As she is a noted activist, it seemed somewhat fitting that we would speak to Mickey Sumner, one of the stars of the TNT series Snowpiercer, on a morning in which Donald Trump made his now famous “sarcastic” comments about bleach curing COVID-19. Sumner, who plays Brakeman Bess Till on the show, kind of the police force of the Train, took our politically-tinged comments and ran with them. We also hit upon some really interesting subjects and made sure to ask a question about the film Marriage Story, as we had recently re-watched Sumner’s performance as Sophie in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, which holds up incredibly well.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our phone interview with the delightful Mickey Sumner of Snowpiercer.
*This interview was originally published on May 17, 2020*
Brief Take: Today Donald Trump announced that we should either inject or perhaps drink Lysol. What is going on with this planet right now?!
Mickey Sumner: I don’t know. Just give me a train that is BioSealed. I know what to do on a train that is BioSealed and yeah, it goes around the world perpetually. I’m prepared for that. I’m prepared for… [chuckles] other than this, I don’t know.
BT: At an interview at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, you took quite the big bite of an insect protein bar. How was it?
MS: [shocked, thinking we had meant on the series] No! No I didn’t. [having explained it was at SDCC] There is a big difference between those bug bars and the bug bars on the show, which I think that they were, I actually think that they were made out of gummy bears. But the ones that they made for the show, for Comic-Con, they tasted fine. [these contained actual crickets], They tasted, you know, like a granola bar. Yeah, they were fine, the cricket’s good for you, so…
BT: You took an actual bite as well, not one of those small bites either, which was really impressive.
MS: No. No. All in.
BT: How deep did you get into this role? Is that a wig or your actual hair? Did you cut your hair for this role?
MS: Yes! I shaved the two sides of my head off. [laughs] They have grown back a little bit now, and I look like Joe Exotic, which is in fashion right now I think.
BT: The costume too, looks absolutely incredible.
MS: My costume, you know I had to wear that belt that goes over with all of the things on the belt, like my handcuffs and my baton, which I’d like playing with, and I think I have a flashlight and it was really heavy. I actually lost about 15 pounds, from the beginning to the end of shooting season one, because I think that felt so heavy. [laughs]
BT: How much of an immersive experience was filming this series and into season two?
MS: Yeah, it’s been a really long journey. A long, amazing journey. I think that it’s been three years now, working on this project. And on the immersive side, what’s amazing is all the sets are built. I mean apart from outside the windows, there’s no green screen. We’re really in the world and the production design was so beautiful and so detailed and that adds so much richness to acting within these very real environments. And the train moves [chuckles] during every scene and they just did such a beautiful job to really make us feel—us as actors and you as the audience—to make this train feel alive and kicking.
BT: How much do you lean into the metaphor of the show and how important is it for you as an actor to be in a project that is about something?
MS: Well I think that it’s the only thing that is worth it right now. I’m always questioning doing projects that don’t have big ideas behind them. In terms of this project, I was always impressed with the movie, when it came out, because the concept sparked something in my brain and this idea of a sort of linear society in which you have the one per cent in the front and then you have the ‘have nothings’ in the back, who are treated just abominably, and then you have all of the classes that are providing for the lifestyle of the one per cent at front. And there’s so many layers on which this show touches, issues and problems in our society, that I am so excited for the people to see it and to start asking questions. I think that it’s challenging, it challenges your brain, and I think that’s important.
BT: There’s a key scene in which you are levelling up from Third Class to Second Class. What was that scene like for you to film?
MS: We really talked about what it meant to go up another class, and there’s a sense I think for Till of guilt, of leaving behind something which she was a part of, but then you get these privileges, you get dessert [chuckles], with these kind of things that you haven’t had for seven years, and then there’s this responsibility that she can’t fuck up, because then her partner would get in trouble, so all these different layers of how this society would be kept in check and controlled. It’s really fascinating. I think that…I feel like I might talk too much. [laughs] But it was definitely a pivotal moment.
BT: How does playing a Brakeman, who lays down the law, translate to friendlier situations off screen?
MS: I think that this show has something completely unique and it’s a massive, massive ensemble, everyone’s from different countries, different cities and yet there’s this bond that we all have that is incredibly well-placed. I definitely struggled with the days in which my character did things which I didn’t necessarily approve of, especially in the first couple of episodes in which my sort of disdain and hatred for the Tailies is so evident. And yeah, I struggled with this sort of icky feeling at the end of the day and I sort of appreciated then just sort of being able to do the right thing. I’m so happy that my arc gets to do that. But in between every take, there was never any weirdness or awkwardness, there was really a lot of love and support for each other.
BT: What did you want to bring to the forgiving elements of Brakeman Till, who is different in her private life than her law and order public persona?
MS: I think that when we meet Till, my sense was always that she’d lost herself. Her main drive is to be of service, but I think that she is in service to the wrong thing, and it wasn’t until she meets Layton Well (Daveed Diggs) who recognizes the cop in her and the need to be in service. He is really the one that cracks it open for her and turns everything upside down and she has to really reexamine herself and to whom she is in service. I think that there is something very redeeming about that, and that redemption stories are always [chuckles] so satisfying, and I was very happy that Till gets to redeem some of her past behaviour.
BT: While Snowpiercer was at New York Comic Con, it so happened that Marriage Story was the Centrepiece screening at the NYFF. Talk about another story with a gut punch, I cried a few times watching that film.
MS: Yes, I did as well.
BT: Were you actually in the ending of the film, in the cabaret scene? I was looking for you and I couldn’t actually see you in it, I was thinking there may have been a conflict?
MS: The cabaret scene! I think that I had to fly back to L.A. for some reason, before we shot that scene, there was some sort of scheduling thing, but no I wasn’t in that very last scene, but we worked on those ensemble scenes for about two weeks and every single actor in that, even the people that don’t even get in the edit, they are incredible Broadway actors. There were a lot of really, really amazing theatre people, so we felt like it was like a real theatre troupe by the end. [laughs] And led by Wally Shawn and yeah, that was such a treat. I think that I’ve been in almost every Noah Baumbach movie since Frances Ha, as some part of the tapestry. I always say that I am his most loyal background actor.
BT: I was watching that movie again in prep for this interview, and your entrance is being carried into the room, and then I watched your elevator clip after the Golden Globes and you did the same exact entrance, was that by….
MS: Yes! Look at you, you spotted it. It was an homage to Noah and no one else noticed it, but you did.
BT: You and I first spoke for the film This is Happening, and you and your on-screen brother James Wolk must have stayed extremely close as he’s in the clip with you as well.
MS: Let me tell you, I hadn’t seen Jimmy since the premiere of that movie This is Happening, however many years ago. And we were sitting together randomly at the Golden Globes InStyle party, and I said: “Jimmy, you have to be in my elevator video”, and he was like: “What do you want me to do?” and I was like: “I want you and my husband to take me out like a rug”, [laughs] and he was like: “Of course you do!”. [laughs]
BT: When Marriage Story was up against Parasite at the Oscars, you must have had divided loyalties, but what is it about Bong’s style that you think is so singular?
MS: You know, I became a Bong fan when The Host came out in movie theatres. I went to see it, and I get scared really easily, I don’t really like horror movies, but in this one, he had this balance between the horror / comedy / family artistic sensibility. Like he doesn’t fit into any one genre, for me that was always so exciting to see, it was almost like The Royal Tenenbaums, kind of like Wes Anderson sensitivity to detail and comedy and then also sort of incredibly terrifying, and yeah, I love every movie that he has ever made.
BT: I heard that the cast participated in some pretty epic karaoke nights, and the songs inform the series as well, there is an incredible performance of a Frank Ocean song. What is your karaoke go-to song?
MS: ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton, that’s my karaoke go-to. I have been known to sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at karaoke but that is just too long. [laughs] It is a little too much.
BT: Are you still in British Columbia right now?
MS: Yeah. Our production got closed down weeks before we wrapped and actually, my husband and I have a cabin near Vancouver Island. We decided that we should just stay in Canada, we didn’t want to travel and move with the baby, and yeah, we just stayed.
BT: What was filming in Vancouver and B.C. like, with the backdrop of the mountains playing such a huge role in the background?
MS: I didn’t shoot outside of the studio once, so all of that is not actually real. It’s all created. We shot every single day on the studio in Vancouver.
BT: What about in terms of living there and having it as your home base for this project?
MS: Yeah! I love it. I wasn’t rushing back to go to America when this all went down. I have a huge amount of love for this Canadian crew, I loved Vancouver, sort of the beautiful balance between the city and the great restaurants and being able to be in nature in like ten minutes. There’s a real sense of community that Canadians have that I really appreciate and also the weather is great as well.
BT: What does it mean to be exploring the themes of this series at this particular time right now and then kind of living these themes?
MS: Yeah, I think that it’s an incredible, bizarre, wild time for this show to be airing because the show has taken a long time to come together and to be finally aired, and the fact that it’s airing right now while everyone’s in quarantine because of a pandemic, it’s just too big for my brain to get around. [laughs] You know, I’ve had people for like three years being like: “Well, when’s this show coming out?”. And I always said: “Oh, the world’s going to end [laughs] before this show comes out”. And the world didn’t end but it’s definitely different, and I hope people are entertained by this show, but I also hope that they are challenged by it to really think about the way that we live and the way that we treat each other and the way that we want to move forward as a society.
Snowpiercer is currently airing on TNT in the U.S. and streaming globally (except for the U.S.) on Netflix