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Soko: anti-it girl

Singer-turned-actress Soko is a vital voice for a socially anxious generation – she talks Cannes, The Dancer and living each day without a filter

Taken from the autumn 2016 issue of Dazed:

Soko is acutely emotional. The time it takes for her eyes to flash-flood with tears is about 0.00001 seconds.

“I’m doomed with that,” she says. “It feels like a curse most of the time.” The 30-year-old actress and musician is discussing the soonest opportunity that she’ll have to continue recording her third album, which, it turns out, is not soon enough. “That’s all I want to do – I want to have two days off. I don’t even know when I’ll be able to in the next six months.” Sitting in the dimly lit lobby of New York’s Bowery Hotel, pushing back tears in the early morning, Soko embodies a comic contradiction of emotion, in bright red jeans, a bouclé Gucci blazer (a gift from the designer), and a vintage 80s Mickey Mouse baseball cap featuring large, protruding ears. Perhaps without realising it, she’s dressed in the French national colours.

“It sounds sort of weird but it’s more superstitious,” she says. “I dress for the day I want to have. If I want to have a super-goofy, non-serious day, this is what I wear. This hat is a reminder to not take myself too seriously. I was just broken up with…” She trails off, aware that we’re quickly veering into salacious territory: until recently, Soko had been dating Kristen Stewart, bona fide Hollywood celebrity. Though the two never “went public”, as the media would say, the paparazzi all but took that right from them. Soko blinks, continuing, “I went into the kids’ store, saw that hat, and it’s the best 12 dollars I’ve ever invested.”

After starring in two films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – The Dancer, a historical drama in which she plays the legendary American modern dance originator Loïe Fuller, and The Stopover, a stylish and engrossing contemporary look at combat troops and industrialised post-traumatic stress relief tactics – Soko is responsibly sallying forth on her requisite press cycle for both pictures, each seeing release this September in France. It’s not her first time at the rodeo, but the circus of promotion is something she openly despises about the process, which she’s hoping to amend this time around. “When you spend more time talking about something than doing it, it’s a little out of balance,” she explains. “I know it’s (part of) the job I chose to do, but I need to find a way so that it doesn’t hurt my spirit.” She adopts a lobotomised valley-girl accent: “Like, talking about me, what I do, what I like, what I wear, who I lovehow I love people... What about gender fluidity?” She groans. “Can’t we talk about something that means a little more?” Later, once she’s absorbed enough caffeine, she elaborates: “Making sure that every day is the best page of your life storybook has always been a mission for me,” she says. “Making sure that, whatever situation you’re in, you’re trying to have fun. If you have to give interviews, just have fun with it. I used to cry and pass out. I just didn’t want to be here – ‘It’s awful, please kill me.’ Pooh! Now it’s like, if I have to spend an hour with someone over coffee discussing the fragilities of life and how to promote whatever I’ve been doing, I might as well enjoy it. I’ve been having an easier time with it.”

“Making sure that every day is the best page of your life storybook has always been a mission for me. Making sure that, whatever situation you’re in, you’re trying to have fun” — Soko 

Soko’s new disposition is hard-won, and something she still struggles with, especially when it comes to being photographed. “The side effect is that you have to have your picture taken and be comfortable with that, and I’m not,” she says. “Really, truly, I’m not. I definitely have to put on that hat and think, ‘For the next eight hours I’m going to pretend I’m having the best day of my life!’ so I can potentially start enjoying it. It’s hard to get into that groove of being vulnerable in front of a camera and wearing clothes that are sample-sized when you aren’t a model, and feeling body-shamed every time someone says ‘No, I’m sure it will fit,’ and you’re like, ‘It’s sample-sized! I’m not a model, I don’t even want to try to make it fit.’ I feel like it’s the most vain thing ever. I know that whoever comes to my shows connects with the music because they say it feels true, and that’s all I’m asking for when I’m putting things out there. I’m still trying to say that it’s OK to be vulnerable and it’s OK to be ruled by emotions and not put on your best face all the time.”

Lest our subject be mistaken for a spoiled brat, a study in extremes: Soko possesses many trappings of what modern scientists in the urban wild would binomially label an ‘it girl’. She’s petite, fiery, with a husky French accent and large, storming eyes. She vacillates easily between jet-black and bleach-blonde hair. She’s a César-nominated actress and a critically acclaimed rock musician. As a teenager, she experienced limited pop stardom in Europe and was labelled a one-hit wonder. Now she makes music in basements in Los Angeles and parties with Hedi Slimane. Her 2015 LP, My Dreams Dictate My Realitywas a confident, reverb-drenched collection of surf-pop doomsday songs, recorded with legendary Cure producer Ross Robinson in Venice Beach. She Snapchats for Gucci, sits front row at Chanel, designs her own line of Stance socks, and turned heads in May when she walked the Croisette in Cannes with Lily-Rose Depp and Gaspard Ulliel, hair neatly swept, like a punk-rock China doll in Victorian-inspired Giambattista Valli couture. But she’s also compulsively antisocial, prone to anxiety, frequently tormented by nightmares and has suffered suicidal depression. Recently, she voluntarily emancipated herself from a three-year honeymoon with antidepressants. Despite her ascetic nature, Soko is wildly open about all of these things, especially on social media.

“I have no filter. If I’m feeling great, I want to scream it, and if I’m feeling like shit, I’ll scream it too” — Soko 

“I’m usually too honest for my own good,” Soko admits. “I have no filter. If I’m feeling great, I want to scream it, and if I’m feeling like shit, I’ll scream it too. I feel like so many people have a pretend life on social media, but I can’t lie. All the music that I listen to is by people who are struggling, sad or depressed... and they make the best art. It touches me and that’s what accompanies me every day: the music I surround myself with is emotionally raw and makes me feel less lonely. On social media, we are so bombarded by the perfect picture of what we should look like, be like and act like. And I think what touches me in life is real stuff.” 

Soko describes quitting antidepressants in January as equivalent to kicking a serious drug habit. (“I’ve never done drugs but they say it’s as hard as quitting heroin,” she shudders.) Abjectly miserable, she posted a letter on Facebook explaining that she was feeling suicidal, exploring those feelings and seeking some understanding and insight from her friends. “The amount of friends who reached out and said, ‘Thank you for talking about it, I’ve been struggling with the same thing, if you find anything that helps please share it’ was crazy – people I hadn’t talked to in years that I thought had the most balanced, happy, picture-perfect lives. I think we all struggle with it. I just feel like it isn’t as important to talk about these things as it is to put a filter on your face that makes it look like you have pretty skin.” She lets out a rueful laugh. “Like, really?”

The sails of Soko’s depression caught wind in 2012, following her role in the French movie Augustine. In the film, Soko played the titular role of a teenage patient of the 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, a kitchen maid whose seizures resulted in a form of paralysis. “I was playing a character who was not in tune with her feelings and everything had to go through her body,” she says. “Then I had to do promo and I couldn’t talk any more. My first album was coming out and I was suicidal. I couldn’t be on tour, couldn’t perform in front of people, and my brother was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to die or do you want to take some pills?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ and he was like, ‘Go see a therapist right now, I’m going to kick your arse for you to go get help.’ I did (antidepressants) for two months and I felt my whole life lifted. There is such a thing as having a chemical imbalance. My best friend was so against it, but he was like, ‘I can’t believe how well it’s working for you. You’ve completely changed my mind on this.’”

Newly imbued with optimism, Soko took on the role of Fuller in The Dancer, one that perfectly distilled the actress’s own highs and lows through an intensely physical performance. The film opens with Fuller being dragged down a hallway wrapped in white, voluminous silks and peaks with dance performances atop a three-metre platform in billowing costume. She spends almost as much time being dragged through the dirt as she does twirling in the multicoloured swanlights. It’s an accomplished performance displaying Soko’s tremendous range of emotion. For the English-speaking world more familiar with her music, it might come as a surprise to see an indie musician who lives in Silverlake at the centre of a gossamer melodrama with production that rivals the Merchant Ivory, but it’s an indication of her current esteem within French cinema.

“I felt proud because both films are directed by women who are really important voices that have crucial things to say about where the world is going. It felt empowering” — Soko

“I’ve mostly worked in France so I have a sort of privileged place there where people will just send offers,” she says. “It’s not like in the US, an offer with a number, but more like, ‘We have this and we want you to be in it.’ No casting, just ‘come for a read-through’ or ‘read the script’.” Astonishingly, when it comes to the topic of crossing over into American movies, she’s not exceedingly interested. “I don’t want to have to try with an agent, who says –” she brings back her braindead valley-girl character, “‘They’re looking for a spunky brunette sidekick, a little weird, a little quirky, but sexy…’ I’m so not Hollywood.” 

In many respects, Loïe Fuller is a role Soko was born to play. Like Fuller, Soko’s defining moment was the death of her father at a very young age (Soko was five). “Each time I had nightmares, somebody around me would die,” she says, her eyes flooding again. “The night my dad died, I was having a nightmare. I screamed, and my mum came to be with me. I’d been having nightmares for a whole week. Then when she went back to bed, my dad was dead, so I thought it was my fault. My whole childhood, I thought I’d killed my dad with my dreams. Boom.” She laughs and wipes her eyes. “Therapy for you.”

One of six children after her mother remarried, Soko launched herself into every extracurricular activity imaginable, in an effort to mask her pain and be as normal as possible. “I was like the doomed little one, locked in my bedroom writing poetry,” Soko says. “I never wanted to play in the garden with my siblings. School wasn’t easy. When my dad died, my mum was so overwhelmed, so the more we were out of the house and doing normal kids’ stuff, the better it was for her. She signed me up for everything I could do in my little village. I did piano, dance, acting school, judo, horse-riding, tennis… The one thing that stuck was acting because I so had the urge to be someone else, I hated my life so much.”

In pursuing her music and film careers, Soko is surprised to find many of these skills coming back into play. “I was the worst at dance class,” she says. “I was the little fat hippopotamus in white tights who is clumsy and embarrassing. Now I’ve done a movie that’s called The Dancer, where I had to train seven hours a day to become this iconic, amazing character. It’s all prequel. Everything I’ve done in my life up until this point, I’m now using. Even horse-riding! I had to ride a horse for many scenes in the movie. A lot of them have been cut.”

“Every day the first thing I think when I wake up is ‘Holy shit! I’m alive.’ What do you do with that? How do you use it? I want everything to be like when you’re a kid, doing things for the first time” — Soko

In The Stopover, directed by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, Soko stars as a modern-day French soldier returning with troops from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The young soldiers are laid over at a five-star resort in Cyprus to decompress and take part in virtual-reality therapy to relieve their traumas before heading home. It’s a captivating and stunningly original film, featuring an ensemble cast of winning performances anchored by Soko and Ariane Labed.

“It was interesting to play someone who is completely different from me,” Soko says of her character, Marine. “She’s the opposite end of the spectrum: violent, (with a) very masculine energy. I definitely have some of that in me but I’m so anti-violence, it’s hard for me to hear people scream. I can’t watch a horror movie to save my life.” Despite this, she was drawn to the story’s acknowledgment – and indictment – of this process of reverse desensitisation. “(This process) is done to replace the horror of everything they’ve seen with paradise images,” she says. “It’s a good idea on paper, but in practice, taking soldiers with such damaged brains, hearts and souls from such a violent environment and placing them in a five-star hotel surrounded by tourists who are there to party… The directors come from a documentary background, so we stayed in a five-star hotel in Greece, all together, for two months non-stop, (while) making the film. It felt the same.”

To have two films at Cannes in one year is not something Soko takes for granted. “It’s pretty lucky if you can go to Cannes, period,” she says. “And I felt really proud because both films are directed by women who are, to me, really important voices that have crucial things to say about where the world is going. It felt empowering. It felt like we were in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing and putting the right things out there.”

Soko’s decision to quit her medication following the production of these films is one that she attributes to a newfound sense of maturity. “I felt like I’d put all my problems on hold and I hadn’t been dealing with things for the past three years,” she explains. “I want to make a new album and I decided to go ‘full feelings’ because I don’t want to not feel any more. It’s been six months now and I feel good about it, and I’m so ready to make this next record. I’ve been writing and recording a lot and I feel like I needed to go through that. Also, turning 30, I wanted to grow up and not be afraid of who I am, and embrace who I want to become instead of being a victim of my emotions. I’m taking a step into understanding them and allowing them to exist.”

As she prepares for her upcoming press obligations in Europe, she reveals she’s set aside time for a ten-day intensive therapy program. “It’s too important,” she says. “I don’t want to go into this spiral of not having time for myself and doing these things without seeing the meaning of them. I want to connect. My dad died in his sleep. Every day the first thing I think when I wake up is, ‘Holy shit, I’m alive.’ What do you do with that? How do you use it? How do you find your best aspect and go on being appreciative of your life? I want everything to be like when you’re a kid, doing things for the first time and everything is fascinating. Everyone you’re meeting is, woah, someone new! What are you? Can I touch you? How do you taste? When you’re a kid you have that adventurous spirit of wanting to discover everything. That’s how I want to live my life.”

The Dancer will be released on September 28 and The Stopover will be released on September 7

Hair James Pecis at Bryant Artists using Oribe Hair Care, make-up Francelle, nails Casey Herman at The Wall Group using Chanel, set design Ian Salter, fashion assistants Louise Ford, Victor Cordero, hair assistants Adlena Dignam, make-up assistant Takahiro Okada, digital operator Jonathan Nesteruk, light assistant Will Englechardt, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein at Starworks Group, associate talent consultant Alexia Elkaim at Starworks Group