Art Work #5: Sonya English, Actor
I have always been fascinated by how Sonya English gets it done. She's a real-life working actor in LA, the city where everybody says it's impossible to be an actor. Perhaps you've seen her in a Wendy's commercial? On "Workaholics," or "The People vs. O.J. Simpson"? She's equal parts hustle and thoughtful intuition, and I'm thrilled that she's spilling some of her secrets here (seriously, actors, her tips are worth their weight in gold...or in cigarettes, when the apocalypse hits). Here, she talks about auditioning for absolutely everything, investing in new skills instead of fancy cars, how to take the Church of Scientology’s free seminar for actors without going clear, and why it's so valuable to have someone in your life who can talk your brain off the "fear track."
At parties, what do you say when people ask you what you do? Is there any point, in the telling of what you do, that you stumble?
The first stumbling block is right out of the gate, deciding between "actor" or "actress." I don't have a strong opinion either way and I don't find it particularly interesting to talk about, so I'm mostly reading the crowd and anticipating which they'll take less issue with.
The big one for me is, do you do comedy or drama? Or, do you do TV or movies? I’d have asked the same questions before I was an actor, so I recognize the kindness and interest behind it, but it always leaves me feeling tongue-tied. The truth is that I audition for TV, movies, commercials, animation, videogames, web series—from one-liners to leads. Unless you’re talking to a magazine-cover celebrity, they’re probably not being super choosy.
One thing I find impressive about you is that you seem to be working a very difficult system. You’re making a living as an actress in LA in a way that’s quite clever. So many people seem to think there’s two poles: the starving barista desperate for parts, and then the celebrity. You’ve carved out a place for yourself that’s neither one of those things. How did you do it?
Here’s the secret!! I think everyone should know it! It involves a cheesy blue-and-yellow 24x36 inch cardboard piece of marketing that changed my life.
When I moved here, I had NO idea where or how to start. What I did know was how to gather information as a journalist. I tried to think of what I’d do if I was a reporter and assigned the story, “How to Pursue an Acting Career in Los Angeles.” I interviewed (took to coffee) anyone with some success and asked a bunch of naive questions that would embarrass me to hear back today. I also got onto LA Casting and Actors Access and looked up all the free seminars I could find.
What I learned is that in LA, there’s a common practice of career coaches and acting teachers offering a free introductory course that ends with a big fancy sales pitch. I did them all. [For actors reading: I do recommend the Church of Scientology’s free seminar for actors (free, y’all!), but do not attend this one first. In all of these seminars, the pitches are very good and laden with Neuro-Linguistic Programming and offers you can’t refuse. Sometimes I couldn’t. You must be skilled at walking away before entering the church or you will “go clear.” This said, the acting teacher who taught mine was outstanding.] This practice landed me in class with an anomaly of a man. Physically, he’s Cuba Gooding Jr. in a bright blue polo and his personality can only be approximated; if you can imagine Joel Osteen teaching a commercial class—beaming smile, positive energy but also selling, selling, selling—you’ll be close. His information is dated, he’ll tell anyone off the street that they can make a million dollars in commercials if they take his class, and his branding isn’t entirely in Comic Sans, but it might as well be.
So this is the cheesy part: he brought out a giant cardboard pyramid titled something like, "How to Make Money as an Actor." It was bright blue and yellow like an IKEA. At the bottom, in the biggest part, was COMMERCIALS. It was biggest because there’s a lot of money being paid to actors for commercial work. It was at the bottom, because the barriers to entry were lowest: you don’t need a credit or even a resume—just a headshot—to start auditioning for commercials. At the top was MOVIE STAR. It’s at the top because so few people get to be movie stars and appear in all the things. It’s the smallest because, while the amount of money is staggering, the amount that’s available to any one person is almost nonexistent.
I saw that chart and thought, commercials are the starting point. I spent all my time and money on classes in commercial acting and submitting my headshots to the big commercial agents. Thanks to that, I pretty quickly got financially on my feet, as well as collected tons of experience in audition rooms, which helped me overcome nerves and performance anxiety. I also got some confidence and leverage to pursue a manager, who could (and did) get me into TV and film auditions.
Here is my opinion: If you want to pursue this career from a practical standpoint and you don’t have anyone bankrolling your pursuit, the only logical thing to do is pursue commercial acting with all your energy. After that ball is rolling, you’ll have the resources to follow your passion.
Is there anything that everyone says you have to do to be an actor in LA that you think is just plain wrong?
Show your boobs, get plastic surgery, be anything you aren’t. That knot took me some time to untangle. Lots of agents and managers make it sound like if you aren’t a tits-out bombshell, you won’t work in this town. The problem is, there are TONS of really sexy tits-out bombshells, so if that’s just not who you are, those gals will outshine you every time. And also, the more interesting roles, IMO, are available to a much wider array of women.
I asked a former agent of mine, is there anything your clients who work all the time have in common? In other words, what’s the secret to making this machine go? He was an Ari Gold type who I’d expect to say: "At least a C-cup." He said instead: I do notice that the people who come in all the time to pick up residuals checks are individuals. They don’t fit any one mold. They own the space they’re in and they know who the fuck they are.
That’s great news! It took me years after that to figure out how to do that for myself. I’m still figuring it out. I do know that when I started wearing clothes I like, getting my hair cut based on what I thought was cool instead of what I thought might “book,” and wearing almost no makeup to auditions, I started feeling invincible. I feel cool. I feel cool by my own standards.
A couple months ago, at an office I go into a lot, a casting agent who I’d never spoken to told me: You know, every time you come in here, your hair is completely different. It’s amazing! Old me would have thought: Find a look that works then don’t change it until it stops working. Bleeeeghhhhhh. Now I think, what would I wear to the beach? What do I think a nice-casual mom wants to wear? Even, what do I think is “sexy girl”? I have fun with it. And here’s this guy who is behind several jobs I’ve booked telling me: You being you is amazing.
I don’t have statistics about which philosophy will actually land you more jobs. But I definitely know which one feels better.
What’s the single biggest thing that’s helped your career?
I think the answer is deciding to move to Vancouver…and then deciding not to.
When I moved to LA, I was coming from a career as a newspaper reporter and my agenda was basically to pursue fun, to make money doing something I enjoy and live a fun-filled life, day in, day out instead of just on the weekends. And, amazingly, I can say mission accomplished. I achieved that financial stability when commercial bookings picked up. The high was real, the gratitude was bottomless and still is—and also I had a chance to look around and go: Is this it? Is fun enough?
Long story short, the next best, most exciting idea involved moving to Vancouver. In the midst of planning that exit, a living opportunity presented itself that is, in many ways, a dream come true. I couldn’t leave the country without giving it a go—and it’s LA-adjacent. I realized, with the gentle and wise nudge of my boyfriend, that I had planted a great many seeds in the TV and film world that I hadn’t planned to stick around and reap.
The difference now is that I finally tricked myself into dropping the fear I didn’t realize I’d been holding onto. I didn’t know I was talking myself out of courageous leaps, but something curious happened when I decided to table my big move: Because I’d fully released the idea of becoming a successful working TV and film actor, my vision was much clearer as I came back to that pursuit. I have so many ideas and instead of thinking, What if that doesn’t work? my mind is saying, If that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. It’s been profound and invigorating. I’m daring to dream and my natural response is motivating excitement instead of paralyzing apprehension. We’ll see what transpires next.
What’s the single biggest thing that’s held you back?
Me! It’s a cliché because it’s TRUE. I think we all have these two voices in our heads—one is telling us we’re the sun and the moon and we should be on every TV show we love (or fill in your own pursuit). And the other is ruthlessly tricking us out of making moves, telling us tomorrow is a far better time to make them than today.
The way I see it now is that one voice is your ego, pursuing baubles and recognition that won’t fill up your soul. And the other is your fear, desperately trying to protect you from failure. The irony is, listening to that fear is the only true way to fail. If you give something your all and it doesn’t work out, that’s actually a learning process and an ingredient to your future successes. And that’s a lesson I’m learning again and again. The trick is keeping people around who will remind you often, saying regularly: Go for it. You can do that. Great idea.
Where do you hope to be in five years?
Able to answer these questions in the affirmative: Are you living your purpose? Are you living with integrity? What that looks like surprises me again and again, so I don’t expect I have any idea what I’ll be doing in five years.
Today’s dream: I want to be the voice of a singing cartoon character, ideally on a show that’s funny and quietly subversive. I’d love to be regularly performing scripts live and speaking on panels. When I visualize what I want, there’s always a young girl in the audience who comes up to me afterward and says I’ve inspired her to trust her own voice.
How does someone in your career most need to be supported?
Someone who can gently get your brain off the fear track is invaluable. At brunch the other day, I had unconsciously boarded the fear train, saying, “You know, there are a lot of my type and I’m not that young and I don’t have any huge credits…” and my friend was interjecting “No one is you!” and “What are we calling young?” and “Yes, you do!” and finally put her foot down and said, “OK. Cut the crap.” Only her exact words were, “OK. Well, we love you and we think you’re great and that you should get anything you want."
I shut up. I felt loved and grateful and I instantly ceased needing to come up with one more reason why not. With that kind of support, we have the power to create anything.
What is most terrifying, to you, about what you’re trying to accomplish?
Belief is a powerful thing, so I must believe that I will succeed. Last night I read this idea put so beautifully that I’ll just quote it:
“Some of us have just enough imagination to realize that imagination itself is a way of seeing things that are real, and so, perhaps, also that the imagination is an organ of vision that may be trained.” —The Secret History of the World by Mark Booth
An organ of vision! I’m poetry-slam snapping over here. If you can truly—diligently, with discipline—imagine yourself doing something, you’ll be able to recognize and help create the path to do it. That’s the paradigm I choose to live my life inside of.
It’s also a fact that people with less talent and fortitude than me have had success in acting and people with far more than me have failed. Before you are, say, a series regular on TV or negotiating your contract for the lead in a movie, you’re living without any guarantees. With few exceptions, anyone who’s accomplished those things has been in your shoes before. That’s reassuring! Also, anyone who has tried but never had success has been…oh, God…in your shoes before. Which one are you??
The most terrifying thing about what I’m trying to accomplish is that there’s no set path for me to follow—no “CEO track.” It’s also why I’m here, why I chose it, and why I find it unquestionably worth the time and energy. To pursue acting, for me, is a pursuit of trust in myself. I think that’s a worthwhile muscle to exercise and strengthen, whatever the future holds.
Do you have or feel the need to have backup plans, safety plans, retirement funds, etc.?
I’ve been really educating myself on wealth and money and currency lately. What I’ve learned is that there’s no fully secure place to store wealth. The dollar could crash, stocks could plummet, precious metals could be seized by the government, cryptocurrency could lose value or become criminalized and so on. And that’s if we don’t have an apocalypse where coffee and cigarettes and guns will become the currency of the day.
So—I’m making the best bets I can and also investing a lot in myself, honestly. I have some money in assets that could go up or down in value and I’m glad for that. I think my wisest mindset change, though, has been this: Instead of spending on nicer cars or trendy things, I’m spending my money on my own education and growth. If I put money into my skills and open doors for myself in a new area—for example singing, or audiobook narration—then that investment could begin paying off now. That improves my day-to-day and kicks off an accumulation of wealth that will far exceed the growth that a few shares of Apple stock could achieve by the time I’m 65. Not only that, but I can enjoy the dividends at any age.
Do you feel like the idea of “the muse” has any role in your life? If so, what does that look like?
The muse in my life is the voice telling me what excites me and where to steer the ship next. The little firework I feel in my heart sometimes, I treat that as gospel truth. My soul is trying to tell me, I want that! Sometimes it’s counter to what I thought I wanted. Usually, actually, it’s a surprise.
I want to move to a house off of a mile-long dirt road. But that’s not in Vancouver!
I want to take singing lessons. And sing in front of a stranger? Sober?
Or five years ago when I was at the newspaper, I thought: I want to move to Los Angeles. What?? And quit my job that I (hate, but) worked so hard to get?? To which the muse said simply: Yes.
And here we are.
Thank you, Sonya! Read previous installments of Art Work here.