Hailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia and having acted for nearly 17 years, actress Sonja O’Hara has been working for too long to be considered a newcomer, but she’s certainly an “up and comer,” a fresh new face who is proving to be more than just an actress for hire.
A few years back, she was so dedicated to getting a role she responded to an ad for egg donors, and her experiences became the basis for her screenplay for Ovum, a low-budget indie comedy that’s now playing on the local festival circuit including the Boston Independent Film Festival and the Manhattan Film Festival. The movie shows her to be as smart and funny as she is attractive with a real knack for writing that’s sure to get her discovered sooner rather than later.
ComingSoon.net sat down with the delightful Ms. O’Hara a few weeks back after seeing her film at a special presentation at the Anthology Film Archives (where they had to change theaters to accommodate the larger-than-expected audience), and we spoke to her about making Ovum as well as what she has planned for the immediate future.
ComingSoon.net: I’m glad to have seen the movie, because I’m not sure I would have known about it all.
Sonja O’Hara: That’s the thing with these micro-budget films. You just never know if you’re going to get the kind of audience that you hope.
CS: I understand that it’s kind of based on your own experiences?
O’Hara: It is. I ended up becoming an egg donor about a year and a half ago now. That was my first time. I saw an ad in Backstage, and they really were looking for actresses that were beautiful and 5’ 5 to 6-feet-tall that had incredible GPAs and they made me come in and basically audition. I really went through it and at the time, I didn’t think I was necessarily going to write about it, but I thought it was interesting. Finally, they were like “Look, we’re getting to a point now where we’d be interested in offering you X amount of money if you do this.” I thought that if I actually did it, no one’s really gone on the record as a donor, and I would write about that experience.
CS: When you did it, was it mainly for the money or was it for a role?
O’Hara: It was like in the film that I was interested in what it’s like to be a donor, because I’ve never heard of anyone who has ever admitted, “I do this.” And yet you see these ads all the time for donors, so I was like, “Who would do this?” And then suddenly they’re telling you there’s a good side of it, too, and it’s not all cut and dry and potentially it’s cheaper for people to get donor eggs than adopt in New York State, so then I thought, “Oh, I’m actually doing a good thing,” and I’d also get $10,000, which certainly makes it a sweeter deal.
CS: Right, because a lot of people move to New York to be in the arts…
O’Hara: And you don’t want to wait tables and you’re like, “I can do something really good and also get paid for it and then also put that movie into the film.” We were able to get the film off the ground in the beginning by putting that first $10,000 then we got more money by other investors.
CS: You actually used the money you got towards the film?
O’Hara: Yes. It was the actual egg money was making a movie about egg donation.
CS: Did you know immediately that you wanted to write about it?
O’Hara: As soon as I saw that egg donation ad advertising next to ads for actresses, they were literally like “Casting: The role of a lifetime” and I didn’t think that they were looking for eggs. I thought maybe this is an acting job and they wanted models and then suddenly you realize, “No, they’re actually looking for human eggs.” Like eugenics.
CS: The movie looks at the process of being an egg donor, both the positive and negative, but it also shows what it likes being an actor and having to deal with auditions…
O’Hara: And the daily humiliation of putting yourself out there. I go to my commercial auditions and you really are doing ridiculous things like dancing for a medical ad, just really embarrassing things, so I just wanted to try to compare being a humiliating thing like an egg donor, while you probably get more respect as an egg donor than you do as a struggling actress. (laughs)
CS: What’s interesting to me is that many of the filmmakers I’ve spoken to—Judd Apatow is a great example—where he’s always telling actors to write stuff because that’s the only way you can get the roles you want.
O’Hara: Right, it’s true.
CS: If you want to make a movie you’re passionate about being in, write it yourself, because you can guarantee yourself a role.
O’Hara: Right. When I was living in L.A., I was doing horror movies, and I was being chased by a chainsaw and all that stuff, and I thought if I wanted to do better things and really smart, intelligent female stuff, and end up like a Kate Winslet, people aren’t handing those roles out to non-celebrities. I figured that writing was the way to do it, the only way I’d get creative control.
CS: The movie was directed by Matt Ott. How did you find him since he’s a first-time director? Did you know him beforehand?
O’Hara: No, when we hired our first producer, at that point, we were like, “I want to hire a female director.” That was my goal.
CS: You probably would assume that would be the way to go.
O’Hara: Right. Then I started interviewing people, but Matt came through a referral, and he brought this whole binder full of stuff about egg donation, and he was so wildly prepared, that I was like, “Oh, wow. This guy is passionate about it.” We then did a test shoot and we co-directed, and at that point, I was like, “I trust this guy. He’s really talented” and then you kind of hand over your baby to them. And yeah, he’s great.
CS: Film is definitely a director’s medium, but when you’re producing and writing and in the movie…
O’Hara: Right, and casting it ourselves.
CS: You can still be really involved.
O’Hara: Super-involved. As a producer, I was going and finding the actors and I found all the locations. We were doing rewrites on set and all of it. It was my baby, so…
CS: How long did it take to shoot it?
O’Hara: 20 days in Brooklyn last January, during that snowstorm, and it was just freezing. Shooting in New York during a blizzard is a terrible idea. (laughs)
CS: That’s really the way to do an indie movie, though, when you have to struggle every step to get it made.
O’Hara: People were having to crash on each other’s couches, because they couldn’t go back to Jersey to go home in between.
CS: How did you go about casting the other actors? Were some of them people you knew or had worked with on other things?
O’Hara: We hired the casting director who cast “Homeland” and she brought us Hassan Johnson, who starred on “The Wire” and we were fans of his, so we were excited to get him. And then other people I just had been watching indie films and there were actors where we just did an open casting call and we got a ton of submissions. There were so many out of work actors that when we put out the casting notice, we got 4,000 actors wanting to be part of it in the first two days, and you’re like, “That’s crazy there are that many actors that are desperate to do a micro-budget film.”
CS: How weird is it being on the other side of that where you have to judge other actors who come in?
O’Hara: Strange, yeah. And you see so many people that are so good and you can’t cast them maybe because they look similar to another actor in it, or maybe they’re too tall. There’s so many reasons you might not get a role, so it kind of made me feel like much more calm about my own audition and life. You’re like, “Oh, if I don’t get it, it’s not because I suck.”
CS: When you say it was an open casting call, were people just coming in and seeing you and then you had to decide whether or not they fit for a certain role?
O’Hara: We put it on Actors Access and you know you’re casting 70 roles or something like that, so some of them were actors I knew and had seen and were friends with and they would just submit and I would offer them a role. Other people, like for the girl who plays my love interest, Ellen, we saw so many actresses for that role and we got a thousand submissions and we just had them come back and audition again and again.
CS: How similar was this to your own experience as an egg donor? Did you get to meet the woman who was going to get it and everything?
O’Hara: I had to write a letter to her, so I didn’t get to actually meet her…
CS: Before or after?
O’Hara: Before I did it. One of the steps was that I had to write a letter to the future egg when it turned 18, so I put that directly in the movie, because I thought that was weird. And I did find out a little bit about her, that she was a journalist and that she wanted “creative eggs” and that’s why she picked an actress, so I thought that was kind of cool.
CS: I thought it would be more like adoption where you don’t get to see or meet or anything.
O’Hara: There are some agencies that are like that and then there are others that encourage you to meet the person and I turned that down, because I thought that would be too weird. But after this movie, if the person who gets my eggs, if she Googles, “Red-haired actress, New York, egg donation” I’m sure I would come up. (laughs)
CS: Even on your Wikipedia page it says that you’re the star of “Ovum” and that it’s based on your own experiences.
O’Hara: At first, I didn’t know if I should be so open and say it was based on something that I went through but then I thought it’s more truthful and I didn’t want to lie about it.
CS: And everyone’s going to ask about it anyway.
O’Hara: Everyone was asking so finally I was like, “You know what? I think donors should have a voice. I don’t mind being that.”
CS: I’m curious about the reaction to the movie since you’ve seen it with an audience a few times, so have women either been interested in donating eggs or more nervous about it after seeing this? It shows both sides of it and it’s tough thing. It’s not something you just go in, give an egg and get $10,000.
O’Hara: I met one other donor who had donated at the same time I did, but I didn’t know about that–another actress–and she came to me and got really emotional and said that she felt so much shame about this story and hadn’t even told her family, so she wanted to talk about it now. So I felt that was good, but I’ve met people who felt it was like a cautionary tale, too, and were like, “You shouldn’t do this” and really thought that this would maybe shut down all the egg donor clinics. And I don’t think it should or that it’s black or white.
CS: Going back to the aspects of the movie about being an actor, you do make a couple mentions of other actresses who are fairly well known so have you actually lost roles to Greta Gerwig or Zoe Kazan?
O’Hara: I’ve auditioned for a couple TV things recently where I’ll go in and see a high-profile actress in the waiting room and then you know it’s already cast, and then you’ll see something on Deadline that morning that someone’s been offered a role and you had an audition for it like the next day. And you’re like, “That’s so strange. Wow, obviously they’re not going to go with me for that.”
CS: That’s terrible. It’s funny because when you write about casting news, and posting these scoops, you wonder how many deals are being affected.
O’Hara: Yeah, like I went out for that Scorsese rock ‘n’ roll thing (for HBO) and that was one of the ones that didn’t make me sign an NDA or anything, but I saw later that it looked like it had been pre-cast with someone they had worked with before, which makes sense. (laughs)
CS: What do you think you’ll do after this? Do you have more things you want to write about?
O’Hara: Yeah, I’m writing a pilot right now about cults and I’m really interested (in that) and we’re shooting this summer, so I’m going to be playing a charater that kind of gets indoctrinated. It’s a little like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and we’re going upstate to shoot it. It’s really dark.
CS: Are you the type of method actor who had to join a cult to get into the character?
O’Hara: I don’t know if I should say this, but when I lived in L.A. I acted in some of the Scientology videos. I didn’t realize what they were at the time. I just auditioned and they pay their actors well, but then you find out later they’re on the website. I played a girl who was sad until she discovered Scientology (laughs) and then suddenly she can date. Someone found that later on the website and said, “Sonja, you’re a Scientologist” and I was like, “No, no, it was an acting job.” I’m interested in that sort of thing.
CS: Did your commercial make it into the Alex Gibney movie?
O’Hara: I saw that, yeah. When I saw that I was super, super interested in how these groups can control your mind, so some of that definitely influenced me. I loved that darkness. I think that’s definitely what I’m interested in writing.
CS: I guess that’s sort of an acting job as well because you get indoctrinated into playing somebody’s wife.
O’Hara: Seriously, yeah! People were like, “When you were auditioning, did you audition to play Tom Cruise’s wife?” I was like, “No, I think I was just doing (a commercial)” (laughs) It was very strange.
CS: My brother-in-law is an actor in Ohio and he once played a truck driver in the commercial for a really, really conservative politician.
O’Hara: And you don’t realize it’s an ad for Republicans. (laughs) People forget that we’re actors. Like I’ve done ones for health care stuff and I don’t think about it, but once you do one for Scientology, people think that’s really you. (laughs)
CS: Are you acting in this pilot as well?
O’Hara: I’m acting in it, and I’m writing it and co-directing it. My first foray into directing, so I’m really, really excited.
CS: Do you have to shop it around after you film it or do you already have someone interested?
O’Hara: No, we’re going to be taking it around and trying to see what we can do with it, but we’re thinking ideally it would be something like Netflix, something “Transparent” like that sort of format.
CS: I just spoke with someone else who directed a show for Netflix. It’s an interesting paradigm because television used to be ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox were the networks, but now there are literally hundreds of outlets, because everyone is a network.
O’Hara: Yeah and now you can take something out there and people might see it and you can get a following on your own, which is really great.
CS: While you’re busy developing that, do you still do auditions for other things?
O’Hara: I’m still doing auditions. I’ve been going out for some good series regular roles since “Ovum.” That kind of put me on the map and now I’m getting the auditions and getting closer to big parts, which is really cool.
CS: But those parts would probably have to take precedence to the things you’re doing on your own?
O’Hara: It is, because with “Ovum,” we went to the Boston International Film Festival a month ago, so we were traveling with it and promoting it and doing red carpet stuff and then I have to be in New York the next day for an audition, so it’s a lot.
CS: It seems fairly reasonable so far.
O’Hara: So far, which is great, but we’re doing something in Los Angeles later this summer and then Manhattan Film Festival next for “Ovum” on June 18.
CS: Is the ultimate goal to get distribution and get it out there?
O’Hara: That’s the goal. I would love for people to be able to see it.
CS: From the reaction I saw at the screening I was at, it doesn’t seem too unrealistic.
O’Hara: Yeah, people have been really passionate and it won awards in Boston and it also won awards at the Brooklyn Girl Film Festival, so it’s getting out there and people are responding really well.
(O’Hara also mentioned an actress that she used to work for who has been hugely supportive as well an influence on one of the characters in Ovum, but since she was unsure whether to mention her or not, we’ll just leave that for another time.)
Ovum will play as an official selection of the Manhattan Film Festival at 9pm on Thursday, June 18, at the Players Theater in the West Village, but you can learn more about the movie and Ms. O’Hara when she does a Reddit AMA on June 16 at 2 p.m. Eastern.