During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Mickey Sumner, who plays brakeman turned train detective Bess Till, talked about the journey she’s gone on with her character, when she realized that acting was the art form she was most drawn to, what she learned from working with the Safdie brothers and Noah Baumbach so early on in her career, the joy of working with co-star Daveed Diggs, and heading back to work for Season 3.
Collider: Bess Till is such a cool, complex, layered character that’s been so fun to watch, as the story has unraveled.
MICKEY SUMNER: I really appreciate that. Thank you.
Was there a point in the show that you started to really connect with her and get a feel for who she is, while she’s figuring out who she is?
SUMNER: Yeah, I think that a big part of her life on Snowpiercer is finding her way and finding herself. She’s a searcher. When we meet her in Season 1, she’s been to in this routine in this system of oppression, being a brakeman and feeding the tailies and being a part of something that is really not great, to say the least. I feel like because Layton comes from the cop world, and she was a rookie cop and he was a detective, which means he’s higher up in the rankings in the police department, she has to reevaluate where she is and her life, and who and what she’s in service to. From there, there’s the turning point of questioning what she goes through. And then, Season 2 is really also about finding her identity and who she is and what she’s doing on the train. It’s all so interesting for me, as an actor.
It seems like every time she figures out who she is, something else gets thrown at her that just blows it all up in her face.
SUMNER: Exactly. It’s great, as an actor. There’s a sadness to her, and a bit of longing and searching.
You grew up around various aspects of the arts and you went to art school. How and when did you realize that acting was your calling?
SUMNER: I really enjoyed art school. I think it really opened me up and liberated me from my very British education. What I found that I lacked was a sense of community and collaboration. It was hard for me to work by myself and it was lonely. I was always seeking out collaboration, which I found very quickly in theater and in film, and now in TV. The nature of storytelling through acting is so collaborative, and I found it deeply satisfying. My final year at Parsons School of Design, all of the art I was making was actually for my body, which I then filmed and created installations for, to project the film of me in my art that I created. And then, I did a couple of perform live performance pieces. I think that it all played into that aspect of where I was heading. Learning about composition is always really good, as an actor. I love learning from the DPs on set. I try to make them my best friend. I’m always trying to learn about lighting and camera angles and camera movement. I think that if I wasn’t acting, I’d be trying to get a job as a camera assistant.
You’ve previously talked about how your first film was with the Safdie brothers. How did you end up doing a short with them?
SUMNER: We lived in the same building. Growing up, I spent half of my time in New York and half of my time in England. The Safdie brothers were my neighbors and we hung out. And then, I was in art school in Paris my first year, and Josh texted me being like, “I really want you to do a movie. Let’s do a movie together. I have this idea that’s called We’re Going to the Zoo, and I want you and your brother to do it. I want you to come to Boston.” My little brother was six at the time, and I trekked up to Boston with him. I was back in America for a little bit, on a break or something, so I went to Boston with my six-year-old brother and we shot a movie with the Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, my friends. I’m just so proud of them. I’ve loved their movies. It’s just so cool to see how they’ve developed and are just doing so amazing.
You worked with them so early in your career and you worked with Noah Baumbach on Frances Ha. Did that inspire you to keep going?
SUMNER: Yeah. You’re only as good as your director, your writer, and your cast. Working with those people, so early on, it sounds really weird, but I feel like they helped me believe in myself and they also created me, as an actor. That gives them a lot of power, but I mean it in more of a collaborative sense. I’m very grateful for those experiences. I learned so much from working with them, especially Noah and Greta [Gerwig]. They took a chance on me, and I will be forever grateful to them. I think they also spoiled me. Working with really high talent, you’re constantly craving that quality. I’ve been really lucky in my career that I feel like everything I’ve done has been with people that I could learn from.
This is the longest that you’ve spent on one project and with one character. How have you found that experience? What have you learned from two seasons now, telling this story with this character?
SUMNER: I’m really enjoying getting to stick with one character. I’ve been walking on this project three years now and we’re about to do Season 3. In TV, you get such a big arc and so much time to develop a character and really understand who she is. I’ve always felt like it’s the last day of a film shoot that I finally figure out who I am, as a character, and then you wanna go back to the beginning and reshoot the scene that you shot on the first day. But with TV, you get the luxury of finding new things, over a period of three years. It’s so cool to find new facets and try new things, and have the writers write for you, specifically, because they know you and they to know what you’re capable of and what your strengths are and they like to push you. I think it’s such a really cool collaboration that happens.
What have you loved about this character and who she is, from day one, and what have you grown to appreciate about her, the more she’s evolved and the longer that you’ve played her?
SUMNER: Something that I really admire about Till is that there’s this very tough exterior that she has, and yet inside, there is a very vulnerable and loving place. I always think of Till as a romantic, even though there’s a lot of fighting and aggression. I think that in her heart, she’s a romantic, striving for what is right. In this bleak world of Snowpiercer, where everyone’s out for survival, she’s searching for family and love and a place of belonging.
Is there a moment that she really comes together for you, on the day-to-day basis? With the hair and the wardrobe, does that really help?
SUMNER: A hundred percent. The hair cut has been really integral to finding her, every morning. They shave my head, every other day, and it really grounds me in Till. I’ve had a couple of costume changes, out of my brakeman uniform and into not a uniform and then into my detective uniform, but I kept my boots from day one. I came back for Season 2 and they gave me different boots. They looked the same, but I was like, “These are not the right. I need my boots. I need Till’s boots.” The shoes, for me, change how you walk and they really ground me in her character. So, it’s the hair cut and my boots.
It’s a bad-ass hair cut.
SUMNER: Thank you. We worked really hard on it. I really wanted something specific and a bit out there, that’s also strong and unique. I really like that people have been enjoying her hair cut.
With Season 2, how much did you know, at the start of the season, about how things would be playing out? Were you told what the full arc would be, or did you just know some of it and learn about the rest as you went along?
SUMNER: I don’t think I’ve ever known anything concrete about Till’s arc, Season 1 or Season 2. We’re about to do Season 3, and I have zero idea. I start shooting tomorrow (March 5th), and I know what I’m doing in Episodes 1 and 2, but that’s it. I don’t know where she’s going. They keep it pretty heavily under wraps, which is exciting. When I can let go of my desires to know everything and be in control, I can be like, “Okay, I’ll just get the scripts when I get the scripts, and it will be a surprise then.”
Last season, things got bad for Melanie, but this season, it seems like things are getting bad for everyone because Wilford is screwing up everybody’s lives. What can you say to tease where things are headed, by the end of Season 2? How do you think fans will react to the final episodes of the season and where the things will be left for the characters?
SUMNER: God, I just feel like, if I say anything, I’m gonna ruin everything. You’re right, things are just getting increasingly worse for everyone and Wilford is a real threat. His narcissism and his cruelty is just unending, to the point where everyone is in danger. That’s where I think I should leave it, without giving away anything. It’s definitely action-packed and thrilling.
I’ve tremendously enjoyed watching the evolving dynamic between Layton and Till. How have you found the experience of working with Daveed Diggs?
SUMNER: It’s a pretty joyful experience, doing scenes with Daveed Diggs. I remember when I had my final edition for Till in L.A., Daveed flew in from San Francisco, in between projects. The guy is always doing 300 things at once. I had a chemistry read with them. It was my final test, to see if I had good chemistry with Daveed. I was such a fan and such a Hamilton fan that I was freaking out and going, “What am I gonna do? Oh, my God, don’t mess this up!” And he was so cool and so kind. He’d seen some of my movies and referenced them. I couldn’t believe it. And then, I got the job and we’ve become very good friends. He came to my son’s birthday party and he’s become a part of not just my work world. He’s a true gem and a gentleman. It’s very inspiring, how much he works and all of his different projects. It puts everyone to shame. I love the relationship that Till and Layton have developed. Sometimes we joke that, when we’re finished with Snowpiercer, we should do a buddy cop show play and detectives on a fun procedural.
On a TV series, you typically work with a variety of different directors, and I would imagine they each have their own way to approach things. What has that been like for you? Have you noticed a real difference between the directors that have come in?
SUMNER: I’ve really been enjoying working with a new director, every two episodes. It keeps you really on your toes. Learning how different people envision your show and your character, you just can learn so much. And I was so happy that there were so many female directors last season. I thought that was great and really vital, especially on this show. This show has very strong female leads and a female director perspective is really needed. We worked with Leslie Hope, who is an actress and director, and working with a director/actor is really special because they’re using language that you really understand, as an actor. I loved working with her. It was really fun.
What’s it been like to adjust to doing the show under such different circumstances now? You got to start making the show when the world was normal and now it’s very different and sets are very different. Has that been quite an adjustment?
SUMNER: Yeah. We went into lockdown last March, before we’d finished the season and we came back in October to finish Season 2 and we were all masked up and being tested. It felt like Snowpiercer did a really good job of keeping us safe. This whole year, I feel like we’re somewhat normalizing everything, and yet it’s so not normal. And not being able to hug everyone when you come to work and hug crew and eat together is upsetting, but I’m so grateful that we can continue to work and that there are safety measures that keep us safe. But it’s real. I’m not gonna pretend that it’s not weird. I’ve been pushing for name tags on everyone. I’ve known people for three years and people are waving and I’m like, “I don’t know who you are, with your mask and shield on.” It’s terrible.
Snowpiercer airs on Monday nights on TNT.
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