stunts, which is something she wouldn’t necessarily have thought herself able to do before taking on the role. It helped that she was encouraged by Vaughn. “I felt lucky that Matthew had trusted me with the part, and that in itself gave me confidence,” says Cookson.

So what would be her ultimate limit-pusher? “At the moment I think there’s a trend for very strong female characters. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — I think it’s great that we’re seeing these sorts of roles — I feel like I want to play someone incredibly flawed. I think if, as an actor, you can play someone who is internally quite ugly but you still manage to draw on an audience’s sympathy, it would be such a fulfilling part to play.”

As someone seemingly so diligent and committed to her craft, someone quite serious, is Cookson ever frightened by the prospect of getting lost in one of her roles? Particularly if one day it is that of a damaged anti-heroine. “Sometimes you have to be prepared to go down the rabbit hole; it doesn't frighten me. Drama school taught me a great awareness of self, and it also taught me how to keep an element of control — how not to give everything over to the role; to keep 10% back.” Cookson reckons that when fame strikes, this logic of restraint should also be applied to one’s personal life. “After all, you can’t just walk into your local Budgens going completely crazy, can you?” Indeed not. 

And with this final sentiment Cookson has succinctly wrapped herself up — the utterly sensible yet irresistibly charming (not to mention talented) new face of Hollywood.

Make-up: Caroline Barnes at Frank Agency using Nars
Hair: Ben Cooke at Frank Agency for Lockonego Salon using Pantene
Photographer’s assistants: Tom Griffiths and Michaela Letang
Fashion assistants: Kate Sinclair and Geanie Cussons
Shot on location at The Hotel Café Royal, London