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August 2021 / People / by Liz Skone James

Exclusive Interview: Sophie Cookson

Sophie Cookson explains how her role in Infinite had both heart and high-octane action, and why it made her ask bigger questions about how we live.

Photography by Aldo Filiberto | Styling by Kate Sinclair | Hair by Paul Donovan | Make up by Liz Pugh

Sophie Cookson is feeling philosophical. “If you were going to revisit the earth, would you live in a hedonistic way, or would you actually try and do some good?” She asks me. “If we could live multiple lives, what would we choose to do? What would our impact on the world be? What decisions would we make? These are things that I think we are all thinking about: concerns like climate change make it feel almost like we are at a melting point.” 

It is certainly not how I expected to begin the interview, but the subject is raised during a conversation about her latest project, an Antoine Fuqua action thriller for Paramount Studios called Infinite (the story has been adapted from Eric Marikranz’s book The Reincarnationist Papers by Ian Shorr). Mark Wahlberg plays the lead, Evan, a man who, struggling with his identity and his demons, becomes embroiled in the world of Cognomina, a secret society of people who possess total recall of their past lives.Sophie plays opposite him as Nora, the group’s leader. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rupert Friend and Dylan O’Brien also star. “I have always loved Fuqua’s films,” she tells me. “And to get to work with Mark… and even though I have no scenes with Chiwetel, that was really exciting, too. There were lots of pinch-me moments.” 

“The thing that really drew me to it, though, is that it has a lot of heart,” she explains. “It deals with grief and loss. My character, Nora, has had to deal with living through multiple lives, realising who she is over and over again. So, she is having to deal with constant loss, and head a tribe, which makes her a very three-dimensional, rounded woman – I don’t think you often get those characters in that kind of genre.”

Sophie wears: dress (vivetta.com) and shoes (paulandjoe.com) 

The film may have heart, but it has plenty of action, too, which was a new experience for Sophie. “I trained so hard,” she recalls. “I think that there is an assumption that when you do a film like this, you have four months training. It was very much not like that! I think I had about three weeks before we started shooting, so it was very rigorous. And doing lots of martial arts, weight training and weapon training – so, I was really thrown in at the deep end, but I loved it so much. And I had amazing stunt doubles as well, who were really supportive and taught me lots. And the stunt coordinator was also a woman, which really helped, because I had never been in that kind of environment before. It was so nice to have a really female centric team in what could have been quite a masculine environment.”

Has it spawned a new hobby? “Not necessarily the martial arts,” Sophie laughs, “that could definitely do with some improvement! But it has given me a sort of ethic around working out and looking after myself. It has been quite an inspiring fitness journey, which has been really nice, because I think I have a slightly love/hate relationship with it normally.”

Work on the film was finished at the end of 2019: “a lifetime ago,” Sophie remarks. Since then, there have been obvious delays getting it into cinemas. “I think we have definitely had Covid issues – as has everyone in the film industry,” she explains. “And I think it is an interesting thing, when you have a deadline, you work towards that, and deadlines keep getting pushed, and I think when that happens, there can potentially be overthinking. And it is hard, everyone really struggled. But I’m just happy that it is out now, and that people are going to get to see it.”

Sophie wears: dress (vivetta.com) and shoes (paulandjoe.com) 

Sophie won’t be among the audience, though. Watching her work is “far too anxiety-inducing,” she admits. The one exception to that being The Trial of Christine Keeler. Sophie played the lead role in the BBC’s 2019 Profumo affair dramatisation – the story of 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who found herself at the heart of a political sex scandal that rocked the government in the 1960s. “That, I really enjoyed watching back,” she reveals. “I think because it was a real passion project. I felt very protective of it and what we had created, so that, I really did want to watch back.”

Written by BAFTA award-winning novelist and screenwriter Amanda Coe and directed by Andrea Harkin, both the six-part series, and Sophie’s role in it were critically acclaimed, so it is no surprise that she is proud of the project. “That felt like a really important moment,” she says. “Amanda had written the most sublime script, and it was one of those jobs where it just felt really important to tell the story. I think that’s when acting can be really exciting. You know, I was able to vindicate Christine, and I felt like I was really flying the flag for her. So, for me, that was a really important job, and I was involved in the script process, and had a really great relationship with all of the people that I worked with. But it was exhausting as well – I was in all day, every day doing these incredibly heart wrenching scenes, so it was a good exercise in stamina. And, as well, leading a show for the first time.”

The series was certainly a high point, though Sophie’s star was already on its ascent. Fresh out of drama school, she beat hundreds of other hopefuls to win the female lead opposite Taron Egerton in Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service. I ask how the role came about and Sophie recalls putting together a self-tape while working away from home on another project. “I remember filming it in a really dark Dublin hotel room, on a really wonky camera, and I remember thinking that it was one of those tapes you get that you are never going to hear anything about,” she tells me. “And then I got called back in. And I kept getting called back in, and eventually I met Matthew and did a chemistry read with Taron, and the whole thing is absolutely dreamlike when I think about it. I was so, so, so lucky. It was really, right time, right place. It just felt like this beautiful serendipity. And it was really thrilling, but incredibly daunting. I think it helped that I had never been on a large-scale film set like that before, so I didn’t know what to expect, and I just took it as it came. Looking back on it now, it is definitely slightly blurry,” she laughs. 

Sophie wears: dress (ssone.com), necklace (alighieri.co.uk) and shoes (malonesouliers.com) 

Sophie tells me that she will be forever grateful for that rare opportunity; it saw her named as a Screen International Star of Tomorrow and has undoubtedly opened doors for her in the industry since. “I think working with Matthew off the bat, straight out of drama school was amazing, because he is so good at championing unknown talent. And he is very supportive, he has helped me a few times since, so I feel very lucky to have that backing,” she says.

Consequently, with each carefully chosen role, Sophie has continued to establish herself as an international acting talent to watch. But, like many in her industry, she hasn’t worked much recently – though in Sophie’s case, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the pandemic. “I’ve been pregnant, and I have had a baby. Which is work, I have to say. It made actual work seem like a breeze,” she laughs. “I am just about to start work next week, and I am chomping at the bit to do so. Having a baby is the most beautiful, rewarding experience, but I think you just miss that facet of your personality. I think women sometimes feel guilt or shame around wanting to get back to work, and stepping away from being a full-time mum, and I think that is definitely something I will experience. I am sure there will be moments when I think, God, I wish I was with my child. But working is a fundamental part of my personality, and something that I love doing, and I have really, really missed it. I am so nervous, but so excited,” she reveals. 

Those emotions encompass so much more than simply feeling a little rusty: Covid has changed the world since Sophie has been on maternity leave, and she is prepared for things to be a little different on set. “There are lots of hoops to jump through before you even get to the studio,” she reveals. “Which is good, because I think that we are far from out of the woods where that is concerned. I’m sure that it will be a slightly different experience, but the industry was halted for so long that people will do anything to keep it going.”

Sophie wears: dress (simonerocha.com) and shoes (paulandjoe.com) 

It is a discussion that leads us to the extended theatre closures; Sophie is, understandably, thrilled that things are now opening up. “I am going for the first time on Friday, and I am so excited; I can’t quite imagine what it is going to be like,” she grins. “It’s called Hymn, and it is at The Almeida, with Adrian Lester, and I know nothing about it, which I am really excited about! I love going to see something, not reading anything about it, and just turning up with a totally blank canvas.” 

While being in the audience will do for now, she is waiting for the right opportunity to get back on stage herself. In 2018 she made her stage debut in Killer Joe, playing opposite Orlando Bloom in the West End revival of the blackly comic thriller, which focuses on a family who hatch a get-rich-quick scheme to murder their estranged mother for insurance money. “When I was doing it I was just bouncing off the walls the whole time with adrenaline,” she recalls. “It is energy depleting, but also gives you an incredible buzz – that strange magic that happens in the air between the audience and the performer. It is intangible. Yes, magic, and I love it.”

Though the skillset is fundamentally the same, the experience of theatre is very different to film, Sophie explains. “I love that solidarity that comes from theatre. For example, on Infinite, I passed Chiwetel in the corridor, whereas if we were doing Infinite the Musical or something,” she laughs, “we would have all had time together, and we would’ve got to share the weight of the story and discuss what we thought it was about. And I think that is a very exciting thing – being in a rehearsal room.”

Aside from getting back to work, I wonder what else she is excited for as the world reopens. “Gosh, aren’t we all excited for everything?” She exclaims. “It is the longest time I have ever been in one place; I think. I had a week in Cornwall last week, which was absolute bliss.” Of course, being in one place is tolerable when that place just happens to be on the doorstep of Hampstead Heath. “I love being near the Heath, I find it incredibly freeing,” she tells me. “I am fortunate in that I am not too long a stroll away from it. Going up there first thing in the morning when it is really foggy, and the city is just emerging through the clouds, I love that. And I love that you really feel the weather there – living in a city, you can be quite sheltered and protected from the elements, whereas the Heath feels very raw. I grew up in the countryside, and I think I probably am a country girl at heart, but on the Heath, if you just squint your eyes, you can imagine you are in a nice meadow somewhere. It is gorgeous. I love it on a windy day like today, because it just has such personality. I feel like I know every blade of grass on the Heath after the pandemic, but I still absolutely adore it.” Perhaps the perfect spot to sit and reflect on what it is to be human?   

Infinite will be released in cinemas this month

Sophie wears: dress (lanvin.com), coat (tods.com), boots (jimmychoo.com) and necklace (alighieri.co.uk)