July 24, 2013
The young blonde woman smiles at me. I look down — I’m waiting for someone with dark hair. Except she has it right. In the movie Frances Ha, which traces the tender though fractured friendship between two best friends, Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner), Sumner is brunette and plays a young professional. It’s a quiet, tender film, shot in black and white by the indie darling Noah Baumbach, which includes unexpectedly thrilling scenes with Frances, a drifter, dancing and running through the streets of New York.
Today, Sumner’s hair is restored to its natural colour and she is wearing a summer dress. “No-one recognises me,” she says, adding that she didn’t know Gerwig before making the movie and now the two are close friends. Sumner, the daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler, has lived in New York for nine years and her English accent has little American kinks: “water” becomes “warder”. “I feel bad saying it, but I don’t miss England,” the 29-year-old actress says. If she gets homesick, Sumner buys a Curly Wurly from the English food shop Myers of Keswick. She’s funny, modest, a little nervous: if you thought rock star kids had innately brattish DNA, Sumner charmingly disproves the stereotype.
Each scene of Frances Ha took from 40 to 70 takes, Sumner says. “I freaked out at the beginning, thought I was f***ing every scene up, but that’s how Noah works. By the end, if we weren’t doing 30 takes I wondered what I was doing wrong.” A friend told her she was “dangerous” as a brunette: “People responded to me differently. I thought, ‘I like this.’”
For Sumner, as for Sophie, female friendship was once a vexing experience. As a teenager at Marlborough College, Sumner says she felt “a little bit separate and nervous” of the other girls. “I was nervous of being left; if I got into a clique there felt more chance of being abandoned. I had friends but I kept a distance.”
About three years ago she gained a “core group” of female friends. “Up to that point I never felt I could really trust women. I don’t think I was aware anything was lacking until my therapist asked me if I had any good female friends. The jealousy, competition and bitchiness between women had always scared me. Now I couldn’t live without my female friends.”
Growing up in Wiltshire, Sumner — christened Bridget Michael, shortened to Mickey, “which gave me an edge” — was “super-shy, terrified of being told off. I hated doing anything wrong. I was a goodie-goodie.” Come on, you were the daughter of a rock star. “Sadly, I’m really boring. If I didn’t get an A at school I’d get really upset. I didn’t like making waves at all. I just wanted to be allowed to get on. The only way not to be told off was not to do anything wrong.”
As parents to her and her three siblings (as well as two step-siblings from Sting’s first marriage), Sting and Styler were strict about manners. “We were brought up to be polite to people, thank God — I think that’s so important. My parents instilled in us the importance of work. They didn’t grow up wealth, they worked for everything they had. My dad to this day talks about how important work is. He takes so much pleasure from it and mum does too. If I’m not working I’m not happy.”
As a girl backstage at her father’s concerts, Sumner knew “I wanted to be up there performing”. Styler is “a force of nature, being a mother, wife and doing 30,000 things all really well”. Sumner says she grew up with a “very sensitive bullshit meter”, aware if people were cosying up to her because of her dad. “I never told people who my parents were. It was my idea of hell. At one school I told everyone he was a lawyer. I didn’t want to be separate. I wanted to be like everyone else, I wanted people to see me. I still struggle with it. It’s fine, it’s part of who I am.” But because Sumner’s father is not known popularly by his surname, “it’s nice not to be known as ‘the daughter of’. I haven’t found it’s opened many doors and, even if it had, you still have to be good.”
She describes her parents as “very proud and supportive”. They told her from a young age never to believe anything she read in the press. “I learnt not to Google my parents and to never Google myself. My parents were hugely protective of our images. I remember my mum chasing away a paparazzo. If we saw one it was the only time we were allowed to flick the finger. I think taking pictures of five-year-old kids is deeply upsetting, exploitative and should be against the law.”
So she wasn’t embarrassed when her dad revealed his love of tantric sex? “No, because it was massively blown out of proportion. It was a joke, which became the biggest, stupidest story everyone became obsessed with. I definitely wasn’t embarrassed, but it wasn’t something we discussed around the dinner table.”
Sumner says she wanted to get up on stage when, aged 6, she saw a production of The Wizard of Oz. As a teenager, Sumner worked as an intern on the movie adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, “longing to be fitted” into a costume but embarrassed about her desire to act.She has always drawn and painted, and was set to study history of art but, after volunteering in an Aids hospice in Thailand — “I wanted to save the world but I was definitely in over my head” — went to study art in Paris and New York. Here the confidence of her fellow students pursuing their dreams inspired her to begin acting. She has done short films and had a part in the TV series The Borgias. After Frances Ha she is about to appear in a major drama series,Low Winter Sun, playing Mark Strong’s love interest. She will also appear in a cameo as Patti Smith in Randall Miller’s film CBGB, about the legendary New York rock venue. “She’s an icon to so many, I cannot f*** this up,” says Sumner. She says she sent Smith “a 2012 version of a love letter, ” but has heard nothing back.
Sumner has been in therapy since she was 16. “I’m fascinated by the ways I behave and think. The idea of the ‘tortured artist’ never helped me. In the past I suffered with depression that sort of paralysed me. It didn’t aid my creativity, it didn’t make me a better actress. I just got into these dark places. I’m not ashamed of having therapy. If it helps, f*** it, do it. It’s good to improve on yourself.”
She is currently single, but would like children and a partner “to grow with me”. She would love to work with Woody Allen and the Coenbrothers, do a “big play”, such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (“not a musical”) on Broadway and — she smiles — “be an action hero. I feel I’d be really good running around, kicking ass”.
Until then, she says, “I want to work on different projects, challenging myself.” In the fickle world of Hollywood she’s been told she has an “interesting” face — she says this grimacing, although she is beautiful by any definition. She says something about her “prominent” nose, which seems a regular nose to me. How does she feel about plastic surgery? “F*** no,” Sumner says. “I can’t think of anything worse than a surgeon touching your face, or Botox. How can you act if you can’t emote?” She says she imagined turning 30 married with two children, “and I’m so glad not to be married with two children”.
I ask what her top pop star encounter was growing up, imagining Bob Geldof growling bedtime stories or her playing Monopoly with Prince. But no, it was meeting Erasure in Majorca. “They’d been onTop of the Pops, which was my favourite show ever. I was always surprised by how grounded these big stars were. My dad is the same, he’s a totally normal, sweet human being.”
Sumner acknowledges the irony of being wary of fame, “yet I’m stepping into a profession where I get attention. For me, fame is a by-product.” Her parents still tell her to work hard. “They love what they do. That’s been my real inspiration: if you want something you must strive for it.” It’s all very un-rock-starry, and in the best possible way.