In the world of American acting, it is generally unheard of for a novice actor to be scooped up — out of Germany no less — and plopped into the highly coveted leading role on a premium cable drama. But Sarah Hay, who makes her thespian debut this Sunday as Claire, the lead on Starz’s ballet drama “Flesh and Bone,” is a professional in an entirely relevant field: she’s a soloist with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, Germany.
“I feel like I have two lives right now,” Hay says on a recent morning, overlooking downtown Manhattan from her perch in the penthouse suite of the James Hotel. She’s a long way away from her cozy apartment in Dresden, where daily life involves popping into her favorite bakery and browsing vinyl records at the local flea markets.
Hay, 28, was raised in Princeton, N.J., in a family of performance artists; both her mother and grandmother are amateur dancers, and her grandfather is a member of the New York Philharmonic. “I never saw anything else as an option for my life,” she says. “Instead of watching cartoons when I was little, I had Russian ballet videos from like the 1950s and 1940s.” Growing up, she commuted seven days a week to Lincoln Center to train; first, at the School of American Ballet at the New York City Ballet, and later the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of Ballet at the American Ballet Theatre.
At 18, she was ready to enter the dance world professionally, but her “busty” physique proved a hurdle. “I had some struggles to find my footing,” she says. “I couldn’t really find a place to appreciate me — I’m a little bit curvy for the dance world.” After five years, she finally found the Semperoper Ballet, in Dresden, where she’s been now six years. “The artistic director there told me I was sexy, and I was shocked because my whole life I’d been told I was too heavy or too fat,” Hay says. “Once I found it, I didn’t want to leave.”
She has never dreamed of acting, even after a bit role in “Black Swan.” The part, in fact, nearly deterred her from pursuing acting all together. “Watching Natalie Portman work was kind of stressful because she was working so hard to keep herself in this form, so it kind of scared me,” she says. Her mind was changed when she received an e-mail about “Flesh and Bone” after the show had already auditioned over a hundred girls. “They couldn’t find the balance between this fragile character and someone who could dance on a professional level,” she says. Moira Walley-Beckett, the showrunner, mandated that every dancer on the show is a dancer in actuality.
“I was also really drawn to the project when I saw Lawrence Bender’s name on the production list,” Hay says. “He works with Quentin Tarantino and I love Tarantino.”
The Tarantino-tinged ballerina drama, which is eight episodes, focuses on the unpretty aspects of the art. Though visually elegant and rife with tutus, “Flesh and Bone” is more “Black Swan” than “Bunheads.” Yes, there are pliés and pirouettes, but there’s just as much sex, drugs and nail-biting drama.
The show was created and written by Walley-Beckett, the two-time Emmy winning producer and writer of “Breaking Bad,” and a former dancer. It may not seem it, but modern-day ballet can be just as gritty as cooking methamphetamine and Walley-Beckett infuses that rough-around-the-edges realism into the show.
Hay plays Claire, a complicated young woman, fragile and fiercely focused on ballet as a means of coping with her awful home life. To prepare for the role, Hay consulted her parents, both psychologists, to study mannerisms and characteristics of abuse victims. “She doesn’t know what love is; she’s tainted, and damaged, and now she’s thrown into this world where everyone is tainted and damaged and glamorous and crazy and beautiful and she’s just gasping for breath to find normalcy in a crazy world,” she says. The first episode sees Claire moving to the big city from Pittsburgh and, against all odds (and the wishes of the highly competitive — and jealous — other ABC dancers), landing a spot in the American Ballet Company.
As with “Breaking Bad,” actors on “Flesh and Bone” didn’t receive scripts until right before filming, a technique which “causes a ruckus for a lot of actors, but if you don’t know what’s going to happen, I think it’s a little easier to feel it when it does,” Hay says. Certainly this played well for the first-time actor, who worked with an acting coach during the audition period and again on the first three episodes, but mostly just went with her gut.
If Hay has anything to do with it, this won’t be her last time on-screen. “I definitely have the bug,” she says of acting, though she adds: “I think if I were to get something that didn’t have dancing in it, it would be a different experience.”
Part of the appeal is longevity; professional ballet comes with a definite shelf-life. “I would have to change my entire life if I went into acting,” she muses. “I dance eight hours a day, and then suddenly to be sitting on a set for 12 hours a day is a big difference for my health.” But all that sitting might just do. “This kind of fell in my lap, and I was like, ‘OK, well I guess I love this too so maybe I should just try to see if it works.’”