Hopping on the phone with Sascha Nastasi back in November, just days before Black Beauty premiered on Disney+, it’s almost jarring how different she is from her character. Certain that she would have none of the mean-spiritedness her character in the film does, her real personality is bubbly, bright, and joyful, a nice contrast to the strict, tense-shouldered manner she took on to play Jennifer.
Black Beauty is based off the book of the same name. It follows a horse, named Black Beauty, and a girl, named Jo [Mackenzie Foy], who forge a bond through their shared sense of being alone as they enter new, uncertain environments.
Sascha describes her character, saying, “I would say [Jennifer] is competitive. She loves to talk, she loves to gossip, and she’s a little jealous as a person – and definitely of Jo in particular. But she’s also very dedicated. I imagine she’s a very dedicated horse rider.”
Before she stepped into the shoes of Jennifer, a completely new character to Black Beauty that wasn’t in the book, she first worked with the writer and director of the film Ashley Avis on another project.
The two first worked together on a short film titled Being and Nothingness which Sascha starred in as the lead, with Ashley Avis writing and directing. “[I] just loved and admired her so much and was such a fan of her work,” the actress says of the experience, gushing about Ashley before sharing that they formed a close relationship because of the short.
Sascha recalls when Ashley was beginning to cast for Black Beauty and how the latter mentioned there may be a part that’s just right for her. “She sent me the script and then she said, ‘If I show your stuff – show your tape – to the producers and they like you, then you can play Jennifer,’” she says. “That was awesome. That was all thanks to Ashley and her wonderfulness.”
As iconic as the book is and the staple it is in literature, Sascha’s memory of reading it is spotty. “I think I read the book when I was pretty little… I don’t know if I did,” she admits with a laugh. “I remember having the story in my head when I was really young but I didn’t remember that much about it before I was cast.” She alludes to having possibly seen one of the previous movie adaptations, though she can’t say for certain.
There’s definitely competition in ballet because… as much as one tries to be only competing with oneself and trying to be better than you were yesterday, you’re staring in the mirror all day; you’re staring at other girls in the mirror yourself.
What she has definitely seen, though, is some pretty classic mean girls media in preparation for her role as Jennifer. “I re-watched Heathers because I love it, and because I think the mean girls are so good in that,” she says of what fictional characters she looked to for inspiration. She mentions also watching Mean Girls. “I love Rachel McAdams and everyone else in that movie,” she says. “They do such a good ‘mean girl’ job.”
In the film, Jennifer offers a sharp contrast to Jo. She has the money, the looks, and the freedom to do what she wants in equestrian sports while Jo is struggling to fit in, decide what she wants to do with her life, and later, also struggles to provide for Black Beauty.
Despite all of the advantages Jennifer has over Jo in a number of areas, Sascha says that she believes her character is jealous of Jo.
“I think Jo is this person who has a natural gift for horsemanship and for horse riding, and she’s also a very kind-hearted person,” explains the actress. “I think Jennifer, given Jo’s kind-heartedness and also her talent, is really jealous. And she’s persnickety,” she adds with a laugh. She acknowledges that Jo, as the protagonist, will have things turn out in her favor. As a joke, Sascha adds, “And Jennifer is just on the sidelines crying about it, sulking to Jasmine [Alex Jeaven] about it.”
What was most interesting, though, is the play of the dynamic of the societal divide between Jennifer and Jo, as well as the tension between the two as they both are interested in Calam Lynch’s George Winthorp. The character of George, as well as his family, even further showcases that divide of the lives of the wealthy compared to those with much less financials to their name, the latter of which Jo is.
Discussing the multiple ways that the movie focuses on these differences, Sascha points out the costume designer on Black Beauty who helped accentuate that. “You can see the difference between the really fancy riding clothes,” she points out before momentarily getting distracted about one outfit in particular she wore.
“I got the best [costumes],” she gushes. “I was so happy to wear my costumes every day because I thought they were the best. There was actually even one that I wore for a scene that didn’t make it into the movie that was my horse show look and it was amazing.” While she expresses her sadness that this outfit wasn’t seen by the world (though TEENPLICITY is hoping for a peek of it in DVD extras one day), she reiterates her point that the clothing plays a big part in showing the societal divide.
“And I think obviously with the Winthorp’s, you see that class divide, and I think that heightens things and is an interesting thing to explore and be explored in the movie.”
From the people I got to spend time with, it literally could not be a better group of people.
One aspect of equestrian sports touched on throughout the film is the intensity of the sport and the difference proper – and improper – care takes on the animal, as well as the rigorous training both the horse and rider have to go through in order to be able to compete.
For Sascha, she found bits of this area of the script relatable. Having attended The Royal Ballet School in London when she was younger, she recognizes the dedication and hard work needed to compete, as with any sport.
When asked how she would compare the different competitive worlds of ballet vs equestrian sports, she says, “I think there totally is a likeness in terms of how young people start and how serious these people are about their sport.”
She says that ballet, as much as it is a sport, is also an art. “I would argue that equestrianism is too,” Sascha adds. “They are also intensely physical sports. I mean, one of my best friends still dances. She does ballet and she trains very much pre-professionally and dances for four or five hours a day, maybe even more.” She shares that with sports like ballet, and presumably equestrianism, one learns things like self-discipline and time management.
Though she admits that her knowledge on the world of equestrian sports is limited to her research for the film as well as second-hand knowledge from one of her best friends who is a horse rider, she says, “I think there are definitely parallels to be drawn, namely in the levels of discipline and determination that are required. And I think there’s definitely competition in ballet because as much as you would like to be, or as much as one tries to be, only competing with oneself and trying to be better than you were yesterday, you’re staring in the mirror all day; you’re staring at other girls in the mirror yourself.”
Sascha voices about that aspect of ballet, “I think it can be really difficult and almost toxic.” On the other hand, with equestrian sports, she points out that you are physically able to see who comes first, second, and third during competitions. “Maybe your best friend’s coming in first and you’re coming in third, and third is amazing, yes, but you’re comparing yourself to her. So I think that there are those overlaps.”
Jennifer and Jasmine showcase a bit of that rift between each other, according to the actress. As much as they are best friends, they are also competitors.
By the end of the film, which takes place seven years after the main story, audiences witness what has become of Black Beauty and also of Jo, bringing the film to an emotional close. Though viewers are now aware of what’s happened to Black Beauty, Jo, and even George, TEENPLICITY gave Sascha the opportunity to explore where her character might be at that point in time.
“I think Jennifer went to a really top college,” the actress begins, getting excited as she starts, and then names off schools like Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown. “I see her as that kind of a girl, which is great. I just feel like she’s very focused. Not only is she competitive, but she is a good rider and I would think a very good student. I would say maybe she rode in college too, maybe she even did some polo.” The casual cool that comes to Sascha’s voice as she continues speaking shows that she’s channeling Jennifer for a moment.
She continues, “I feel like she wants to move to England. I feel like she’s like,” she waits a moment before sharing a scoff, as if she stepped back into Jennifer’s shoes, and goes on, “‘English people just understand me better.’ I feel like that’s her idea.”
Sascha laughs, breaking her of Jennifer’s mindset briefly. She comments that she’s figuring out exactly how old her character is by the end of the film, joking, “My math skills are struggling,” before focusing on her task at hand again. “I think she’s working,” the actress says. “For her starting out job, [I could see her] as like an assistant to a big name, a kind of Devil Wears Prada thing. She would be more like Emily Blunt’s character than like Anne Hathaway,” she adds with a grin. “That’s my hypothesis.”
You know, you’re all working on this one thing – some people obviously much bigger parts of it than me – and I think that that building of a thing all together is so beautiful.
Most of Sascha’s time on the film was spent beside Alex Jeaven or opposite Mackenzie Foy, something she thoroughly enjoyed.
“Alex and I got along so well,” she recalls. “We were always together. We were always talking and keeping each other company and making one another laugh. I’m so glad that we got along so well and that such a natural dynamic was able to exist between us,” she says of her on-screen bestie. “And same with Mackenzie. I mean, she was obviously working 24/7 every day. But I got to really bond with her and also with Calam and Fern [Deacon], who play George and Georgina.”
Her voice is joyful as she thinks of everyone she had the pleasure of working with, mentioning the entire cast and also remembering to point out Max Raphael, who plays James. “I love him,” she says fondly as she gushes over everyone. “When we were in holding or not shooting, I think all of us very much bonded. And that was wonderful,” Sascha says.
“From the people I got to spend time with, it literally could not be a better group of people. And I think doing scenes with Mackenzie and with Alex was so much fun and really exciting. I love it, it was awesome. It was a great experience.”
Filming Black Beauty truly was a great experience for Sascha in so many ways. Between the horses and other animals that were always on set to being able to travel internationally for work, it proved to be one of her most unique experiences yet.
“When [Alex and I] weren’t filming, we would go see some of the horses that were in the different stable stalls. They’re such gorgeous, immense, majestically awesome creatures,” she says of her four-legged co-stars. “I haven’t been on that many film sets, but I’m sure that to have horses and that many horses, and have these professionals doing these stunts who know these horses so well, who are so amazing…” she trails off briefly as she decides how to best describe the awe that still fills her voice. “That was such a cool experience. It was wild. It was really, really cool.”
The other incredible aspect of this film – the fact she got to travel internationally for work for the first time – has left its mark on her memories in the best ways possible.
She immediately begins to share her incredible experiences while filming in South Africa, talking animatedly as if she was just there a few days ago. “South Africa was a really versatile, cool city. They have beaches that people liken to Malibu, but then they also have mountainous ranges and then they have the very much city-city,” she says, describing the country. “It’s really, really cool. I loved getting to spend time there.”
Of course, she has to laugh at the fact they travelled all the way to South Africa to film in a setting that looks like some places not too far from her home in New York, though she is incredibly grateful for the opportunities it gave her.
“There’s a lot of really good food in Cape Town near where we were staying. My brother was with me for part of the time and we were always just going and eating at the good restaurants. There was an awesome grocery store,” she adds before groaning as she forgets the name of the store, remembering only that it started with a W. “I spent a lot of time in there with my brother, with Mackenzie, with Calam. We were all just always going to the grocery store.”
The actress pauses for a moment, suddenly hit with the memory of all the amazing foods she tasted. “Oh my God. Honestly, they had this like raw cocoa chocolate and these salt and vinegar rice cakes. I miss them so much. It was amazing.”
With all of these incredible memories and experiences in her heart, it was only natural to ask Sascha how shooting the film impacted her. “I think it’s hard to even process the ways it impacted me,” she admits before revealing that she was practically crying tears of joy “pretty much daily” as they created the film.
“I think it just made me fall even further in love with filmmaking and filmmaking as a collaboration,” Sascha says.
“And the amazing cast and crew just honestly were – everyone who worked on the film, they were such lovely, kind-hearted, funny people. It was just an absolute joy to be surrounded with people who are working so hard,” she shares. “You know, you’re all working on this one thing – some people obviously much bigger parts of it than me – and I think that that building of a thing all together is so beautiful. When you have crew members and cast members as wonderful and dynamic and entertaining as we did on Black Beauty, I think I really took away from that how a big part of my love of this is not only the actual doing of the acting, but also getting to meet people and expand your horizons in that way.”
The release of the film on Disney+ has been a bright spot for many in a year that has been indescribably difficult. From the year since they filmed Black Beauty to now, the changes in her personal and professional life have been nearly immeasurable.
I think it’s hard to even process the ways it impacted me.
Discussing what change she’s noticed within herself since filming wrapped, and especially since the initial quarantine orders earlier this year, Sascha pauses to think.
She points out how the pandemic has been truly horrendous and horrible, but despite it, it has taught her to be more comfortable with herself.
“I think that all of the time I’ve spent inside throughout last spring and summer and now has really allowed me to grow more comfortable with myself and with being alone with myself and not immediately turning to calling a friend or technology or even reading or a distraction of some sort,” she reveals before adding to her sentiment. “Which are great and which I love to do and engage in, but I think I’ve got a better handle on how to be alone and how to deal with myself. And I feel that I have matured in that way.”
Sascha also continues to point out the impact the film has made on her. “I think Black Beauty was a part of crystallizing for me [that] acting is a thousand percent what I want to do with my life, if I can, for the rest of my life, forever, forever,” the actress says. “I think that as I’ve been taking next steps and auditioning more and even working on writing my own stuff, I think that I’ve really come to such a clear conclusion that this is the thing for me. I feel even more confident in that belief in myself. I remember it used to be so hard for me to talk when I would be meeting with prospective agents or stuff like that. It was so difficult for me to talk about acting because I loved it so much and it felt so vulnerable to me. I was like, ‘Could I ever do it?’ I would always tear up.”
That, however, is a thing of the past.
“Now I feel I’m so much more confident in, not necessarily even the acting but in, yes, this is what I’m meant to do. This is what I’m going to do. So I think those are two things that I’ve learned and that have changed about me.”
Ending the interview on a fun note, TEEPLICITY brings up Sascha’s love of the movie review app and website, Letterboxd. Mentioning the hilariously specific and quirky lists that some people create like ‘Christmas movie posters with white heterosexual couples wearing red and green’ and ‘movies where a character is involved in an incident which briefly impairs their hearing and leads to us hearing EEEEEEEEEEEEE for a few seconds to symbolize this’, Sascha is tasked with creating a very specific list title for Letterboxd that Black Beauty would fit on.
The challenge emits a laugh from the actress, who asks through her giggles for a zen moment to figure it. “Okay,” she says a few moments later, voice firm like she is ready to take on the world. “‘Movie where girl bonds with horse over their shared, different traumas while wearing a blue and white flannel shirt’.”
She laughs after, pleased with her answer, and there’s no doubt from TEENPLICITY that she’ll have plenty more joyful moments in her career soon.
Black Beauty is available to stream now on Disney+!
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