Sonja Sohn came up hard. The only female star of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire—she portrayed steely detective Kima Greggs—Sohn grew up in a neighborhood as stricken by poverty, drugs, and violence as those depicted on the show. A home life that found her defending her mother against her abusive father (they've since reconciled), meant an early life of ambition was dotted with drugs and trouble. It wasn't until Sohn hit her thirties (already old age for women in Hollywood) that Sohn turned her poetry chops into dramatic ones. Today, Sohn stars in ABC's Body of Proof and moonlights as the head of ReWired for Change, the Baltimore nonprofit she founded in 2009 to help at-risk youth and youth wrapped up in the criminal justice system break out of the cycle of violence through interventions and workshops (some featuring episodes of The Wire). Coming off a "me trip" to Peru last month—her first such vacation in a decade—Sohn talked with Mother Jones about her past, being a CEO, and, of course, playing Kima.
Mother Jones: Who were the mentors who provided you guidance growing up?
Sonja Sohn: Even though the neighborhood I grew up in had some unhealthy elements, there was a caring there where you knew that you didn't want to get caught doing something wrong. There were bright spots in the neighborhood where I felt nurtured on a community level. Also, the air that I gave off in school was that I was quite functional. I was making decent grades. I was very academically inclined. But my inner life was in such turmoil. I'd go home and my home life was so miserable that it just felt like I was doing everything that I was supposed to do. I did all my chores, made really good grades, and I was excelling at school, but I wasn't happy. Making decent grades is easy; if I wanted to get straight A's I'd have to work a little bit, but I could always pop a B without studying. So I sort of weighted my junior high school and high school years out in that way. And I mean w-e-i-g-h-t-e-d, I weighed myself down, got through.
MJ: What were your hobbies?
SS: When I was little, I was just kind of grabbing at anything I could get my hands on. If there was a hobby it would be reading. But it's not like I would look through the Encyclopedia Britannica. I loved to write; in my late teens I had a zine. But it wasn't until I went back to school, later on in my 20s that I actually saw that I had writing talent.
MJ: How did you get into acting?
SS: I went back to school at a point in my life when I did pretty much a 180. I married a really nice artist, a photographer from a middle-class background, two kids, and we lived in Brooklyn and drove a Volvo and rented a five-bedroom house and it was a beautiful picture. But I was basically becoming my worst nightmare, smoking everyday, doing coke on the weekend. My past was catching up with me and the drugs weren't containing it. It was sort of just popping through this little Norman Rockwell painting left, right, and center 'til I had to address it.
And that's when I started writing poetry. It was almost as if this poetry was just sort of pouring out of me, and it was addressing all of the pain of my past. It was healing me. On some level, poetry is kind of like a strand of the craft of acting. I studied acting for five years. I quit college at that point. You know, I go hard. When I know I'm supposed to go in a direction, I'm fully committed and I go all the way. Everything falls to the side and I'm all in. So I completely dove into acting even though I was almost 30. I knew what the odds were of success. But I follow spirit over logic all the time and all I knew is this was what was resonating most deeply for me.
"I was having problems remembering my lines and I would work on them for hours. It was absolute torture. I wanted to quit. I was so close to quitting."
MJ: The Wire must have been very emotional for you. How did that affect you on the set?
SS: When The Wire comes along, I'm a bit conflicted: This is my first big long-term gig, but I'm playing a cop. I feel some residual feelings about cops from the way I was brought up and the things that I had experienced with cops growing up. And so now I gotta find a way to be an actress playing a cop as opposed to Sonja thinking she's a cop. The first year was the hardest, because I thought that I had healed completely from so much of that early childhood trauma that had occurred in my life. I was not expecting the kind of difficulty that I encountered. I was having problems remembering my lines and I would work on them for hours. I couldn't for the life of me understand why I was experiencing these sporadic freeze-ups. It was absolute torture. I wanted to quit. I was so close to quitting that show. It wasn't until the beginning of the second season—I just said, "Why don't you just ease up a little bit, just be professional. Maybe you're over-investing—maybe you're caring a little too much." So I just focused on being technically proficient.
Over the next few years, I began to see what had actually happened. Information started to come to me about how childhood trauma—how trauma in general—operates within people. I began to see that it wasn't that I couldn't act—it had nothing to do with my acting talent or ability. What it had to do with was triggers: shooting in a neighborhood that was reminiscent of my old neighborhood. Seeing certain kinds of scenes and people whose lives mirrored the lives of people that I knew. That was triggering all kinds of stuff in my brain that I had absolutely no control over.
MJ: You've said that when you were younger, you saw cops as "good for nothing except interrupting the madness of the moment." Has that perception changed after years of playing a cop on TV—first on The Wire, now on Body of Proof?
SS: There are a number of things that have informed my newfound respect for law enforcement and the people who are in it because they truly want to protect and serve. By playing a police officer and going on ride-alongs and talking to various members of law enforcement, I was able to see that there's more to the people who do those jobs. And that the cops who are acting without integrity do not represent them all.
MJ: You really had to represent on The Wire. You were the only lesbian and the only woman cop and really the only black woman with a significant role in all five seasons—really the only major female star. Did you feel the weight of upholding all these diverse identities?
SS: I think probably the greatest attraction to the role initially was the fact that those demographics were underrepresented on television. But in terms of having to uphold something, I don't need any added pressure. I need to be free in the work. It was my job to get to the heart of that character, to get to the truth and the heart of who Kima was—and Kima as a person beyond being black, female, and lesbian. We're much more than those sort of outward societal tags. I had to honor the full truth of who she was, and in doing that, those demographics would be honored.
MJ: Kima went from ass-kicking clothes as a narcotics officer to dressier digs in homicide. Some people mourned the loss of her shit-kicking outfits. Did you?
SS: Yeah, I liked that! There were pieces of Kima that I really connected to. I liked kick-ass Kima. I liked her in the fatigues and the boots and the hat, and you know, the ch-ch-ch. That was really really fun for me, because you can't walk around the world being kick-ass. Even in Body of Proof, I think there's a badass sort of Pam Grier essence in Sam Baker, which I love to play.