Note: The first part of this interview was published in our blog last month. You can read it here.
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.
Z&A: In the discussion after the film, you mentioned that you related to Tosha’s determination to get out where she’s from. Tell me a little bit about your journey to acting. How did it find you or how did you find it?
It was definitely a bit of both. I’m from a town called Russellville, which is the smallest, tiniest, little country town. I was actually going to be a psychologist but, in 10th grade of high school, I auditioned for a play in a nearby festival. I got the lead in the play ‘dentity Crisis by Christopher Durang. In rehearsals, I knew. I said, ‘oh my goodness, this is what makes my soul happy. How did I think I could do anything else?’ I did a little bit of acting in my high school club then someone told me that I needed to further it, go to school, get classical training, then move to New York or LA. I went to University of Alabama because I couldn’t afford out of state tuition and UA is one of the best theater schools in the southeast. And as soon as graduated, two months later, I moved to New York.
Z&A: That’s a great story. So many people feel like they need a lot to start. You went to UA. You did what you could afford and still made it happen.
Exactly. I didn’t go to Julliard, I didn’t go to Carnegie Mellon or anything like that. UA is a fantastic school and I got a fabulous training there in acting. It doesn’t have to be this huge thing. You just need to have a dream and follow it.
Z&A: How did your friends and family feel about your decision? At the screening of Toe to Toe in New York, you had a great crowd of supporters that seemed so happy and excited for you. What has been their role in your journey?
Friends are so important when you move away from your family and out of your comfort zone. You need people who are behind you and uplift you. My friends and family back home were all very surprised when they found out I was going to pursue acting. I was very much a nerd, a bookwork – I was salutatorian of my senior class and everybody thought it was crazy that I was going into acting. They were like, ‘she’s so smart, why is she wasting it to be an actor?’ My mother is the best mother ever and was always 100% behind me. My father gave me resistance. But, I feel like you need those people in your life. He thought it was crazy but it was good because he pushed me and I was determined to prove him wrong.
Z&A: How does Dad feel now?
He’s appeased. When he was able to see me on TV, it was such an amazing moment for me. It was so validating. The first time anybody saw me on TV was an episode of Law&Order: Criminal Intent. It was great to be able to show them something beyond just saying that I was audition. Especially my parents, they needed to see something to comprehend it.
Z&A: How would describe your experience as a young woman trying to break into the acting industry? Are there any challenges that you faced either for being a woman or a black woman or both?
There is obviously the challenge of the black woman in the industry. Everyone knows that roles are much fewer and and it’s hard to find roles of quality. But for me, as cliche as it may sound, it’s important to be as positive as possible. I never entered into this career with the idea that it was going to be impossible. Even thought there are fewer roles and less quality roles for us, I never dwell on that. We create the world around us by what we think and say. That has really been my foundation and I believe that I’ll be continued to be blessed as long as I continue to do what I love, do it with integrity and always keep other people in mind. What’s important about this career is to not get self-absorbed. I personally know that you’re blessed when your objective is other people. I ultimately want to be a positive influence to others and help others.
Z&A: You obviously work very hard but you also seem to have a great confidence and determination. What experience and which people have really shaped you to be the way you are now?
When I was younger and coming up, I was a very determined person. That just happened to be an aspect of my personality. I was always going full speed toward something. Also, I have a very deep spiritual foundation and that is the biggest thing that pushes me. And then of course, my New York family, these people that are in my inner circle are wonderfulactors and artists who are moving toward their dreams and goals. It inspires me every day. It’s so important to have people around you that are mirrors for you and keep you on your toes.
Toe to Toe is in its DC theatrical run at the E Street Landmark Cinemas. 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.