Actress Sheila Vand is like a secret weapon in every movie she appears in. When the second generation Iranian-American, born in Los Angeles, shows up in a film, your eyes immediately go to her because she presents every character she plays as someone who is wise and strong beyond their years or anyone’s expectations. That talent began with her breakthrough performance as the title character in writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s groundbreaking vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Since then, Vand has appeared in a variety of strange and wonderful works, including Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the horror anthology XX (in a segment directed by St. Vincent), the Netflix actioner Triple Frontier, and the difficult-to-categorize We the Animals. Her latest is a relationship drama disguised as a horror movie The Rental, directed by actor Dave Franco (in his feature filmmaking debut) and co-starring Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, and Jeremy Allen White. In the film, two couples rent a vacation home for a celebratory weekend when things turn strange and then dangerous as they are confronted with their own behavior and the prying eyes of a mysterious figure who seems out to do them harm. The film was co-written by Franco and Chicago’s own Joe Swanberg (who is also a credited producer).
I had always heard that Vand was something of a deep thinker, so when approaching this conversation with her, I was curious how much self-isolation would either strengthen or shake her ability to look into into herself and her craft. Needless to say, she did not disappoint as a thinker or a talker. The Rental is one of the few new films you can actually go see in a theater right now (at the Music Box Theatre) and it’s that rare genre work that examines the way violence can sometimes be so random as to make it all the more terrifying. Enjoy my talk with Sheila Vand…
I’m loving this trend in horror films lately where the scare element isn’t necessarily the most important thing. For example, this is a story about two couples with loads of issues, and the horror comes in late and underscores the problems that they’re having as couples. And it gives these great actors, like yourself, a chance to actually act and not just be scared of something. Did you see it that way and recognize that aspect of this film?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it was Dave’s intention to subvert both genres in that way—the relationship genre and the horror genre. He had wanted to make a horror film where people were actually invested in the relationships and the character more than you might be if the horror was the main principle of the movie. I also think it’s so smart and nice to see how it makes the horror that much more scary, if you care about the people it’s happening to.
If you care whether they live or die, right.
Right. And that was a fun way to twist the genre around and have the audience think they’re watching one type of movie before it becomes what you thought it was going to be maybe.
What do you remember about reading the screenplay the first time, and what hooked you in about the story and about your character initially?
The thing you mentioned, about how the film is about these two couples and their drama and the mess they find themselves in in their interpersonal relationships is it. It starts out like a breakdown of trust between people and that paranoia that builds, that trust that breaks down into complete horror by the end. But I like that it starts from a human place, with elements like jealousy and infidelity and drugs—these normal human things that get spun into a web of their own demise eventually. I also like the specific element of my character, Mina, that they incorporated into the film, who is a bit of an outsider amongst this group of people and faces a bit of discrimination as the movie begins. That’s another element of trust: “Was this thing that happened to me racially motivated?” Again, it starts in these very human ways of doubting yourself, doubting what’s happening around you, and then having that doubt explode into horror all around you. I thought that was cool and that I could relate to that.
There is that great moment early on where Mina has that confrontation with the caretaker of the house they’re renting [Toby Huss] about his prejudice, and it feels like maybe even more of this moment than [it was] when you shot it. It establishes that Mina is an outsider in this group, but it also shows us that she’s not afraid to stand up for herself. Tell me about that scene in particular, and what it meant for you to be able to say those things to him in that moment.
It was important to me to have that. Joe Swanberg and Dave Franco, who co-wrote it, did a creepily great job of planting these seeds that are very difficult to unpack. They aren’t explicit forms of racism or prejudice; it’s what I would call a micro-aggression. I’m Iranian-American in real life, so I’ve experienced those kind of micro-aggressions, and they aren’t as heinous or hideous as the explicit racism that we’re all collectively reckoning with right now. At the same time, they’re still extremely painful, even when they’re micro; they’re still racism and prejudice. There’s a whole spectrum of ways these things play out, and sometimes they aren’t even meant with the same harm that they incur. And Dave and Joe did such a good job of creating these moments that play into horror, where it’s a little hard to tell where these comments are coming from. For me, it was important to represent that and show that those things are heard a certain way by the demographic that they marginalize. There’s a gray area sometimes, and where it is in this movie is in that gray area.
Did Dave want you to inject a bit of yourself into Mina, either to line up closer with your beliefs or maybe just take her in a way you thought was more interesting?
Yeah. In general, I think that mostly happened in the casting. He wanted all of us to make it our own. But we didn’t do too much changing of the words. He’s such a warm and open person that if there was a disagreement on a certain choice, we would talk about it. He was very open-minded and collaborative, but at the same time, he had a really specific vision and luckily his vision wasn’t too far from mine, so there weren’t too many problems with that. The people who he cast were so well suited in certain ways to be these characters that that’s where we brought ourselves to it. There was room for that in the writing to fill it out with our own personalities.
One thing I’ve always noticed about every character you’ve played is that you make very deliberate choices about your movement and your body language. It really informs us who this person is, and here, there’s an alpha-female quality to the way Mina presents herself physically in a room, and it made me realize we don’t see that often enough in movies. How conscious are you in making choices like that?
Wow, thank you first of all. That’s a high compliment that any of that comes through. It’s a combination of me bringing some of myself to it, and then there are other things I’m very conscientious of, like how a Middle-Eastern person is represented and how a woman is represented—like you said, having more of an alpha presence in a room. You’re absolutely right that we don’t see enough of that, and the way the character was written gave me these opportunities because she has these moments where she stands up for herself, she’ll be defiant, she’ll withdraw if she wants to. There’s a strength to the way she has her own opinions on things, and I wanted to embody that. I’m always trying to lean against the stereotypes and lean more to creating more room for how I’m represented, how people like me are represented.
On another note, in developing a character, from some of my theater background, I’m very used to thinking about the space around me and set pieces and how the space around you changes shape as you move through it, and how you can tell stories with more than just words and intentions and emotions, but also with your body. When Nina does get scared, she crumples up a bit more. There’s a scene after the shower where the hidden camera is revealed, and she gets very hunched over. I try to pepper those things in. Sometimes it’s about choices and sometimes it’s about letting go and seeing what comes through and being like “I learned something about the character by letting go a little bit and letting it just happen.”
Speaking of space, the geography of this property and house where you all are becomes really important to the story and really adds to the tension and mystery. Was that a real house or a set, or a combination of the two? What do you remember about that physical location?
Yeah, that was a real, beautiful house on the coast of Oregon. They had some very specific requirements to serve the story. It had to be on a cliff, it had to be secluded. Dave was so happy that he found that spot because it met all the requirements, plus it had a personalty that our production designer could work with. And even though it was a real house, everything inside was designed. It has this very deceptive quality of being this perfect getaway, everything you would want—high ceilings, bay windows—but it ends up becoming this hellscape.
I know how movies are usually made, but I’m wondering, since this was shot primarily in one location and there’s a specific ramping up of the tension, were there opportunities to shoot large sections of this chronologically?
Not completely shot chronologically, but we did a little more than you might normally because we weren’t changing locations so much. It’s a double-edged sword to have something with just one location because, on the one hand, you do have a little bit more liberty because it’s essentially just one set. You do have to dress each room as you’re shooting it, light it, but if something did need to suddenly change for any reason, they could easily do that and say “Okay, we’re going to shoot in this other room instead.” That didn’t happen very often.
It does almost feel like theater in a way. The house is the stage and it’s very clean because we’re all so contained. That was a nice element that added to the movie. And the house was big enough that we all had plenty of space. I’ve done other films where it’s similar but shot on a much smaller, less lavish place. Then it could become like a pressure cooker. The way it was shot, it becomes more claustrophobic as the movie goes on.
In the span of your career, you’ve done a remarkable job of mixing things up in terms of the types of characters you’ve played. Is that important to you, that variety, and not repeating yourself?
Yes, very very important. I love doing things I’ve never done before. If I feel like I’ve already conquered something, I have very little interest in doing it again [laughs]. Some people make a career out of a character, but I’m all over the place with my imagination and my mind. Variety is very important. Once I’ve explored something, I have the tendency to be curious about something else. I don’t know if it’s lack of focus or there are too many things I want to explore. It helps me stretch my own muscles as well. Sometimes it’s a failure; sometimes I try something for the sake of variety or to push my own limits, and I realize “Oh, that’s where the limit ends.”
You can learn from failure, too. Everything can be a learning experience.
I don’t want to ruin anything about the nature of the horror in this film, but one of the takeaways I got from The Rental is that violence can be very random. There doesn’t need to be a backstory; sometimes, it just drops in, happens and disappears. If there is a message here, what would you say it is?
Oh gosh. I don’t know, because it is kind of random, the violence. For me, I’m a nervous person; I don’t like violence—I know most people don’t. Confrontation in general makes me quite nervous. But that’s also why I like horror movies a lot, because I’m a nervous person, so it feels like an outlet to release fear and be unabashedly scared for an hour and a half. I do think in this movie, the violence happens as a result of an avalanche of errors that are made. It’s hard to tell if they get targeted randomly or if it’s because of the web of drama they’ve spun for themselves, that they are chosen. What we’re learning in the strange time we’re living in is that, it comes to a certain point where we have to start trusting one another. It’s hard for me to say that because I don’t trust anybody [laughs]. And I say that as someone who goes to Airbnbs and rentals all the time. How we define our trust is interesting.
Your director, Dave Franco, has a history as an actor and shorts director of doing almost entirely comedy. So what was it he said to you or showed you that gave you confidence that he could handle something that was much more serious?
Dave is such a warm and grounded person, and I loved working with him so much. For someone who does a lot of comedy, he also a pretty serious person, and maybe that’s because I met him when he was in director mode. He was incredibly focused—like razor-sharp focus—and incredibly prepared. So even from the first meeting, honestly even in the way he approached me, he vetted me pretty hard, like five or six mutual friends told me “Dave Franco wants you in his movie.” I appreciated that vetting, that he made sure that I was a good person and good to work with, and that made me think he was probably doing this with everybody, and I could trust that this was going to be a good environment.
And then when we met and he discussed the movie—even from the very first email he sent—there were references of what kind of tone he was going for, what kind of world he wanted to create, and it was very specific and thought out and researched, and he could point out which movies had influenced him. I could see that he was taking this seriously, and it wasn’t just “I want to dabble in directing.” He’s been considering this for a really long time. It was all of those elements and a little bit of faith. Every step of the way, it was clear that he had thought things through, and I’m so glad it came together the way it did, because sometimes even with the best of intentions, first-time filmmakers find it’s really hard to make a good movie, and they can miss their mark. But I think Dave hit the mark dead on, and everything he wanted, he executed; I’m so glad [laughs].
For people who don’t know, tell us a little bit about your role on the “Snowpiercer” series on TNT.
That is an adaptation of the movie Snowpiercer, when the world has frozen over, and the last of humanity is stuck on this train that perpetually circles the earth and can’t stop, or it will freeze and stop working and lose power. And there’s a revolution going on on the train because the poorest people are forced to the back of the train with the cockroaches and rats, and the richest people are in the front with all of the amenities. Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly play the two main leads, and Mickey Sumner as well. It’s a big ensemble cast. I play Daveed’s ex-wife essentially—our relationship is rekindling. What’s cool and fun about my character is that I started at the tail end of the train, and I’ve moved up-train to third class, so I’m one of the few characters who’s lived in different parts of the train and experienced the different social classes and the morality of what it means to leave people behind as you move up in the world. I think similar to my character in The Rental, they both have areas of moral gray, and I always appreciate when characters are complicated enough to make mistakes or questionable decisions.
I guess the question everyone has been asking everyone else in the last few months is, how have things been for you? You’ve always struck me as someone who is fairly introspective to begin with, so self-isolation might put you even deeper in your own head, and I’m wondering how that’s been for you.
It’s funny because there were a lot of people who reached out early on in quarantine and saying “You must be loving this” or “You’re built for this,” who thought it would be like heaven for me because they think I love to be alone. But actually it’s been really difficult. A lot of the reasons why I am reclusive are things that I struggle with that are compounded in the time of a pandemic, like depression and anxiety, and it’s not easy to deal with. And it’s different when it’s a self-imposed isolation versus the world is forced to be isolated; it does feel different.
I’ve been trying to ride the wave and not put too much pressure on myself to be super-productive, especially in this last month or so with the particular reckoning we’re having with racial justice. I’m happy to be focused on that right now, because there is so much work to be done and as much as I’ve known this work has needed to be done for so many years, I haven’t given it the time and space that I’ve wanted to, and now I feel like I have that time. I’m letting go of all the stuff in my personal work and personal life and trying to be okay and deal with the world. It’s an intense year, lots going on, a lot of different things need your energy, you need your energy. It’s okay to ride the wave and try not to think.
The Rental actually got something like a premiere recently in LA, at a drive-in. Were you a part of that?
Yeah, it was really strange. I don’t think any of us thought we were going to have any type of premiere because of the pandemic, but Arclight got together with IFC, which is distributing our film, and did this wonderful pop-up event at the Vineland Drive-In in LA, and they made it really safe, everybody was wearing masks and social distancing, and every car was parked with a parking space empty between them, so even the cars were socially distanced. It was a little nerve-wracking because none of us had seen that many people for a while, and it was so important to us that everything we did was responsible and safe, but it was exciting to see that there is a possibility for seeing movies with drive-ins, where we can still abide by safety protocols in a safe and responsible way. It was really special, and we got to feel that collective energy of a premiere and a movie-going experience, even though it’s not quite the same type of cheers and applause you might get at a premiere, but people were honking their horns and flashing their headlights, so we did get to feel that support from the crowd. And I’m hoping this brings back drive-in movies. It’s awesome.
Sheila, continue taking care of yourself. Thanks for talking.
Thank you. It was so cool talking to you.
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