It was especially fitting then because her role of Andrea Cornish on the Emmy-winning limited series was the young woman who ended up stabbed to death after spending the night with Naz (Riz Ahmed), who then gets arrested for the crime. But in a way, it proved to be true for a few of her subsequent roles, such as Sabrina Pemberton on The Mick, who spent the majority of two seasons lashing out at everyone around her, only for her to experience a moment of growth and then promptly get struck by lightning, which put her in a coma. And in less-deft hands than the creators of Single Drunk Female, Samantha "Sam" Fink could also backslide down in her alcohol recovery as she struggles to get along with her mother Carol (Ally Sheedy), grieve her father David (Mitch Hurwitz), and mature a bit more.
"I like playing complicated women and someone who's not necessarily the moral compass just for the male character opposite them," Black-D'Elia tells Metacritic. "For me, personally, it's very boring to play a character who's always doing the right thing and [is] always the voice of reason — just because I don't know many people like that. Even people with the best intentions are complicated."
That said, Black-D'Elia isn't as attracted to "doom and gloom" as she perhaps once implied she was. That's why exploring alcoholism and recovery through a character like Sam was so attractive to her. Based on creator Simone Finch, Sam's recovery isn't perfect (Black-D'Elia is the first to admit she jumps through the steps before she is truly ready to take them all on), but it is still inspirational in that she is not only surviving, but she's really trying.
"Getting sober is a huge success and a huge win, but it doesn't immediately fix all of your problems and make a perfect person. It's that slow and steady climb up the mountain that I was excited to tackle," Black-D'Elia says.
Here, Black-D'Elia looks back on agreeing to play a dead girl on The Night Of, the weight of playing a young woman getting sober on Single Drunk Female, and stepping back into high school for The Mick in between.
With a project like The Night Of, you know you're going into the show to die. Meaning, the purpose of your character is to be killed, which then sets off the bigger story. Did you have to talk yourself into being willing to do that at all or craft a deep backstory for yourself in order to make sure she wasn't just a plot device?
I was thrilled; I was 20 years old and I was gonna get to work for Steve Zaillian, what a dream job! I would have played a girl on the street walking by in the background. I was studying at the Esper Studio at the time [but] I was in between my years in the program, and I knew that Bob Elswit was shooting it, and I think he's one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. And it really was there on the page — who she was at this moment when the audience finds her. And I think a lot of times acting is like being an F1 driver, in the sense that if you have a really great car and you're a decent driver, you're probably going to do pretty well. And I can't really think of a better car than a Steve Zaillian written and directed series. So, I just let the dialogue and who she was on the page inform what I could contribute to it.
I tried to make the most of every moment because I knew it would end soon, and I did want her to have a lasting effect on the audience because yes, that story isn't about her, but there is still a dead girl at the center of it that I was hoping people wouldn't forget about.
Did that work change anything in terms of the types of roles you started to consider? Because something I find interesting about your trajectory is that after, you were willing to play the high school-aged Sabrina on The Mick.
The guiding light for me has always been, who can I learn from on this job? And is there something here that I have never done before? And so, it's not as specific [to] a type of character or type of story as it is to who am I going to go play with the sandbox? And The Mick is a perfect example because Kaitlin Olson is an idol of mine, she has been for a very long time; I would have done one scene with her, let alone two seasons. I thought of the character secondary to that. In an ideal world I don't think I would have played high school again at that age, but I was so thrilled by the idea of working with Kaitlin and learning from her that it almost didn't matter.
It is funny to say that I thought of the character second when I first signed on to that gig because by the time we wrapped up I had fallen so deeply in love with her. And I thought we were really just starting to hit our stride and find the tone. By the time I was struck by lightning, I was like, "I could do this forever!" It was constantly surprising to me what they would put her through, and as much as I love Kaitlin and I think she's the funniest person on the planet, Glenn [Howerton's] was always my favorite character on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia because I thought from an acting perspective, "How fun to play almost a complete sociopath," and Sabrina really got there by the end.
What was the trickiest part of playing a character with a psychology like that?
The things that scared me the most in playing Sabrina were when she was really sincere and deeply hurt by something because when she's offensive and sociopathic, there's so much freedom in that: I get to play out this behavior that I would never do in my real life. But when she would try to connect with Mickey in a real way or someone at school would bully her for having real feelings, those were scary moments because it was the thing buried underneath it all for her. And I was always anxious about, "Well, how do I make that funny?"
It certainly feels like some of Sabrina's behavior, and some of Sam's on Single Drunk Female, is because they're masking something else. For Sabrina, there was a lot of anger and resentment over her home life, so did you consider the episode where she beats up her mother as a turning point at all? It was shown to be cathartic in the moment, but had the show not gotten canceled, would you have wanted to show a different Sabrina?
Absolutely. I was so excited when I read that script because it felt so honest for what she really wanted to do, which was punch her mom in the face. And as a gal who's sick of seeing daddy issues portrayed on TV, I was just enamored by how much Sabrina really resented her mother and could give two sh--- about her dad. The relationships to her mother and to Mickey are so much more complicated and interesting and messy and funny than her relationship to men on the show, with the exception of her little brother, which was also really fun to play with. But yeah, I think that was a turning point: There was a big release there and it was really fun to shoot.
In saying what you just did about mother versus father issues, how did you approach Sam's transformation in Season 1 of Single Drunk Female, given that she has not grieved her father properly?
I thought a lot about how there are things that, when we meet her, she is ready to acknowledge might be a pretty big issue in her life — the obvious one being drinking, maybe another obvious one [is her] relationship with her mother [and her] inability to mature and grow up. And then I just left the stuff that I think she's really not ready for — like grieving her dad and like her her best friend marrying her ex and her failed relationships and all of those things — go because I don't think she's there yet.
She has what looks like a quote-unquote rock bottom event in the premiere, which leads her to get sober. Do you consider that a true bottom event, enough to keep her sober?
And I think that what she says is so beautiful and true when she says, "Everyone always wants to know what my bottom is, but the truth is, it's just a series of bottoms." She just keeps thinking, "This must be it," and then she goes to her best friend's wedding in the finale and the guy that she fell in love with has relapsed. So it's, to me, at least, very true to life: two steps forward, one step back. I don't know that she'll ever have something she can say is her bottom, but I'm quite sure, like most people, that she will have a few more missteps.
Sam has many opportunities to relapse and she doesn't, and as a fan of TV and as someone who consumes a lot of it, I found that so refreshing. We don't see her slip back into a moment of despair when we leave her; we see her mending her closest friendship, able to coexist with her mother peacefully, and say no to going back down the rabbit hole even though it would be with someone she really has grown to love. I don't know what's in store for her, but so far I've just been so impressed by their commitment to telling an honest version of recovery.
One thing that is always said about those in recovery is how surrounding yourself with positivity can really help. Arguably her mother is a toxic force in her life for dismissing the idea that alcoholism is a disease. How did you approach her dealing with that, and how many of her responses now are born of the rawness of her being so early in the recovery process, versus the real Sam coming out now that she's not masking things with alcohol?
It's true, you're taught in the recovery process to heal and make amends and also move on if necessary. And I really liked that throughout the series, Sam tries her best to follow this road that's been laid out for her, but every once in a while she's just like, "F--- this. I'm going to do it my way": She makes amends way too soon; she goes back to the bar with Felicia after being told that she should never go back to a bar — especially her bar — ever again; and she's not only grappling with her mother on a daily basis, but she's living with her in the same house with all of these ghosts. There's obviously something about both of these women that makes them want to be around each other, want to push each other's buttons, want to fight, in a way. And I think they're taking a lot of things out on each other, but I also think that they're way more similar than they'd ever like to admit. It is a really interesting thing that she's trying so hard to make so many aspects of her life healthier and easier, and yet this incredibly challenging force of nature is just in her face all day, every day.
And absolutely, there is still a lot of stuff that has yet to show itself to her. But this is a woman who has really taken her time becoming an adult, so I don't find it surprising that she can't quite handle a lot of that yet. Whether it's her flipping out on somebody in the grocery store or for being rude, or not being able to get through one afternoon without calling everybody she knows and then going to the bridal shop to annoy someone who doesn't like her at all anymore, there are all of these behavioral things that are clearly the work of somebody who is not comfortable sitting in their own sh-- yet. We play it for a joke and it's one of my favorite things we did, but she can't even meditate for two minutes. It's hard to be a person, as Carol says.
Especially, as we've already touched on, when she isn't dealing with the death of her father. There is a sequence at the end of the season where we see Sam and her dad, which is not something I imagine you knew you'd get to play out when you were first building the character at the start of the season. Did it change anything in terms of how you had imagined their relationship or how she was quietly, privately, processing the loss?
Simone has been really generous with me. She told me very early on that she often had dreams about her father and that she was often drinking in them and and how painful that was for, obviously, so many reasons. And so, I would think about the fact that, even if I'm not talking about him, I'm probably dreaming about him all the time, and I'm thinking about him all the time, and it's so painful.
And then we got to shoot it and it was so sweet, and I realized it's sort of magical, this time that she gets to be with her dad again. And what a gift that is, and if only she didn't have to be drinking in the dream, she could really enjoy it. And I would imagine that's probably how she felt about a lot of his life, as well. In her one year speech in AA, she jokes about how she wasn't drinking as a kid, but she was drinking when he was still alive — when he got sick — and I think she has a lot of regret about that and really wishes that she could have just been present with him and enjoyed that time together without a substance in the way.
There's weight to Sam that I hope we see lifting over the course of the season. I tried to remove it very, very slowly so that it didn't feel jarring. Grief can just drive us into the ground in a real visual way, and I felt myself being hunched over often in the first half of season and really having horrible posture and not always wanting to look at people in the eye. And then as the series went on, I felt her stand up a little bit straighter and grow a bit taller and have an easier time communicating with people. I do think that a huge part of that is the alcohol, but another big part of that is this loss that is just sitting in her all the time, and until she can really talk about it — and I think especially talk about it with Carol — it's not going to get any better. And so, that's why, to me, the most moving and transformational scene for Sam is when they spread her father's ashes because she finally says something.
How do those changes affect what you plan to do in Season 2?
I think Sam needs to forgive herself still, for quite a lot of things, and I don't think she can really forgive her mom fully until she does that first. But I plan on approaching it the same way, which is, slow and steady wins the race. I think we do change, but it takes time. And there's a lot of things that are deeply ingrained in her that are going to take a lot more time to heal.
How do you feel about the relationship with James at this point? He did admit his relapse, but he may also be a threat to her sobriety.
I find his relapse really heartbreaking. And I think it's also really important because Sam spent the entire season thinking she's the only person at risk and that her problems are bigger than everybody else's, and what a huge wake up call and reality check that everybody is struggling and anybody can relapse. I hope it makes her a little bit less self-centered, but I do think it's a threat to her sobriety. There's rules for a reason and they work for a reason, and I think she did rush into that relationship.
I'm also curious about seeing Sam on her own, and if she doesn't have this crush to put so much energy into and if she's not working the steps in the same rigorous way that she was in Season 1, what happens then? What happens when there's not so much to distract her and fill up so much of her of her mind and her energy?
On many other shows, filming a scene at a bar might be one of the more light-hearted, fun ones to do. What did it feel like to shoot the flashback episode after you've already carried the weight of her alcoholism, but now you're playing scenes where she is not acknowledging, or perhaps even realizing, she has a problem?
It's really hard, especially when it comes so late in the game because you're kind of putting yourself in this f---ed up time machine. I had to force myself every moment to be as present as possible because you're absolutely right, she was nowhere near admitting she was an alcoholic yet; I don't think she was really looking at herself at all. So, it's still the high, fun part of the roller coaster for her, and I had to suspend my mind and my body there as best as I could. And ultimately, it was a really fun challenge, but I found that episode to be the most challenging of the series, for sure.
The anxiety, the stress, the fearfulness of pulling that off, I would call "nighttime feelings" in the hour you're trying to fall asleep. But then when I get to work, especially putting that blue coat back on — which I feel is Sam's drunk party coat — and putting the phone away and not thinking about her mom and not wanting to go home, and "This night is all I have," I had to let everything go and just be there, which is a really fun place for her to be even though she drinks so much that she ends up throwing up all over the street. As we went on shooting, it became obvious that even if her mind is not ready to admit that this is a problem, her body is screaming for help. So, I let the anxiety and fear live there because it could and then just tried to free my mind as of all of that knowledge.
That statement of, "This night is all I have" reminds me a bit of The Night Of, just in the sense of your characters being almost desperate to just live in the moment. Is that something you were cognizant of when filming Single Drunk Female, and how do you approach any similarities you might find?
One of my favorite directors that I've ever worked with is named Tyne Rafaeli, and she starts a lot of rehearsals with, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" And I've taken that with me. In The Night Of, why is this night different from all other nights? I think she knows that this could be her last night. And in Single Drunk Female, anything is possible: "I've met someone who understands me in a way that no one has. We have the whole night ahead of us. And anything is possible and anything can happen at any given second." I had never thought about how similar that experience was [for] those two characters, but I hope to just keep getting more and more like that because it's so much more exciting to play characters that are at this moment where everything is really full.