YELENA DEYNEKO: How did you become an actress, and why?
STEPHANIE SZOSTAK: Just shy of being 30 years old, I found myself in my first acting class, Sondra Lee’s acting studio in NYC. Life took me from having a job at Chanel, to modeling, to doing commercials and finally to this small studio on 8th Ave where working actors came to work on their craft. They performed scenes from renowned plays, most of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had never heard of. The work was fascinating, Sondra was terrifying as she pushed us further than perhaps we wanted to go. The first time I got up to do a monologue, I had no idea what I was doing, I was extremely nervous, but once I got going I lost and abandoned myself in the character’s world. When the monologue was over, I came back to reality and realized I had kind of left for a long moment….. I didn’t know how that happened but I loved the feeling. Probably not the healthiest of feelings but it was powerful, real and honest. I wanted more of it and I knew that I had finally found what I wanted to do in life.
YD: Can you tell us a little bit about your early career, especially influences?
SS: “An actor works!” and that means takes just about any job they can get (that is what our acting teacher drilled into our psyches). I did everything I could, commercials (for glamorous products like pampers and pancakes), promoted rum in bars at night and worked on several unpaid short movies. I also had a much stronger French accent then and that often limited roles I could be considered for. I don’t think anyone really believed I could do this; make a career out of this… except for me and my husband. One day, I heard they were doing a remake of the Pink Panther movie with Steve Martin and there was a role for a French secretary. My agent at the time couldn’t get me an audition, but I saw somewhere that the casting director for the movie was having a workshop in town so I signed up with the hope to impress her enough to get noticed and get that audition! After the workshop was over, she saw people one-on-one allowing each of us to perform our monologues. I did ‘NUTS’ (the “I love you to the moon and down again” bit) and totally went for it. I wasn’t nervous, had nothing to lose and LOVED doing that nutty one. She liked it and then said “you know.. I’m casting for” —- “PINK PANTHER”, I interrupted, “I know! Why do you think I’m here, I want to audition!” THE NERVE I had ! Yet, I got the fricking audition and then three callbacks, the last one reading with Steve Martin and the director Shawn Levy! I didn’t get it. It supposedly came down to Emily Mortimer and me. All of that and then nothing. That was my early career.. a whole bunch of THAT.
A few years later, I was very lucky to be cast in a wonderful independent movie called SATELLITE. I am so proud of it. We shot the film in New York City in 18 days (three months after we had our first son!) and I was the lead female opposite Karl Geary. I learned so much doing this movie. It was my second movie ever, Karl taught me a lot and we got into the TRIBECA film festival. It was so exciting.. I felt like I could be on my way. The movie and even my performance got a very cool review in the NY TIMES and then NOTHING. The movie wasn’t distributed until seven years later with hardly a notice.
During this period, one thing that really helped me was watching a show on TV: INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO. I love that show and how good of an interviewer James Lipton is. He really allows viewers to hear and feel the stories and processes of the most incredible actors. Watching DeNIRO was amazing… I remember it gave me courage and hope. I knew I was in this career for the right reasons – I loved it (the studying, the research, preparing and the process) and for some reason I knew that eventually, I would be an actor who actually WORKS !!.
YD: What are the biggest challenges of being an actress?
SS: Not knowing when I’m going to work next kind of sucks. The rejection is also not too much fun. Especially when I love something, feel I am Perfect for it and then give everything I have in the audition only to be told, “It’s not going to go any further”. It’s always a bit tiring to hear that and/or “they LOVED you but, they’re going for ‘a name’, a different ethnicity, older, younger or, whatever!”. It’s definitely not as hard now as it was at the beginning, but each time my agent or manager says those same damn words I still get annoyed, sad, disappointed and then after about five minutes, I GET OVER MYSELF! Thank god I have children and a husband who are sometimes happy I didn’t get it so I can keep making home cooked French meals for them. They keep me grounded !
YD: What are you looking for in the project? What roles suit you best?
SS: It’s two things for me: the script and the people involved. There are directors and actors whose past work speaks louder than any script I will read and no matter the project, I’d want to be a part of it because I know it’d be a creative and rewarding journey.
Then there are the projects where the story grabs me. I want to be moved and have a visceral reaction when I read a script. Maybe it’s funny as hell, maybe it’s shocking, provoking or maybe it’s the character. Maybe I can relate to and understand her, or maybe I’m fascinated because she’s so unlike me and I want to dive in to what will connect us.
As for the roles that would suit me best: a Stripper. Haven’t played one yet but having always dreamed of being a stripper for just one night. KIDDING. I don’t know… and I don’t think I ever want to have an answer for that because that would mean I would be limiting myself.
YD: What is your strongest trait as an actress? As a person?
SS: Strongest ? Well, I am UNDEFEATED at arm wrestling (vs women)!
As an actress – I don’t give up easily: maybe that’s what makes me a good arm wrestler.
YD: Was there a situation or a moment in your life that profoundly changed you, your life or your point of view?
SS: Yes. My brother passed away when I was 21 years old. He was 8 years older than me and I looked up to him my whole life. He was 6’4″, skinny, looked like a rocker, always caused trouble. A rebel, a poet and deep down a dreamer. He was also a heroin addict, only for about a year. He managed to get out of it with the incredible support of my parents. Unfortunately, he contracted hepatitis B, cirrhosis and was HIV positive. When he got clean, he became a Rastafari for the last years of his life and finally found a way to live in the world that brought him peace. He had a big influence on me. He was my cool big brother and I was the good, too good, little sister. When I took my first acting class and did my first monologue, I felt him there with me…. To this day, when I see a homeless person, or someone who doesn’t fit in, I think of him. I know he could have been that person living under a bridge, singing in the subway, or walking down the street and talking to himself. So… I think that, thanks to him, I know that life can take a shitty turn for some people and not because they said to themselves… “yeah, i’m gonna be a fuck up”…it’s just harder to figure out sometimes…. My big brother eventually did figure it out, but that one year of addiction ended up taking his life.
YD: Has your fashion / beauty style changed over time? Is there a trend which you completely abandoned from your current look? What are thenew must-haves for you, and why?
SS: I’ve come to realize that I need to feel like myself and be comfortable. No matter how cool or beautiful something is, if it’s not me, it won’t feel good when I put it on. Clothes have a huge impact on how I feel so I tend to stick to things that I truly like.
Something i’ve completely abandoned from my current look? There was a time when I’d stuff my bra with chicken cutlets (not real ones, the silicone kind) if it looked better under an outfit. I still use them sometimes on set if EVEN the padded bra isn’t enough. Anyway, in real life, I’m not doing that anymore! If the dress doesn’t fit, screw it, I’ll get a different dress. I’ve learned to love my small boobs and I think sexy isn’t about the size of your breasts (although yes, of course it can be… but come on, not necessarily). I think diversity is beautiful, we’re all different and we should embrace who we are… There isn’t one beautiful “mold,” no matter what the media or catalogs try to tell us. I would love to somehow be able to tell all the young girls out there with small breasts like me that they don’t need a padded bra all the time. Just look up pictures of Jane Birkin from the 70’s and embrace your sassy A-cups!
YD: In our editorial story, you play a woman who is up to something, or after someone, or on the run, hiding from someone, and it seemed as if you really enjoyed the espionage flavor of the plot. For you, what is the story behind this mysterious woman?
SS: Well, you told me that the story was inspired by the French movie NIKITA, which I absolutely love so that intrigued me! We had such a fun shoot, the location in Brooklyn was gritty and great, we had an international crew and everything just led to me feeling free, and I was able to let my imagination go with each setup. I think working with you gave this character an Eastern European vibe. To me, she was mysterious, closed off, on the run, disguised; the clothes she wore weren’t really her and she had to pretend to be someone else to do the job. At the end though, the pictures we did walking down the street with the coat, I felt, now THAT is HER. I felt that it was dawn, she’d been up all day and an entire night and now, she was going back to her hiding place and her loneliness.
YD: On the set you mentioned you like “bad ass” personalities, why? What is your personality off-screen? And your favorite personality on-screen?
SS: To me a “bad ass” doesn’t give a fuck and that’s extremely powerful. When I worked on IRON MAN 3, it was so liberating to be in Ellen Brand’s head for a while. She had this big old scar on her face and she loved it, she loved seeing how disturbing it was to people. She had nothing to lose and didn’t resist her own insanity taking over.
Off-screen, you’d have to ask my husband what my personality is!! You know, I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I love my home… I think I’m somewhat of a homebody and really love to spend time with my family.
On-screen, I love all sorts of personalities, characters… Again, diversity is beautiful! Human nature is diverse and fascinating in all its complexities.
YD: Has your heart ever been broken, and what did you learn from that experience?
SS: Broken hearted, challenging, difficult moments that make you feel like you are stuck in a bad dream you can’t wake up from…? Yes, and I’ve learned it’s part of life.
YD: You are in terrific shape! Do you have a fitness and beauty routine?
SS: Thank you! I work hard at it. I sleep a lot, eight hours minimum! I eat well but don’t deprive myself of what I want and I exercise about three times a week (yoga, barre and I’m lucky enough to work out with my “kick-ass” trainer Flow once a week). But I also work on the “inside” and meditate twice a day. I just read Cindy Crawford’s interview in PORTER and she said “Feeling beautiful is an inside job”. That is so true. If we feel good inside, then we will feel good period, and that wrinkle or dark spot won’t really matter all that much anymore.
YD: How do you spend the first hour of your day? And the last?
SS: I first have a glass of water with squeezed lemon and then I drink a BOWL of coffee that my husband makes me every morning- French Press with Steamed & Frothed Milk ! After that, it’s breakfast for the kids and us, and the hustle begins.
The last hour? My husband and I usually watch a show or movie on TV or read in bed.
YD: What activites do you encourage in your children?
SS: “Go build a fort!”– loved that line by Leslie Mann in the movie “THIS IS 40”!
Playing outside, sports, drawing, reading, going on bike rides.. All that stuff! I never tell them “go play Minecraft, will you!?” (if I did they would love to do that all day!)
YD: What are some of the most important lessons would you like your kids to learn?
SS: Growing up, my dad always told me that his dad always told him “You always know what’s right inside, it’s not always the easiest thing to do and it’s not always what you want to do, but you always know what’s right.” I’ve said that to my kids many times… it’s a good one and it tends to make decisions easier sometimes.
Also, a friend of mine told her twins at their Barmitzvah “Don’t waste your life living someone else’s life”. She kneeled at their side, held them both and said that in the most intimate way. It was beautiful and made me cry. Get to know who you are, be honest with yourself, go live YOUR life, take risks and embrace all of it… Good roadmap!
YD: Do your children remind you of yourself, when you were growing up?
SS: Yes and no. That’s the beautiful thing about children. Yes, they remind you of yourself, but more than that they are their own people and every day grow more and more into their own person.
YD: What was your perspective of happiness when you were a little girl, and what is your perspective of a happiness now?
SS: I tend to wake up happy, I think that’s just my nature. And growing up, I didn’t have a perspective on happiness, I was just living every moment as they came as most kids tend to do. Happiness was being with my best friend Emmanuelle, but it was also being alone and listening to music and “dreaming”, “taking off and letting the music take over”. We had a long car trip recently and a PINK FLOYD song from THE WALL came on. I told my twelve year old that I was his age when I first heard the album and that it would just make me “dream”. I asked if he wanted to hear it and he said ‘yes’ (yeah, i was happy)… So we listened to the whole album (that’s two ’33 records). At the end, my husband asked “so what do you think the wall is?” and my son said “I think it’s the wall we build around ourselves and we have to conquer it and break it down”. Yeah, proud mommy moment right there.
And, my perspective on happiness now? For me, it comes from feeling balanced. That means: my kids are good, my husband and I are good, and work is good. It doesn’t mean all is perfect and cheery all the time, it just means these three aspects of my life feel balanced. It is kind of an “inside job” as well.
YD: What simple things bring you joy? Makes you laugh? Gives you thrills?
SS: The smell of pine needles in the sun, the sound of rain falling, the smell of fall or spring, being outside at magic hour (not the sunset just before that), listening to French music, to Reggae… my children of course!
My husband makes me laugh… out loud, a lot! And Larry David!
Thrills? Working gives me thrills for sure, driving too fast in a car with music blasting, horseback riding…
YD: When you are not involved with acting, what are your other passions?
SS: PASSION is a very big word and I don’t think I have another passion per se. But, I love to play golf, cook, eat, read, take pictures and look at pictures, read poetry… I can’t wait to read the new Patti Smith book that comes out this month. I loved reading “Just Kids”… it was inspiring. Inspiration comes from so many places and I need it to feel nourished.
YD: What is the biggest challenge about the character you play in Satisfaction?
SS: This year, the pace was a lot faster and we were operating in a heightened reality. It was very challenging at times to believe my character would make such life choices so quickly. Some of her decisions surprised me and troubled me, but I had to keep searching and try to understand her.
YD: What do you love the most about your role?
From the beginning of Season 1 to the end of Season 2, Grace had a hell of a ride and she changed a lot along the way. In season 2, she finally stops running away and pretending and decides to find out who she truly is by exploring her darker side. It was great fun going along on that ride with her!
YD: How did you invent your character, Grace? What personal characteristics did you bring to her?
SS: Sean Jablonski invented Grace! I think I felt connected to Grace not only because I am married and have children, but also because I knew what it was to not feel fulfilled. I went to school to study business and started my working life in marketing at Chanel. It was a great job and could have been a great career, but it didn’t fulfill me. I realized one day that I didn’t want to be like my boss, and that this kind of career wasn’t for me. So I left. I think Grace went through the same thing. She woke up one day and realized she needed to be more than just a wife and mother. Yes, she had a beautiful family that she loved very much but she didn’t feel like herself anymore. Little by little, she had become who she thought she was “supposed” to be and had let go of her true self.
YD: On what points about relationships do you disagree with Grace? And where do you agree?
SS: Grace needs to learn how to talk and communicate!!!! But then there wouldn’t be a show, would there? Well, I don’t think anyone would agree and say, yes, go have an affair with a male escort and don’t talk to your husband about any of your feelings (I know she tried one night, when she was drunk outside the club)… but I understand her and how she got there and I admire her courage in trying to sort her life out.
YD: In your real life did you ever feel – like Grace felt – that you were missing out on fun?
SS: I don’t think Grace feels that she is missing out on fun. That’s not why she was driven to do what she did. It’s more than fun she’s looking for. She is looking to feel loved, heard, seen, and she is looking to feel alive and like herself.
YD: A television series is a long-term engagement with a character. Do you ever become Grace in real life, and if not, how do you manage to separate?
SS: With Grace, the separation is easy. I think because i have a different accent than she does, that helps a lot too. When I switch to her dialect, I sort of access Grace that way and that’s a very different core than me. Thank god I don’t see myself becoming Grace in real life – if you watch Season 2, you will understand.
YD: What do you think are the most important things are between a couple in a relationship, and what sustains relationships?
SS: Taking time for each other, spending time together, going out but also doing things together. And, someone told us once “give something to each other every day without expecting anything in return”. Giving can be as simple as emptying his stinking gym bag without saying “hey, i cleaned up your stinking gym bag”. Just do it and don’t say anything and don’t expect a thank you either.
Also, being away from each other… I think that helps us sometimes see, really see, our loved one… And that’s hot! (hopefully, ha!)
YD: What makes you feel sexy?
SS: Letting go of the good girl inside of me!