“She moves so deliberately and she holds everything inside. I had to kind of gather all of that, all of myself, and bring it in,” says Sheila Vand on her new role as “the girl” in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. “I feel the reason why I became an actor was so that I could transport myself to other worlds, and that’s the beauty of doing indie movies too. I feel like often it’s a passion project for everyone involved.” The 29-year old Iranian American actress from California first came on our radar in her role as Sahar in Ben Affleck’s Oscar Award-winning film Argo. She played the Canadian Ambassador’s housekeeper, who discovers the truth about the American house guests staying with her boss, and risks her life to cover for them. Although her lines were sparse, Vand’s performance as the stoic Sahar caught the attention of The Los Angeles Times, who featured the actress on their “Small roles, powerful performances” piece in 2013. So it comes as no surprise that her role in A Girl Walks Home, is as a character who also doesn’t speak much, albeit she is the film’s lead. Not to mention the fact that the role was written for her, which is flattering in more ways than one.
Aside from acting, Vand also dabbles in performance art. But perhaps dabble is the wrong word, because her performance piece Sneaky Nietzsche, which she describes as “a theatrical live music experiment for the fictionally inclined” was commissioned and shown at LACMA in 2011. Very interested in blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Vand is enthusiastic about using all the various mediums available with performing: on Broadway, in film and tv, in gallery spaces and museums.
Vand is currently a regular on NBC’s State of Affairs, and is working on a supporting role in an indie film called The Highway Is For Gamblers. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently out at selected theaters nationwide. Check out The Untitled Magazine’s exclusive interview with Sheila Vand below.
Mary-Linh Tran: Tell me, how did you get into acting?
Sheila Vand: I started off doing it in middle school just as a hobby, and I continued through high school, doing every play. Then when it came time to choose a major for college I sat down and thought about what I would really be okay with doing for the rest of my life, and I thought acting was it. So, I went to theatre school…
MT: Did you just have a moment? Where you just kind of came to that realization?
SV: Not really – I mean I – it’s funny I feel like it happened to me more than I chose it. If that makes sense. It started just as something I did for fun, and then it became something I needed to do to be happy. At one point in college I studied abroad in Spain. When I was in Spain I wasn’t doing any theatre, and I got really down. That was the moment, I guess, when I realized how much acting had to do with my livelihood.
MT: Do you remember your first performance?
SV: The first thing? (laughs) Let me think about that. Oh, I do actually! It was in 5th grade. We did civil war reenactments, and I played – what’s his name? Is it Ethan Adams? Not Ethan Adams. Ethan… oh I wish I could remember! (laughs) But I played a man in the civil war. We did this reenactment at the school assembly. All the other kids were just kind of awkward 5th graders, but I was going for an Oscar.
MT: That’s so funny.
SV: We moved after 5th grade, and my 5th grade teacher was like the scariest teacher at school. She was really kind of a mean, strict teacher. And she wrote this letter to my mom that my mom kept that was like, “You have to make sure that she like pursues acting”. I stumbled upon it way later in life. I had no idea. A few years ago I found it at my parents’ house, and I was like, ‘Oh man, I guess I was really meant to do this way before I realized it.’
MT: Do you have a favorite actress? Or someone that you look up to and who inspires you?
SV: Yeah, I have a handful that I really look up to. I really love Helen Mirren and Uma Thurman, Patricia Arquette, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton – all of the ladies who seem to be fearless about taking on challenging roles – I really look up to that. Especially the ones who don’t feel the need to fit the Hollywood mold.
MT: I know that you were in Argo. Can you tell me a little bit about that role and your experiences working on that film?
SV: It was amazing! When we were making Argo I knew it was going to be an incredible film. I believed in the story a lot, and it was just such a great experience to have something this major as my first foray… Everyone was so wonderful on set. It was my first big thing and everyone took me under their wing and I just thought that was so sweet.
MT: Can you tell me about your new film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night? It’s like an Iranian vampire film?
SV: Yeah, it’s a black and white Iranian vampire Western noir. That was a lot of fun to do, because it’s a bit more abstract, and it’s a character whose role was written for me. The script wasn’t written when Lily, the filmmaker, asked me to be part of it. So that was a really unique and special experience. When the role is written for you, you know you’re right for it.
MT: How did you get involved with it?
SV: A mutual friend had introduced us to each other and I had done a couple of short films with Lily, so she asked me. She said she was ready to make her first feature, and it was going to be this vampire love story, and she wanted me to be the vampire.
MT: What was it like to play the lead?
SV: It was a lot of fun. I mean, it’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work, but I’m playing the title role. I did feel like I had to sort of – not carry the film, but that obviously if the lead isn’t selling it… but it was a lot of fun, because there was enough work to do to really immerse myself in it.
MT: Can you tell me about the character?
SV: Yeah, she’s a 187-year old woman, inside of a 20-year old’s body. She’s the vampire in the film, and she’s really lonely and desensitized to everything in life. So she kind of stumbles upon something that reignites the life in her, which is this boy, Arash, who she starts to fall for.
MT: And he’s a human?
SV: Yeah, he’s human. The girl is the only vampire, so she’s a really isolated creature. She finds herself in this fictional ghost town in Iran called Bad City.
MT: Did you find it challenging at all? To play this character where you’re supposed to be way older than the body you’re in?
SV: Yeah, there’s this constant sort of duality. Like the way that she appears to others isn’t who she really is on the inside. I observed my grandmother a lot when I was preparing, and I noticed that there was such a profound stillness to her; she doesn’t feel the need to talk a lot. She’s been through so much in her life that she is just grounded inside of herself. So I tried to bring that stillness to the girl. And, yeah, I think it was challenging. I also don’t have very much dialogue in the film, so there’s a lot that I have to express just through my physicality and through pauses, nuances, and timing. It wasn’t about how to deliver the lines, it was about how to listen and observe.
MT: Is this the first time you’ve ever been in a role like that?
SV: This is the least dialogue I’ve ever had in a role, for sure. It was almost like being in a silent film. I had to do a lot of work on her body and how she moved. I had to keep in mind what sorts of things fascinated her and drew her attention.
MT: That’s cool.
SV: It was really fun. In real life, I kind of have a manic, really open energy. It was nice to play a part that was so… she moves so deliberately and she holds everything inside. I had to kind of gather all of that, all of myself, and bring it in. And, there’s something really serene about it. I feel the reason why I became an actor was so that I could transport myself to other worlds, and that’s the beauty of doing indie movies too. I feel like often it’s a passion project for everyone involved. Sometimes with more mainstream stuff you get cast last minute, and there’s just not that much time to prepare. Whereas with this, I got the part before the script was even written. So I got to sort of watch Lily be the architect of this world, and saw her build it from scratch. There was the time and the space to really absorb myself in the whole process.
MT: If you could collaborate with any director who would it be?
SV: There’s a couple of them. (laughs). I would love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch. He’s one of my favorites, and so are the Coen Brothers. Leos Carax is a French filmmaker that I’m really in love with. He made that movie Holy Motors, and Boy Meets Girl. Really, it’s all the auteurs. Lars von Trier I would love to work with. Even Alejandro Jodorowsky, although he’s 85, so I don’t know if he’s going to make another movie anytime soon. I want to work with artists. That’s my goal, and that’s what I’m constantly trying to seek out in my career: people who have a singular vision, and aren’t making something just to sell it.
MT: Aside from acting, I know you’re involved in the performing arts. There’s your Sneaky Nietzsche performance piece for example. How is doing performance art different from acting for you?
SV: I feel like with acting you’re rooted in the reality of that story. With my performance art, especially because I’m creating it myself, I feel like there are no rules. There’s no box. There’s nothing that I have to stay loyal to; it’s no holds barred, and for me it’s really liberating. I get to just go wherever I want with a character, and I can create whatever kind of world I want, because it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t think films have to make sense either, but there is a certain expectation that people have when they watch a movie or see a play that there’ll be some sort of narrative. I think that when you see the performance art you don’t expect a narrative, so it’s nice to have no expectations from your audience. When you do a movie, you do get to step into another world, but there’s a hundred crew members running around you. All of the equipment is exposed, you’re shooting it in pieces, and all of the inner workings are exposed to you. You’re not really transported until you sit back and watch the final product. With Sneaky Nietzsche, I wanted to create a feeling that you got to actually step into the movie. And just by way of being there, you become a character of that world. We had these planted audience members that you couldn’t tell whether they were in the show or weren’t in the show. At every possible moment I was trying to blur the line between what was real and what wasn’t.
MT: Is performance art something you do on the side then or would you prefer to do it alongside acting?
SV: It’s like a catch-22. I used to have a lot more time on my hands, so I would focus on my own stuff. Then acting started picking up, which is great, and a blessing, but that means time got more and more limited for me. I’m sort of realizing now that I have to carve that time out to make my own work. I’ll probably continue to be busy.
MT: You’ve worked on stage, on films, in gallery spaces, and on television. Are there any challenges with acting in different spaces and for different audiences?
SV: I think that they each have their own particular pros and cons. I do have to be a bit of a chameleon as I navigate the different spaces. But for me, I have creative ADD, and I like switching it up. I get bored of doing one thing for too long, so that’s also sort of the reason why I like to perform in all of these various, different ways. I want something different usually, when I’m moving from one to the other. I think I sort of know what the audience is for each medium. And each medium usually has its own director that is guiding you, and is appropriate to that content, so…I think I’ve gotten the hang of it (laughs).
MT: Do you have one medium that you prefer over the other ones?
SV: It’s hard because I’ll prefer one and then I’ll do that thing for a while, and then all of a sudden I’ll start missing another one. But film I think is one of my favorite things to do. It’s this concentrated experience, so it’s easier to dive under the skin of the character. Especially when you’re playing a darker character, like the girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, you can go all the way there. Because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you know that you don’t have to be in that headspace forever. What I also love about film is that I feel like it’s such a universal kind of storytelling. At this point cinema exists everywhere. It’s a really beloved way of storytelling, and everyone has a relationship with movies, I think. One of the things that was really difficult with my performative stuff and theatrical work is that you work so hard and put so much into it, but then it’s gone once you close the show. Even though there are photos and videos after the fact, it’s never quite the same. So to me there’s something special about how film gets to live on after you’re done making it.
MT: If you weren’t in film or doing art, what would you do?
SV: I’ve been asked this question before and it’s so hard at this point. I really can’t imagine doing anything else. When I was a little kid, I really wanted to be a brain surgeon. I’ve always been fascinated by the brain and perception, and to this day, I still can’t believe that our entire body and this thing called “the mind” exists in this bundle of tissue that’s in our head. Maybe if I hadn’t gone down acting, I would go more towards science. In school I always excelled in math and science, even though I ended up in the arts…
MT: The complete opposite, but not really when you think about it…
SV: In some ways, I feel like making art sometimes ends up being like an equation.
MT: What are your current projects?
SV: Yeah, I’m shooting a TV show right now called State of Affairs on NBC on Monday nights. I’m a regular on that. I’m also in a supporting role in an indie film called The Highway Is For Gamblers, which I’ve been doing on the weekends, when I’m not doing the TV show. So I’m keeping pretty busy. I think that next up, — once I wrap these two projects – I want to get back to some of my own art. I kind of just decided this a couple of days ago. I was feeling like I wanted to just set my intentions back on my own stuff.
Interview by Mary-Linh Tran for The Untitled Magazine
Photography by Jonathan Bookallil
Styling by Bruno Lima
Make-up by Homa Safar
Hair by Campbell McAuley