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Billy & Ray's Sophie von Haselberg on Reading for Woody Allen, Moving to China, and Finally Finding Herself

Bette Midler's daughter proves you can take the girl out of show business but you can't take show business out of the girl.

Sophie von Haselberg is a woman of many interests. The 27-year-old actress spent her undergraduate years at Yale studying sociology, moved to China to put her Mandarin skills to good use, and returned to her alma mater three years ago for another degree — this time an MFA.

On top of all that, she's an old-movie buff. Currently starring in The Vineyard Theatre's Billy & Ray, a Garry Marshall-directed behind-the-scenes look at the making of film-noir classic Double Indemnity, von Haselberg expressed her appreciation for classic films: "I grew up watching Billy Wilder's movies, and I love film noir. I love that whole era."

Von Haselberg went on to reveal to TheaterMania how the insatiable curiosity for the human condition that has taken her in so many directions is now bringing her life full circle.

Sophie von Haselberg is currently starring in The Vineyard Theatre's Billy & Ray.
(© David Gordon)

What is it like to be part of a show about the creative process?

It's really cool…The characters in that film talk in such a specific style. The whole point is that the film is incredibly stylized. And what's fun is that we are creating that world, in the time period, but living in the real world.

It's funny 'cause in the first couple weeks, I kept coming into rehearsal and being like, "Garry, do you want me to do more talking like this [with a sultry rasp]? He was like, "These are real people, they're not ciphers. Use your real voice."

Sophie von Haselberg and mom Bette Midler on opening night of Billy & Ray.
(© David Gordon)

What has it been like working with the legendary Garry Marshall [famed creator of television comedies Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork & Mindy]?

So great. He's like the best grandfather in the world. He's so funny. Oh my god. I don't know why I thought this, but I kept on thinking that maybe his sense of humor would be kind of prudish. But he's totally dirty. And he just knows comedy better than anybody I've ever met. He has an internal rhythm that is uncanny.

Garry is a comedy doctor…There are certain things that'll be funny-ish on the page and then you do them and they just fall flat on their face. There's a part where Billy orders a drink, we ended up changing this a little bit, but he says, "The usual for me, Helen. Better make it a double." And I say, "Your usual is a double." And then he says, "Just fix the drinks." And we were trying it and trying it and it wouldn't work. And then Garry was like, "Well, try singing it"…And like it just totally made it land. The man's a genius.

What has your career and educational path been like?

I sort of always knew that I wanted to be a performer, but I think the fact that my mother was also one made me shy away from it. I was always performing in some capacity. I did school plays, I danced. But I kind of stopped myself from becoming an actor at a certain age. I was kind of like, "OK, no, I'm gonna be serious about things." I tried a bunch of other things, and I just never really found the thing that I love. And then I found sociology, and I was so taken by it. What I loved about it was that it's really the study of being a human in society, of the way culture works. That's also part of what acting is: why do people do the things that they do. So I fell in love with sociology. But it was never gonna lead to a career path that I wanted, because this is the only one that I really want. So I moved to China after graduating. I lived in Shanghai for a year, working at an ad agency. I was doing my best to be a professional and do the thing. And I kept on wishing that I was an actor so I left and I finally decided to try it. And here I am.

And you're in an upcoming Woody Allen movie as well.

I am, which I'm so excited about. It was so crazy. His casting director saw me in [Yale's MFA] Showcase, and she called me and she was like, "What are you doing next week?" And I was like, "Uh, I don't know, moving out of New Haven." And she said, "I'd love to have you come read with Woody." And then I read for him and a few weeks later, I found out I got it.

Between the play and the movie, do you think sociology informed your work as an actor?

I think it's just that it helped to like turn on something in me that was always there, like, in my fascination with humans — god, that sounds so weird — but you know, what makes people do the things that they do. It served to further hone my curiosity. I've always been very fascinated by humans, you know, by what it means to be alive.

Sophie von Haselberg and Drew Gehling in a scene from Mike Bencivenga's Billy & Ray at The Vineyard Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)