Sophie von Haselberg was very aware of being called a “nepo baby” long before New York Magazine coined the now-ubiquitous term for the children of famous people. It’s why she was initially resistant to becoming an actor. Her mother, Bette Midler, to whom she bears a striking resemblance, is an icon of stage and screen and von Haselberg says there’s “a lot of fear around being compared to her… now, with all the ‘nepo baby’ stuff, those fears are, I think, justified for all people who decide to go into any field that’s the same as their parent who’s had success,” she tells StyleCaster. “Like, ‘How can I possibly hold my own if my mom has already made such an impact?’”
It’s also true that her mom tried to discourage her daughter from pursuing a notoriously “heartbreaking” business. “It’s so hard to allow the work itself to be enough,” von Haselberg reflects, “and when you’re not working, it’s hard to be an actor who’s out of work, which 99 percent of the time 99 percent of us are. So, I think the heartbreak of that is what she really wanted to spare me.”
Though she spent time with her mom on set and was always interested in storytelling, von Haselberg’s B.A. was in sociology and East Asian studies. It eventually led her to her first job out of college; working for an advertising agency in Shanghai. “I would just sit and stare at my computer,” she recalls. “I was having these intense fantasies of being an actor. It was really like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Finally, I just said, ‘Fuck it,’ and I found a monologue class… I started going and was like, ‘Oh, this feels so normal to me.’ And that was it.”
As far as advice for Hollywood goes, Midler has allowed her daughter to forge her own path. After years of not wanting her mother’s advice, von Haselberg now feels she has her own work to stand on; making her film debut in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015) and taking on the role of a no-nonsense political staffer Tanya Benson in House of Cards season five. Now, she stars (almost) solely in the indie film Give Me Pity directed by Amanda Kramer; a surreal, almost psychedelic examination of identity, fear and celebrity. Von Haselberg plays the variety TV show host Sissy St. Claire, whose pride, insecurities and delusions of grandeur begin to crumble as a menacing masked figure haunts her from beyond the frame.
I watched Give Me Pity last night and this film is such a trip. I love it. Can you tell me how this film was pitched to you?
I was sitting with my friend, Nicole Delaney, who’s a filmmaker, on my couch here in New York. And she was like, ‘Oh, randomly. I got this email from this director, Amanda Kramer, who does these really interesting films and she mentioned that she was interested in working with you. Would you be open to talking to her?’ And listen, any director who wants to talk to me, I’m thrilled. So I was like, ‘Yes, sir. Put us in touch.’ And Amanda sent me an email saying, ‘I want to do this project. That is about a late 70s, early 80s variety-style show you would be singing, you would be dancing. You’d be doing a series of monologues; would you have any interest?’ And I said, Yes, absolutely.’ She sent me the script and it was already in its current incarnation. It was already totally ready to go. So that was it. I was in I was hooked.
This character of Sissy goes on this wild emotional journey. What was it about her that appealed to you?
Honestly everything. It’s really rare to have the opportunity to do this—as an actor working on the projects that I’ve been working in and as an actor in her mid-30s. You get to watch this character go from being all ego to being all id. You watch this character transform from someone who is so conscious of the outside gaze to someone who basically is incapable of even reckoning with the fact that people are looking at her that she becomes so wrapped up in her own psyche. I think just that whole journey was very exciting to me to get to play in that world in the world of such extremes.
If they’re responding to your work, and they don’t like your work, of course, that is, in some way, personal. But that doesn’t actually mean that it’s tied to who you are as a person.
Is it true that it was only shot over five days?
What was that like?
It was really like doing a live show, which was incredible. It was incredibly condensed, but we weren’t even working crazy hours. This was not as if it was like, ‘You’re working five days, but you’re working 18 hours a day.’ The hours were very manageable. Amanda was so brilliant because she set up three cameras so rather than having to do different setups every single time and if she liked one take, that was it. Most of the monologues that you see, in most of the numbers, we did three takes at the maximum. It was really nice to have the momentum of moving through the show with this character. So, I really, I really enjoyed it. The greatest five days of my life.
There’s a great part where you, Sissy, are sitting on a stool and you’re reading out audience questions, much as they used to do in those variety shows, and while they start off pleasant, they turn sinister pretty quickly and it reminded me a lot of this constant cycle of feedback we experience in the world of social media. How do you navigate that?
Yeah, it’s such a wild thing that we’re living through, and I have this sense that in 10 years, we’re gonna look back at this period of time and be like, ‘Wow, guys, that was crazy that we, we were all engaging in the world in that way.’ I wasn’t on Instagram until like, April of 2020 when I guess the pandemic made me go crazy enough that I was suddenly ready to join Instagram. And I feel, at least in my experience, that the mood on there tends to be pretty supportive. I certainly, so far, haven’t had anybody reach out to me and say, ‘You fucking ruined my life. I hated your performance so much,’ but that will come. It’s all just part of it. And I think it’s just understanding that yes, the negative things that you hear will certainly lodge themselves in your head. And then it’s like, how do you untie that knot and just realize that, like, that’s one person out of seven billion and who gives a shit?
And I suppose that ties in with what we were talking about earlier with rejection and auditions and not taking things personally.
Exactly. And I think there’s this whole thing of, ‘It’s not personal.’ If they’re responding to your work, and they don’t like your work, of course, that is, in some way, personal. But that doesn’t actually mean that it’s tied to who you are as a person, right? It’s not tied to your essential worth as a human being. So, it’s separating those two things, allowing for the fact that this person is saying something about your work that might be hurtful. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to make your work and to be a person in the world.
Give Me Pity is available to rent or buy on Prime Video.
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