Sophie von Haselberg, who stars in the arthouse thriller Give me Pity!, is nothing like her character Sissy St. Claire, who has all the can’t-look-away spectacle of a car crash. During our conversation, she comes off level-headed, genuine, and intelligent; she’s a Yale graduate and, at age 36, no newbie to the acting industry— or fame, being the daughter of Bette Midler. In Give Me Pity!, her character grapples, much as we do now with social media, with having an audience, and in particular being a woman, failing, and exposing herself, all to an audience.
The entire film is a 70’s style TV special starring Sissy, who slowly descends into madness— or rather reveals her uncomfortably raw, tortured inner self— live, as mysterious masked figure lurks. Different acts, like skits and musicals, make up the special. Each act seems to expose a part of Sissy’s psychology, from her mommy issues to her fears, with each point seeming to lead back to womanhood, circuitously or directly.
It would be impossible to capture the zillions of ideas compressed in director Amanda Kramer’s writing, but Sophie grounds all those little sparks with her unusual gift for flexibility. She has the extraordinary capacity to allow Sissy to stretch between deranged and sensible with frightening effortlessness and believability, a kind of energetic elasticity that is refreshing and exhilarating, as we wonder where the snapping point is. And although Give Me Pity! is only 80 minutes long, it demands much of an actor— singing, dancing, craziness, charisma— and Sophie pulls it off as though it were natural.
The challenge of Give Me Pity! lies partly in that it is a one-woman show. It is Sissy vs. World/Other/Audience, with the cameras always on the former. “When she explained to me what the film was, I think my first impulse was to be totally terrified. Because I understood what a big undertaking it was going to be,” said Sissy. “I think that that fear— the fact that I’m feeling scared about this means I absolutely have to do it, that it was going to be a challenge. And as a not particularly famous actor in my 30s, to be thrown a challenge like that is rare.” After the fact, she was effusive about the undertaking. “The movie was probably the best experience of my life thus far, just to feel that degree of responsibility. To need to work that hard and to feel so necessary to the process was rewarding beyond anything that I could have imagined.”
Sophie’s Sissy is ambitious, and painfully relatable in her fear. We feel how vulnerable she is onstage, and bite our nails hoping she won’t get hurt. “All the things she’s feeling and experiencing, she’s just experiencing them on a ten. But I’ve experienced all of them on a two, and so everything that she’s experiencing does ring very true, to me as a woman in this industry, it’s just that she’s experiencing them at the highest volume possible,” Sophie told me. Fear, wanting love from strangers, self worth— those are part of the experience of being an entertainer, but also of womanhood.
Kramer seems to comment on womanhood in Give Me Pity! through the way she reveals Sissy’s inner self, like her straining attempts to maintain perfection, and the cracks that inevitably show as she attenuates. “I was trying to approach it from Sissy’s perspective, who is of course, not thinking about what she is saying about being a woman, she’s just being herself,” said Sophie, reminding us that Sissy is human first, representative of women second. “But I sense that Sissy felt the need to hide all the parts of herself that she thinks of as unattractive, shadow parts of herself. She covers it up with this very feminine gloss and a different voice. But her need from the audience to be loved, seen, and her need to make it, are so deep that those other unattractive, darker sides of herself can’t help but come out. Maybe it’s saying, you know, if we don’t let our shadow out to play every once in a while, they can come out and take control, wreak havoc on our lives and sanity.”
Perhaps because of the interest in Jungian and Freudian psychology, and “mad geniuses” (Sylvia Plath, etc), the world seems fascinated with extreme characters, and so are actors (especially actors). Sophie is less attracted to extremity— surprisingly, considering her character. “I tried to let myself go there, but also not let myself wallow in it too much. Amanda’s writing is very clear about when she wants to see me be in those places of hysteria,” Sophie said. “It’s very important to acknowledge when you’re feeling those kinds of things, but I’m not a particularly dramatic person in that way in my own life. Which made it that much more fun to tap into.” Then she came upon a realization, reminding me of how I felt after seeing the movie— full of ideas and sparks— “God, I mean hysteria, right? Doesn’t it come from the word for womb? It’s so intrinsically linked to the idea of being a woman.”
Yet at the same time, intense characters— Heath Ledger’s Joker, for example— are rumored to encroach on the actor’s psyche. Sophie chuckles when I ask whether Sissy has. “I hope not. I mean, she is the hyperbolic version of so many aspects of themes and femininity,” she answers. “But of course, we shot the whole thing in five days so while shooting, I certainly felt I was immersed in her psyche…But I think I was able to shake if off after, which is— thank God.”
The decision to shoot the movie in five days saved money, and it replicated the time frame of a real TV special. As she says, “indie filmmaking is hard.” But with 3 cameras filming every scene, nothing is lost.
During shooting, Sophie planned very little for how she was going to act. “I was able to throw out any preconceived notions and really let myself be surprised, which was such a joy. I wanted to leave things open enough that I could surprise myself and Amanda. So during filming, I found myself being like, wow, I didn’t know that was gonna come out that way.”
One unexpected segment of the movie was called ‘The Avante-Gardist and her Date,’ which seemed to poke at the movie’s arthouse audience. On the movie’s comedy element, Sophie said, “A lot of what surprised me was how seriously Sissy takes herself and how funny it is as an audience member, because of course when I’m working on it, if I find it funny, then it won’t actually be funny. So of course, as an actor, I was trying to take everything very seriously. Then seeing the way she takes it seriously, I ended up finding very amusing.” It’s funny but disheartening to think of how Sissy craves recognition, to be taken seriously, but her very desperation is what makes it amusing rather than meaningful, profound. It feels perverse, sometimes, to laugh at her.
Even though Sissy is, ostensibly, a newbie in showbiz, Sophie has been a professional actor since she was 24, and is now 36. Despite the evidence, she still feels late to the game. In her youth, her mother, American darling Bette Midler, discouraged her from entering the acting industry, despite the success Bette herself enjoyed. “No matter how successful you are, it’s a heartbreaking business. No matter how much love and attention you get from the public, it’ll never be enough,” said Sophie, sounding a lot like Sissy. “There’s always someone else who’s doing better. There’s always someone else who got the role that you wanted. It’s a hard business to keep your sanity it. So I think, she wanted to spare me.”
Sophie also avoided acting to avoid comparison with her mother, which is intriguing considering the nepo baby boom. “I completely understand people’s frustration with the existence of ‘nepo babies,’” she said. But for herself, having a famous actress mother led to inner struggle. “From my own perspective, I tried for a really long time not to be an actor. I really discouraged the part of myself that wanted to be an actor. But at a certain point, it was the thing I was most passionate about, and I couldn’t stop it any longer, so I decided to pursue it. It’s the thing that makes me feel the most alive. So I would just have been doing myself a massive disservice if I hadn’t actually given credence to those feelings and desires.”
Bette also shielded Sophie from exposure to fame, though it’s always been in her life. She admits it’s probably a lot stranger for a Kardashian baby, and it seems her early experience with fame has helped, rather than harmed, her discernment of “the ways in which I would or would not like to engage with that part of the world” and maybe even circumvented the kind of fame-bug that Sissy grappled with.
However, most of us are probably more like Sissy, having grown up with social media, with the latent desire, or at least curiosity, but intellectual sense of impossibility, about being an influencer, having influence, having fame. “I think we all, from an intellectual perspective, understand that if your self-worth is based on whether or not strangers think you’re special, you’ll never be happy,” said Sophie. “I think now with social media, more and more people are experiencing that from a first person place.”
Does Sissy ever achieve the fame, the adoration, she craves? The movie’s title seems to have already abandoned the possibility of something as respectful as adoration, for the basest mode of attention, pity. “In a way, she know’s that she’s lost the, almost, right to be loved and adored by the audience, because she’s gone off the rails,” Sophie explained. “So there’s a sense of, like, the last thing I can ask my audience for is pity. At least they can give me their pity.”
In a way, it’s ironic that Sophie plays a ‘pitiful’ character, because she’s so completely admirable, and capable. And since she’s the only cast member, she shoulders the responsibility of a whole ensemble. “In a way, it’s also that the stakes for her feel incredibly high,” she said, of Sissy. “And for me, of course, they felt high as well— that if I didn’t do a tremendous job of this, then I would be letting myself down and the crew down and Amanda down.”
Yet just because Sissy is reduced to asking for pity, doesn’t mean she isn’t capable. Ostensibly, she does all the singing and dancing and acting Sophie does— it’s only her standard of the kind of attention she’ll accept, that is low. More questions come— do we revel in seeing a woman, a potentially powerful woman, brought low and incapacitated by her own beliefs about what she deserves? But I think Give Me Pity! intentionally puts questions without answers on the stage. And if there was any woman I could trust to deliver these questions, it would be Sophie, whose extraordinary emotional range and maturity as an actress makes a painfully intense, unbearably vulnerable character feel, somehow, connected to the reality and human experience you and me share.
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Story // Joann Zhang
Photo // Ester Seggretto