BWW Interviews: MOTHERLAND Author (& Broadway Fan) Amy Sohn

By: Aug. 30, 2012

Amy Sohn is the author of the novels Prospect Park West, My Old Man and Run Catch Kiss and has also written for The New York Times, Elle, The Nation and Harper's Bazaar. The author, who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, has written television pilots for such networks as HBO, Fox, and ABC. 

In her latest novel, Motherland, Sohn introduces readers to five mothers and fathers who find themselves adrift professionally and personally. Among them is Melora Leigh, a former A-list actress who is starring in a Broadway revival of 'Fifth of July' with Jon Hamm and Blythe Danner. Sohn enjoys mixing fact and fiction in her novel, including a passage which reads: "Page Six had run an item on Melora...and it had been picked up by" The shout-out to our site prompted us to chat with this talented author and find out how her passion for theater influences her creative process. 

I have to start off by asking, is the character of Melora based on anyone we may know?

I get that question alot! Melora is a combination of many actresses of a certain age. You can say she's Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Connelly and Sienna Miller all rolled together. And I do not know any of those people personally.

To the extent that I was thinking about them, it was really mainly in terms of their career trajectory. I liked the idea that Melora had started out as a child actor and had a lot of success in Hollywood early on, but had also done a lot of theater. I didn't want her to be the typical film actress who's never done theater and then suddenly decides to. I probably was thinking a little about a Jodi Foster, but none of those woman actually did a lot of New York theater starting out. So in that sense, Melora is an invention.

I wanted to play around with the idea she was returning to the stage, and she actually had some experience on the stage, and yet a lot of people were gunning for her to fail. She felt that she wasn't getting the respect that she deserved, given the fact that she wasn't a dilettante in theater. That she actually worked on and off Broadway as a teenager.

So you were really referring to the current trend of Hollywood stars coming into Broadway shows?

Yeah, well there is a current trend for big stars to come on to the stage, and some have a background in theater and some don't. It's like every couple of years, an actress tries to do this and people come at it with so many different expectations. The producers need them to get people into the theater and then there's the fans who are more movie fans, some of them going to the theater for the very first time in their lives just to see this person, and then the diehard New York theater people, a lot of them feel like it’s unfair, like they’re taking roles away from hard working but lesser known theater actors. Even though they must understand on some level that Broadway needs celebrities in order to sell tickets.

The character of Melora faces some challenges in her return to Broadway.

Yes. I wanted to create a situation where the character had an extraordinary amount of pressure on her where she was also working alongside other celebrities, which is also common now on Broadway. We’ll see these revivals with two movie stars opposite each other, one may have more experience than the other, like Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd, although he wasn’t quite a movie star when he did 'Three Days of Rain' with her. But just the idea that she was working with other famous people who might be more successful than she was and might be feeling competitive with her. I thought about all the dynamics that go on in putting on a play; what we read about on your site and in the tabloids, about actors fighting, whether or not any of its true, I wanted to have fun with the idea that she was unappreciated by her cast mates, that they felt competitive with her and that…well we won’t give away the ending!

You seem extremely knowledgeable about theater. I'm assuming you are a big fan.

Yes. I’m not able to go as often as I’d like but while I was writing this book I saw 'Venus in Fur', which I just loved. I love Broadway. I was listening to Broadway musicals with my parents, and we used to go to Equitable Library Theatre which isn’t there anymore, but was an amazing place where you could see really, really good productions. And I was a child actress.

Really! That's so interesting.

I did off-Broadway and off-off broadway. I had these dark circles under my eyes so I was always a good fit for theater because the roles for children then were much darker, more complex. I was never the right fit for the kid in television commercials, kind of thing. I was in Circle Rep and I worked at La Mama and I would take in a lot of plays when I was a teenager and then I tried acting for about a year after I graduated college. But then my career as a writer took off and I pretty much never looked back.

But there was a period of time when there were some decent roles for child actors, both in the theaters and on the screen, like in the late 70’s.  I’ve always been interested in that Jodi Foster, Kristy McNichol, Cynthia Nixon era of child acting. For some weird reason at that time, there were great dramas coming out with roles for kids in them. You don't tend to see that a lot anymore, it tends to be segmented; a movie for kids and a movie for adults. So I wanted to pay homage to that, that the character had done experimental theater in the 70’s cause it was kind of a rich time.

With your passion and experience in theater, have you ever considered writing a play?

It’s funny you should say that. I really would like to at some point. There’s not enough new plays and I worry that there are so many revivals, where is that next generation of next playwrights? So it’s definitely something I would consider, but at this point, right now I’m writing a novel that has nothing to do with Motherland or Park Slope and I’m focusing on getting that finished so they can publish it next year.

Your novels have been so successful. Has there been any talk of bringing them to the big screen?

There is in fact. Television, movies are both possibilities and there’s been interest expressed in 'Motherland' from both. It’s always nice because it helps sell books, but these projects take so long to come to fruition.

You can tell from the way that I write that I’m a huge movie fan and a huge theater fan. There was a lot of affection, writing about that. Imagining where would they go after rehearsal and how would they get to rehearsal and what kind of gossip items would Melora be reading about herself and how would she be responding to that. We had a lot of fun designing the fictional Michael Riedel column and the Ben Brantley review. The production department really tried to make them look like real New York Post and real New York Times.

So you also incorporate real life reviewers into the fictional story.

Yes, and Brantley is such a fun reviewer to read because he really enjoys his job. I always enjoy reading the review of an opening night on Broadway, good or bad. And it's interesting when the reviewers have to decide how to write about a movie star when they are in a play. Because they don’t want to sound like they have it in for the star. At the same time, they don’t want to use kid gloves. So it’s a delicate dance they have to do. Should they be comparing them to other stage actors? Should they be comparing them to other movie stars who have also appeared on the stage? How hard should they be? How easy should they be? And I think on some level they realize that their reviews of plays with movie stars in them are going to get a lot more attention than 99% of their reviews that they write of plays that don’t involve stars. So they want to have a little fun with it because they know their audience is going to be bigger.

I think they also feel they have this important job, which is to tell everyone, is Nicole good, is Sienna good, is Julia good and should you see her in this play because the tickets are so expensive.

I've noticed that these celebrities that you're speaking of often will comment on how welcoming the Broadway community has been to them. They are never made to feel like an outsider.

And you never know if that’s true! It probably is true to some extent because Broadway realizes they need names, they need marquee names so the key is to find that amazing match, someone like Scarlett Johanson in the Arthur Miller play, where the star really fits the role, as opposed to a casting decision that would get a lot of press and then in the end be a bad match. You know, we’ve all seen examples of that.

Something else that I’ve been thinking about recently is that I’ve been writing books for about fifteen years and I notice more and more Hollywood people are writing books now. And the good thing about it is the books sell millions of copies and they’re really good for the book industry. And the bad thing about it is the rest of us who have been toiling for all these years feel jealous and wonder if the books are actually as good as their sales, whether they’re selling because they’re written by celebrities or whether they’re selling because they’re really good.

So it's a similar situation in both industries.

Yes, it’s very similar to the dynamic between theater actors and movie actors. The theater actors secretly want to be movie stars and the movie stars want the credibility of theater. In some cases the movie actors come to Broadway for family-related reasons, if they’re going to be living in New York they want to work there. A good example of that is Katie Holmes. And in other cases they want to do something new and different, Kim Catrall acting in London. And it’s just funny to me that you have these two sides, wealthy successful people who want artistic credibility and poor artistic people who want commercial credibility and no one’s happy where they are! Everyone wants to switch places.

We are also seeing so many old plays revived so there’s always the question of how to we make it new and fresh, and so much of that has to do with casting.

Is that why you chose to use Lanford Wilson's 'Fifth of July' as the play in which Melora stars in?

I knew Lanford Wilson a little bit because I was involved with Circle Rep. So I wanted to pay homage to him. And I had seen the production of 'Fifth of July' at the Signature Theater, which I really enjoyed. But then after re-reading it while I was writing this novel, I also came to appreciate the era that he was writing about. A lot of the themes in Motherland are very dark themes of people having mid-life crisis and he, in a totally different way, was really writing about the same thing in that play. He’s writing about characters who are wondering what became of their dreams, even though he’s not writing about children and young people the way that I am.

So I thought it was a good play to use, and it’s also an ensemble drama and my novel is an ensemble drama. It had to be a play that I liked because it was going to be something I read a lot.

I think I first saw 'Fifth of July' in a local theater in Brooklyn when I was about eight. My father is an avid theater-goer so he would take me to see plays that he wanted to see. And some were appropriate and some weren’t...but it made me fall in love with the theater. And I think  one of the great things about growing up in New York City is that you can have access to those kinds of experiences. Of course now, as the mother of a 7-year-old, she’s much more spoiled in the sense that there are so many offerings for children, with plays that can be enjoyed by parents and children equally. You’re not sitting there rolling your eyes like you might at the live version of 'Blue’s Clues.'

So what's next for you? Will you continue to write about whatever phase of life you are currently experiencing?

The next book is very different from this one and it’s much more of a departure. It’s not about parents and almost none of it is set in New York City and that’s pretty much all I can say about it. But I’m really excited because I’ve written somewhat autobiographical books and I feel like I’m ready to take those themes and explore them in different arenas that won’t seem so autobiographical on the surface. I want to go back to having a little anonymity in my neighborhood and being a normal mom, writing a book that’s not going to involve my friends and neighbors. And the next one that I’m writing definitely is not!

Photo credit: Charles Miller