If Sonequa Martin were a psychologist, you can bet she’d be at the top of her game. Instead, the Russellville, Alabama native is the star of Toe to Toe, a new independent feature written and directed by Emily Abt (read our review). Sonequa, her high school salutatorian, was set on pursing a career in psychology until she was cast in a local play and found “what makes my soul happy.” Now, the 2007 University of Alabama graduate is earning rave reviews in a film that New York Times critic A.O.Scott describes as “an unusually honest, compassionate and challenging view of contemporary youth.”
I spoke with Sonequa about her journey from northwest Alabama to acting, what drives her to work hard, and why she connected so deeply with Tosha, the character she plays in Toe to Toe. You can read the full interview when the first issue of Zora&Alice launches in April. Read an excerpt of the interview below.
Z&A: You mentioned the difficulty [for young black women] of finding roles of quality. Independent film seems to be a great avenue for people who aren’t in the “mainstream” to take on substantial roles. What are your perspectives on the opportunities in the industry?
Independent film is a gem. It’s all about the work, the story, the power, the talent, the craft. It’s not about the politics or money. It’s fantastic that we have indie film to return to, go to, or live in. I think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt who has made a name for himself in indie film. It’s very similar to theater in that it’s a good thing for actors to do theater as often as possible. The classical medium really stretches you. They say TV makes you rich, film makes you famous, theater makes you good. I feel that indie film is the same [as theater] and allows you to return to the fundamentals. There are always stories that need to be told, not just for women of color, but also for other people that are not mainstream. People that maybe Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with them or maybe are a little awkward right now.
Z&A: What attracted you specifically to Tosha as a character?
When I was reading the script, she jumped off the page to me and was an absolutely a real person. I related to her tenacity and determination in a very strong way. I was moved by her integrity and the fact that her character is a challenge to stereotypes, as is Jessie [the other main character]. She’s not just an angry black girl, she’s got this vulnerability and you can see her pain and relate to her. I was floored by it and I just couldn’t wait to step in and tell this girl’s story.
Z&A: One thing that stood out in the film was Tosha’s friendship with the other black students at her school. She would turn to them when she and Jessie were at odds. What were your thoughts on that dynamic?
It goes back to the statistic that inspired Emily to make this film, the fact that, for 87% of Americans, interracial friendships end at age 14. There’s definitely societal pressure to have friends like you, especially for black people and for young black people. I felt that pressure coming up in school because I went to a predominantly white school.
On the other hand, there is a positive element to it because it speaks to a sense of community. Tosha felt that, “me and Jessie have all of these differences, we’re clearly not the same, I’m more like these [black] girls” even though there was a class difference between them. Emily used to say something on set all the time that I thought was so poignant. She would always say “race trumps class.”
Z&A: In the film, Tosha’s grandmother played a critical role in her success. At the same time, she put a lot of pressure on Tosha to save the family. How did you feel about the grandmother’s role in Tosha’s life?
I believe that Tosha would not have gotten to where she got without her grandmother. Young people, especially in environments like that, need a positive authority figure. If it was just Tosha and her mother, I think it would have been a very different story. At the same time, I remember someone saying Tosha was a little too intense for her own good. It just added to her struggle and to her vulnerabily and it made her that much more real for me.
Z&A: Who would you say were some of the people who constantly pushed you to do better?
Now that I’m older, I realize that my father was a big force behind me. [Growing up], I needed to hear “good job.” I had spectacular grades all through school and I would come home with my report card of straight A’s and my dad would be like “Okay.” It really pushed me.
Once I got to college, I was able to study under some fantastic professors who were all very influential. They made me the actor that I am today. My acting teacher during my senior year of college became my mentor and really shaped me. He pushed me to move to New York after school instead of L.A. Also, I pushed myself, I really pushed myself. I always wanted to do the best that I can.
Z&A: Can you share some information about your upcoming film Yelling to the Sky?
It was an amazing experience. I’m so happy I got to work with everyone. Right now, we’re in post production and we’ll see what happens once it’s completely wrapped. I’m pretty sure that we’ll be submitting to Sundance later this year. It’s quite a story and it has quite a cast so only good can come from it. I was also excited because Gabby [Precious star Gabourey Sidibe] gave a shout out on Ellen about what a great project it was.
Z&A: It is quite a big year she’s having.
Absolutely, and she’s so sweet and we’re all so happy for her. I can’t take it! I’m so proud of her!
You can read the rest of my interview with Sonequa when Zora&Alice launches next month. In addition to Toe to Toe, you can see Sonequa in her recurring roles on CBS’ The Good Wife and on Lifetime’s Army Wives. Later this year, she will appear in Yelling to the Sky, a film that also stars recent Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe.