In her new role in The CW’s The Republic of Sarah, it really is Stella Baker’s world and we are all just living in it.
For rising actress Stella Baker, the path to becoming an actor wasn’t exactly fleshed out and created for her, but one that she found, eventually, after years of quietly realizing it but not having the complete confidence to pursue it. Despite growing up with actors for parents, it wasn’t entirely on her radar. Instead, her formative years were spent leaning into her biggest love — writing. It wasn’t until she moved to Portland, went to college, and performed in a play in her early 20s that she realized acting was exactly what she was meant to do. Knowing herself, she wanted the education to pull from to feel confident in auditions. A few years later she found herself graduating Yale School of Drama and shortly after she booked her first role.
Although she’s aware of the disheartening aspects of the industry, Baker isn’t disillusioned by it. Instead, she sees it as another form of education by being able to jump into each character, live alongside them for months at a time, and learn just as much about them as she learns about herself. Her latest role as Sarah Cooper in The CW’s The Republic of Sarah has allowed her to do just that. When a town is pressured to be demolished for profit, Sarah, a local teacher, suggests something unheard of — for the town to become an independent nation. Stella portrays the tenacious Sarah with equal parts vulnerability and fortitude, deftly balancing the fine line between being a strong leader and wanting to ensure everyone in the town is met with empathy for their own single, unique issues they face from living in an independent nation. In a world where teen dramas of today are either pegged to a comic book or consist of a chaotic group of high school students, the show truly is a breath of fresh air.
1883 had a chat with the rising actress about The Republic of Sarah, embracing vulnerability in her work & life, and the books she’s read that have had a lasting & profound impact on her.
You come from a family of actors, but I admire that you still chose to get the foundation of acting and the training behind it by going school. Why was it important for you to leave LA and get that acting training in New York?
I was born in Australia, grew up mostly in LA, moved to Portland for college, and then I went to acting school in New York — I’ve been all over! [Laughs] It took me a really long time to get the courage to pursue acting even though I always wanted to do it. I did my first play when I was in college when I was around 19 or 20 and it felt like it was what I wanted to do and what I needed to be doing all of the time. I felt I was kind of late coming into it; a lot of people in the acting field always start young and I had no experience. I needed to be able to go into an audition and feel confident, so I thought getting into a good acting program would be the fastest way to get as much experience as possible. It ended up being exactly that.
We’re similar in age — you’re 27 and I’m 28 — and I understand the feeling of finding your passion late and looking around and seeing 21-year-olds thriving and you can’t help but ask how are you doing this! I didn’t know what I was doing at 21!
Right! One of the actors on the show, Izabella Alvarez, was 16 when we started shooting and she knows exactly what she wants; she has everything together, she’s so talented, and it seems like she’s a 30-year-old woman! She’s so on top of it. I admire it so much. I get what you mean, though — you want the confidence to do something and this new generation has no fear. I don’t want to say it’s them being entitled because that sounds negative, but it’s like their sense of self-worth is stronger.
[Laughs] Can’t relate.
How did you learn about The Republic of Sarah and what was the audition process like?
I got the script and I just really loved the character of Sarah so much. In the audition, the three scenes were so different. Sarah has such an arc just within the first pilot episode and there was so much to work with. The audition was so fun and it made me even more excited to potentially be a part of it. I met the producers and the showrunner in LA for my screen test and I loved them so it felt like the stakes were high because I wanted to work alongside them.
Something I like about Sarah is that, although she’s quite determined and headstrong, she has these moments where you see her start to break down and get scared and you portray that so succinctly. How do you approach building a character as dynamic as Sarah? Is there any sort of training or technique that you refer to or is it something you just naturally figure out?
I like to feel like I’ve done all of my homework, if that makes sense. In the script there are really specific details — I know the books on her shelf, the songs she’s listening to, and just tiny things like that. I don’t know how much you catch when you’re watching, but I knew I needed to read those books and listen to those songs to better understand who Sarah is. There are themes from the character that are pulled from Jeff King, the creator of the show. He loves punk music, which means Sarah loves punk music, so I started listening to punk music! [Laughs] Although I wouldn’t say I love punk, I gave it a go! Now, looking back at it, I see that I had the privilege of existing with Sarah for over a year. We were shut down back in March and then picked back up again in October and between those months, I had the time to think about Sarah, write stuff down, talk with Jeff, talk to the writers, and the other actors. There was so much time afforded to us as a cast to do our homework which I was so grateful for.
It helps you get into the mindset and it makes it more of a collaborative process; you’re not just kind of walking on set, reading some lines and then checking out. You and Sarah have co-existed for a year and that’s an amazing thing.
It has been a very collaborative process. Jeff is very open to conversation and talking about the characters and wants his cast to feel heard and supported, so it’s been a blissful working environment.
I know you guys filmed in Quebec & I’m in Toronto so I understand the harsh winters that you guys had to film and I hope it wasn’t too awful!
I don’t think I’ve ever been that cold in my life. I’m not good with it. It’s so beautiful when you’re inside bundled up with some hot chocolate, but when the cameras are freezing and things aren’t working because it’s so cold… That’s something else entirely! [Laughs] The whole crew is Canadian and they were dressed for the Arctic as if they were about to climb Mount Everest. Then you have me, in 17 layers of clothing to keep me warm, holding onto those hot pockets for dear life.
Although the premise of a city becoming independent from a country isn’t so common, a lot of the themes in the show are — the family dysfunction, alcoholism, social issues like ownership of land and he line between the working class and those trying to make money off the land. What was it like to navigate these themes while filming?
Hm… There are two parts of my brain working on this question. One half is me as an actress preparing for the role, thinking about the script and asking what is happening in the story that helps it fit into a bigger context. I had a lot of conversations with our showrunner about different aspects of the plot, constantly asking what something means or represents. Then, there is the other part of my brain where I remind myself that I am just Sarah and she cares about this thing within the show and that’s what is important to her. That is where I spend most of my time, to be honest. We did have a lot of discussions about rights to land and what it means to be a white actor trying to save this town. There is a part of my brain that is looking at what I am doing and there’s the other part that is just me acting as this person who cares about issues.
I read the essay you wrote for Backstage about mastering the art of not minding and I loved it a lot. You talk about feeling like your performances weren’t leaving your head and your audience wasn’t seeing your full potential. I know you touch on being a perfectionist as well — how has it been managing perfectionism in the film industry?
What an interesting question. I feel like this is such a ridiculous thing to bring up, but there’s this Oprah quote where she basically says you can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once. The idea of perfectionism in this industry where you’re trying to get everything right is like playing Whack-a-Mole; you can have X/Y/Z under control and then other things come up that you have zero control over. But we’re human beings; we mess up, we make mistakes. I’m still learning that more and more. It’s knowing that one thing I did today was successful, but these other three things I wasn’t successful at and learning to be okay with that.
There’s this need to want to have everything before you hit 30, but it’s nice to know that in 5, 10, 20 years, you could have everything that you want now or what you want now will serendipitously change into something else. Did that realization bring you a sense of peace — kind of knowing that as long as you’re working, that’s all that matters?
I have this bit of hope that everything is going to be okay. Whatever my career looks like, it will be what it’s supposed to be, I suppose. I worry a lot about everything and this stuff makes me anxious! It’s a very interesting question, it’s like I’m in therapy.
I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.
No, no! It’s a good thing to verbalize it and it’s interesting to make my brain work through it. My point is: I don’t have anything under control but sometimes things go okay!
Yeah, which is a beautiful outlook to have. It resonated with me because it’s nice to think about how much could change in 10 years and your life could be different and you have everything that you want.
Yeah! And then you get those things and you’re like, F*ck, I wish I didn’t have these new problems in my life now! [Laughs]
I don’t want to keep bringing up your Backstage article because I feel like it was a personal piece!
No, I love that you read it!
[Laughs] If you insist! You touch on vulnerability a lot and knowing that you need to be vulnerable for there to be a degree of authenticity. I ask musicians a lot about vulnerability in their music and why it’s important to them, but I’d love to know why it’s important to you to continue to allow yourself to be vulnerable — whether it’s on-screen, in an audition, or just in your day-to-day life?
It’s sometimes accessible and sometimes not. There are different areas of vulnerability as an actor. With acting, you’re the vehicle that is portraying vulnerability as you step into a character. Using a character as a mask can be quite freeing because you know they aren’t your words and it’s not you, so you’re exploring and feeling things this character is feeling. Some themes are very easy to access and some that are more challenging. For me, it depends on the writing. Some writing just hits in a place that you weren’t even expecting. It’s not even always hitting me — Stella — in a personal place, but it’s hitting my character and because of their experience and what they are going through, sometimes the writing is so perfect that you can just feel it. God, I hope that makes sense!
Yeah, especially on TV you’re growing alongside your character even if you don’t directly relate to them; you’re still learning the same things they are going through. Speaking of writing — I know you wrote and starred in your short film. Is writing something that was always natural for you or did it kind of already always coexists with acting?
For most of my life, I felt much more confident as a writer than an actor. Since I didn’t start acting until much later, I wrote constantly. I haven’t been on it as much as I usually am but it’s still one of my biggest passions. It is interesting to think about how I have felt more confident as a writer more in my life than I have as an actor..
Especially given what we’ve talked about in regards to vulnerability and writing is very much a vulnerable medium.
Yeah, thinking about that short film I wrote with a friend of mine and it was in such an early stage of it and my friend suggested having a reading. I was so scared — all I could think was “I wrote these words and I’m gonna have to watch someone else say them?!”. I couldn’t believe I let anyone look at it!
That was me when you started this interview saying you lurked me on Twitter! It’s like when you’re in school and a teacher is peering over your shoulder and you are horrified that you are being perceived.
[Laughs] That’s the best writing, though! When people are being vulnerable and so honest about something, it reads like a revelation. You know when something is so personal to someone and you feel how open they are? I love that. It’s similar with lyrics; some song lyrics just get at you even if you don’t know what street they are talking about, but you feel how honest they are through their writing.
Are there any books or songs that you can think of that have done that for you?
Joan Didion. Her book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a very precious piece of writing to me.
She’s something else. Sometimes I’ll just pull her books off my shelf and just read a few pages and I just think: how did you write this.
Like, how do you make the most simple thing sound so incredible? Do you know Deborah Levy and her book The Cost of Living?
I can see it on my bookshelf as we speak.
That’s a very special book to me, too.
They can use what some might call basic language and still describe things so perfectly.
Yes! It feels like I’m there with you, eating oranges for breakfast. It’s crazy. Should we start a book club? What are you reading right now?
Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Lonely City by Olivia Laing! We should start a book club.
I read Writers & Lovers but I’m writing down The Lonely City now. Thank you for the rec.
Lastly… if you could manifest something for yourself this year, what would it be?
God, I hope I get to act again.
I’m sure that’s in the cards for you, my friend. It will all be fine.
Once you’ve been an unemployed actor for a long time, you never really know if you’re going to get another job! [Laughs]
Well, just reread your essay and all will be fine! Just remind yourself that everything’s a process.
One of the other actors on the show says “Physician, heal thyself” to me all of the time because I’m always spouting out advice as if I know what’s right for everyone when I really just need to listen to myself.
And then you find yourself anxious in an interview and it feels like a therapy session…
It’s fine, it’s the best way to live — I wouldn’t have had it any other way!
Interview by Kelsey Barnes
Photograph by Nino Munoz
New episodes of The Republic of Sarahair Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.