Sonja Sohn Taps Into the Wire
Photo: Larry Riley/HBO
On HBO’s hot new series The Wire, police detectives on the battered, crime-riddled streets of Baltimore fight a never-ending drug war. At the core are two cops — an unconventional white guy named James McNulty and the less traditional but equally devoted black lesbian Shakima Greggs. Shakima — nicknamed Kima by her colleagues — is one of the few detectives who can go undercover in the drug-ridden projects like an insider and still navigate the political morass of police bureaucracy. Her life at home — with her long-term partner — is so convincing most fans expect that the actress who portrays Kima, Sonja Sohn, is herself a lesbian. Not that she’s fighting her newfound role as lesbian sex symbol: “I’m really open, and I don’t like to claim title to anything in my life, you know, racially, culturally, sexually.” Of course, this isn’t Sohn’s first dyke role, either. Her provocative screen debut was in the critically acclaimed lesbian film Work.
Sohn, a former slam poet, starred in and helped co-write Slam. After that came smooches with Samuel Jackson in Shaft and a turn in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. Last month she appeared in HBO’s third annual Def Poetry Jam and this summer she stars in the gritty, festival-bound The Killing Zone. But make no mistake: The Wire is Sohn’s crowning achievement thus far. The second season of The Wire — debuting June 1 — moves away from the urban drug war and instead chronicles the steady decline of the working class in Baltimore. During a break on the set of the series, Sohn — in her trailer cooking string beans and struggling with her cell phone — told us why she’s thrilled to play television’s only black lesbian.
Shakima’s home life — her relationship with her girlfriend — seems so real and so natural. How did you develop that?
Honestly, I have to give a lot of credit to [show creator] David Simon. He just does such a great job with the writing and he knows the characters very well — I show up and I do the best job that I can.
I heard that you were disappointed with your initial sex scenes.
[Laughs] Oh, absolutely!
Why is that?
It’s because when I first saw it, it looked like two straight girls fumbling around trying to look like sexy lesbians. It was a very awkward situation.
But this isn’t the first time you’ve done a lesbian love scene. In Work, you have some really sexy scenes.
How did you know about that? [Laughs]
I thought that movie was amazingly sexy.
Really? I liked that film too, and I thought it was sexy. That’s probably because [director] Rachel [Reichman] is really familiar with the world of lesbianism, you know, and is able to write those characters and direct those characters in that way.
How does it feel to suddenly be a lesbian sex symbol?
[Chuckles] You know, some things you just don’t have control over. And it’s not that I mind. I was kissing Sam Jackson in Shaft, and all of a sudden, I became like a serious hottie, you know, among straight black men. It’s my job as an actress to inhabit many worlds and to do it convincingly.
Is it fun to play a bad ass?
She’s a bad ass at work but when she comes home she’s like Miss Kitten — she gets put in her place. And that’s really a lot of fun. I like that, because people have many layers.
Is this character a stretch for you? What are your limitations in playing Kima?
It was a stretch trying to play a cop! Initially that was pretty tough. … Where I come from, cops, nah, we don’t like cops. So when I first went into this project — which reminded me of where I grew up, I mean the buildings almost looked identical — and I saw the people and I had to play a cop, it just, those worlds were clashing inside me all over the place. … Eventually I had to recognize that I am an actor and this is my job, and otherwise I am going to get really caught up and my work is going to be no good.
Do you think African Americans are still ghettoized on TV?
Of course. Just look at UPN … basically, middle-class characters, you know, they’re still doing their thing, you know, the whole spiel. And not to put anybody down. … Sometimes you want a paycheck and pay your bills, and when you’re an actor, you might have to take what is being offered you. Some people have the luxury of turning down parts because they are degrading. I’ve been very fortunate, because I’ve just had one role, the one I played in Shaft, where I wasn’t jumping up for joy to play it, but I knew it would be good tape for me, and good exposure. So I did it.
Do you worry about being typecast?
Not really. I have a deep faith and belief that nothing is really orchestrated or controlled by anybody else except God, so if I am typecast, maybe it will lead somewhere. Honestly, I just don’t know how much of this I want to do. My whole life isn’t invested in acting.
Yeah, you were a spoken-word poet and you co-wrote Slam. How did you move from poetry to acting?
The kind of poetry I was doing at the time was very dramatic. Now, I hadn’t planned it that way; I was just doing what moved me. Once a director came up to me and she said, “You know what, do you act?” I said, “No.” And she said, “You know what, you might want to think about it because I think you’d be good at it.” I went, “Um hmm, whatever.” Because it’s a profession I’ve always run away from. I always thought actors were so vain; actors and models were self-absorbed, blah, blah, blah. So, a friend of mine who’s a film critic for the Village Voice one day came up to me and said, “You know what? You look like the physical type that a friend of mine is looking for for a film that she’s doing. She’s looking for a young, black athletic type, because the girl plays basketball or whatever. You ought to give her a call or go by there.” I said “All right.” This is somebody I respect a lot. So I made the call … and I ended up getting the role. That was the role in Work. …
At that time I just thought it was a one-off deal; I did it, it was fun, but I wasn’t going to do it again. … Right after that, I went to a play a friend of mine was in. … They were auditioning for another play in the same building and the producer was there and said, “You look like an actress. Why don’t you come audition for my play?” I said, “Listen, I don’t have anything. I have a poem.” He’s like, “Do the poem.” So I that’s how I got in the play. I thought, “Wait a second, this thing is chasing me down.” … I left [poetry] to study acting. At the end of that period my acting coach told me, “You know you’re ready, which means you have to get on the stage any way you can.” She was basically saying, “You have to go back to poetry to get on stage.” I didn’t want to, but I respected her opinion so much that I decided to go back. And one day I was doing a poem and the people from Slam were in the audience and the poem I did really resonated with the theme of their film and the rest is history.
I love the part in Slam where you say that you can give birth to an excuse so easily that you’ll believe it has been there all along. What excuses do you make?
That was the poem they heard. It really is about how powerful I believe the mind is and how much trickery it can play upon a person. Surely in your life there must have been a time where you believed, “Yeah, I’m on the right road. I’m supposed to be doing this,” and … years later, months later, days later you wake up and go, “Oh shit, that was completely wrong.”
Your roles in both Work and The Wire are not what you’d consider traditionally feminine. Does that come easily to you, or do you have to work at it?
That comes easily to me, I suppose. I just don’t identify myself — I mean, I have to be female. That’s what they call me. But I feel that there’s a duality in everybody in every way and shape possible. I’ve never really felt completely one way or the other.
It seems like Hollywood rarely portrays black women without it being stereotypical. Do you think that’s changing?
Is that changing? Can you think of a film where that stereotype has been changed? What I really think, right now, is there is a need in general in film, and television I suppose, for a project that gives depth to black people — male and female. But, yeah, let’s talk about the female — what you see are mothers, the good, solid, nurturing mom, or you see the mother that’s, like, strung out on drugs and trying to make her way back. Or you have the big, hot sexy symbol and she’s either the wife or the girlfriend of somebody else. … That’s what makes playing this role very exciting because I think it’s cutting new ground.
It’s definitely something we haven’t seen. You’re the only black lesbian on TV right now.
Yeah, probably the only degenerate on TV. [Laughs]
Let me just ask you one more question. Is there a role that you really wanted that you didn’t get?
There have been roles that I wanted because I needed the paycheck, but not roles that I’ve really wanted to play. It’s really important not to get attached. You audition, you need to feel good about your audition, get better at what you do and keep moving. … Getting attached to a role can be very dangerous.
That’s a better way to look at it. A lot of times I talk with actresses who say, “Oh, Halle Berry gets all the roles I wanted.”
Well, shit. I mean, I like Halle Berry. I thought she did a great job in Monster’s Ball, but, I mean, who the fuck wants to be a Bond girl? I mean it’s cute being a Bond girl — see, Halle can do that, she’s at a certain place. And it’s fun being a Bond girl, you know, the first black Bond girl. But you know, I wouldn’t want to continue doing all that. I don’t want to take anything away from Halle, but they’re actually gonna write the roles I want. You know, you might get something like The Wire. God, you know how many actresses want this role? Like I said, it’s a blessing.