This story appears in the Pre-Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below
Story by Tova Gelfond | Photography by David Rams.
He presses her body up against the wall. Her breaths short and labored; hair jostling back and forth; body close-fitting arms and legs into interlocking friction. The air is tense, suspending questions in the atmosphere tossed against muddy emotions and raw intrigue. Halfway into the pilot episode of USA’s new show, “Satisfaction,” I find myself biting the flesh on top of my index finger. And then she’s caught, right at the top of the stairs, down a hallway — just moments after I became completely engaged in this plot.
I'm hours away from my studio visit to the USA set of the new show, where I’m sitting down with Stephanie Szostak, star of the series and the woman I’m watching cheat on her husband on screen. There’s always some enigmatic and effortlessly sexy way about Szostak in her roles. Memorably, as Jacqueline Follet, the threatening editor of French Runway magazine in The Devil Wears Prada, her stripe of bleach-white hair translated European confidence at a glance
When I arrived at the studio — a complex of flat, stucco-sided buildings in soft pink and cream tones — I peered over the drop-arm gate at the security desk at sea of concrete and trailers reminiscent of a post-modern major film studio compound in L.A. But we’re in Atlanta, just minutes away from downtown’s Coca-Cola skyline, where the new Hollywood has found one of many homes.
After opening glass doors marked appropriately, “Satisfaction,” I’m ushered through long, unexciting corridors decorated with brown envelopes of re-written scripts and schedules, to a break room that feels like the ugly step-closet of a lunch room in grade school. The immaculately designed TV set, equipped with a to-scale, faux, middle-america house (fancy picture frames included) is at a sound stage a mere golf-cart ride away. I’m embarrassingly late (after showing up at the shooting location instead of the studio) and apologetic. I find her perched in a folding chair, hugging the edge of a brown foldout table. Szostak is arched over a stack of stapled scripts, her lips moving silently in practice. She looks up and stands with welcoming exertion and hugs me warmly, though we just met. “I just had some time to read lines, it was great!” It’s a kind thing to say, but seems genuine.
She’s lovely in an unfamiliar, rather worldly way. A could-be Parisian-girl-next-door, but it’s a completely different neighborhood. Unforcedly sexy — even in the racerback fitness top and workout pants — with rich, dark eyes and easy bangs. Petite and fit, her lean muscles lengthen her stature.
She has to be on set later in the evening, so I’ve imposed on her work day. It’s lunchtime and she starts talking about local eateries — her new Atlanta favorites: Abattoir for bone marrow and sweetbreads; Rathbun’s for steak and drinks; JCT Kitchen for Southern specialities. “But to me it’s not Southern Southern,” she says of her local haunts. “It’s not all fried. It’s infused by this modern thing of going back to real food. People now enjoying meat, and you feel like you’re gonna go to the butcher and get pieces.” She’s a veritable Zagat guide for the city’s most sophisticated palates and you’d never tell by the looks of her. Foodies this deep in the scene rarely have this skin and muscle tone (yoga five days a week takes responsibility for her physique that shows no sign of motherhood).
“I could talk about food forever.” It’s lunchtime; we look around the break room indiscriminately. There’s a sink, a fridge — all the makings of food options, but we decide not to opt in to this lunch route. “I could listen to you talk about food forever,” I think, but keep the sentiment to myself. Her accent, stemmed from a French upbringing and developed over years of travel, is soft, rounded and sultry. Her tongue rests on the vowels, elongated ‘e’s and rhythmic consonants in a pattern of tonal intrigue. An attribute that was thought to hold her back from the field of acting when she first thought about delving in. “[I told people] I would love to take a real acting class, and everyone was like, ‘No, no you have an accent,’” she says. Though it never proved to be a deterrent.
Born in the suburbs of Paris, Szostak’s American, Iowa-raised father and French mother brought her up to live with more of a citizen-of-the-world than an expat-in-Paris mentality. “My parents saved all of their money for summer vacation,” she recalls. A time when travel across the U.S. was affordable, Szostak toured the span of states, uncovering a wildly fantastical obsession with America year after year. “It was the best memories. So I knew the United States in a way better than I knew France. We went to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, California.” I’m ashamed to tell her she’s seen more of the country than I have.
“I remember telling my best friend in elementary school, ‘In America, when it rains, the raindrops don’t wet you.” An idealism that only prospered in diary entries with plans to move across the Atlantic. So when the time came to choose a university years later, she attended William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. (though her English was poor at best), where she studied marketing and played on the golf team.
“You probably would’ve been cushy as a CEO,” I say in response to her academic pedigree. “All the business marketing, you’re bilingual, the golf skills, the good looks,” I say.
“Yeah ... ,” she thinks, letting memories fill her smile. “But I didn’t know any better.”
“If you were a guy, you’d be wearing sweater vests and charming other CEOs.”
She laughs. “I had no clue what I wanted to do, and I thought that’s the best way to get a job is to study business ... but I graduated and moved to New York and got a job at Chanel.”
Getting a job at Chanel, the most iconic fashion house of all time in New York City is the “job a hundred girls would kill for” — a feeling she would reprise when on her fashion film years later. She was an assistant in the skin care department who moved up the ranks over two-and-a half years, but like so many unlucky fashion lackeys, she felt the position was incredibly rewarding. “I loved it and I was creative and I remember giving [my boss] my ideas, but I remember looking at my boss and my boss’ boss and thinking, ‘That’s not what I want to do.’” But the fashion certainly stuck — everyone at Chanel was impeccably dressed, and sample sales (although wildly out of her budget) provided her with pieces that line her wardrobe today.
I don't know if I could ever leave a life at Chanel. Or tolerate it for that matter. But her exit from fashion was like a tunnel cut directly into acting like a dam flowing water evenly, and in one direction. And it happened quickly. While fashionably employed, Chanel sent Szostak to work on a training brochure for the company. She was asked to step in on the photo shoot, when the photographer asked her what modeling agency she was with.
“And I said ‘Oh I’m not a model,’” Her hands cross back and forth in protest as she tells the story. “And he said, ‘Oh you could be.’
‘No, I’m too short and I’m too old,’ I said.
‘You’re not, actually,’ he said.” She smiles at me, taking a pause. “It just stayed in my head and I thought maybe I could make the same amount of money doing modeling as doing this and then figure out what it is I want to do.” Looking at her, it’s such a feasible transition. She has the disposition for it, and she’s fun. Light.
Seizing the opportunity, she figured she could model part time and then work in her husband’s office as the Excel spreadsheet guru. IMG models said no, but Wilhelmina Models offered her a spot in “new faces,” even though she would be lumped in with 16-year-olds, and she was married. So a humble and excited Szostak ended up booking job after job, loving the chance to play, try on clothes, get into character, when she got sent on commercial auditions, ultimately leading her to a rudimentary acting class. And she was hooked.
I watch her translate emotion through movement. Her hands are small, thin, agile — they move through the air as she speaks, like a conductor of an orchestra. Telling a story with woven motions and flexed fingertips. It’s not, however, overeager. She’s relaxed in her seat and her motions are slow. Graceful. Like movements through gelatin of speech.
She was fortunate enough to be recommended to Sondra Lee, a teacher for working actors. “So I called her up and she was the real deal,” she says. “I went in her class and just remember seeing people work and being blown away. The first time I got up and did a monologue, I was like, that’s it. This is what I’m gonna do.” Her eyes seem glossy retelling her moment, even in the fluorescent hum of the back room. Her breakthrough — the tipping point from layman to character experimenter. “As a first time actor, when you forget yourself in a monologue. And you know, I cried, but you don’t know what’s happening ... (breath) ... the character takes over.” She’s lifting her hands higher for emphasis. “So that feeling of disappearing and having something that you don’t know come up brought joy, and I needed to feel that.”
The thing about Szostak is that she has the chops to expect and support her presence in the industry as a substantial one, but in truth, she hasn’t be doing this long. Casting in The Devil Wears Prada was her first studio role ever, where she worked with Meryl Streep. “She was almost always in character,” she shares. “It never left her. The demeanor of Miranda. But at the same time, I had the tiniest role.” She shakes her head in a comical way. “I was there for three days and we had a flashback scene with no dialogue coming into a restaurant and we were just talking. Talking about the scene and she asked me questions about my life, and she opened up about her life. So nice. I never felt like I was some day player, which I was.”
Since then, roles in Iron Man 3, Dinner for Schmucks and Gimme Shelter have put her on the map. Then the appearance of “Satisfaction,” where she plays a woman with a seemingly perfect life who cheats on her husband. With an escort. The story becomes tangled as her husband discovers her infidelity and responds in force by becoming an escort himself. Plotlines are unquestionably sexual en route to larger themes: relationships, communication, self discovery, grey areas of love. “In real life, even if we are mad, it might be a split second of mad. Just a look,” she explains, pinching her fingers together demonstrating an inch of mad, “it’s all different colors happening at once and that gets to me easier and easier as the season progresses because you know your characters, you have a past. These things kind of evolve on their own and then they’re alive inside of you and you don’t have to search for them.” The journey of such an explorative script is that it’s meant to provoke thoughts and larger familial questions made apparent by USA’s promo line: “Would you be willing to risk your marriage in order to save it?” Viewers will be tuned in to the steamy sex scenes and jungle of emotions to find out (I, included).
The afternoon is winding down as she shares warm sentiments about her kids visiting her on set and her stage daughter (Michelle DeShon) who has become the truest of friends, and we connect on TV shows on our hit list (“House of Cards” for me, “Breaking Bad” for her). She’s a few hours away from hair, makeup and an evening on set and she’ll have to be on location soon. “It’s fast-paced,” she says nodding. “You know, tomorrow we start a new episode and I’ve read it twice but now I’m really starting to dive into it,” her finger grazing the edges of her stack of papers. It’s hard to leave the ugly room, the fluorescent lighting — even with a grumbling stomach. Szostak is comfortable, easy and polished. I found myself drawn to the minutia of the moment, her laissez-faire femininity that pulsates through an irregular pace. She has managed to acquire a lavish dose of true satisfaction in her life through love and her craft. It’s been a very limited window into her mind and her world — not so unlike watching the pilot episode weeks before it airs. You know so much, but understand so little. Or where it’s going to lead. Down a hallway and up a staircase to her sexual exploits for one. But from there, I just know I’m going to be satisfied.