The Disciplined Work of Being a Human Being: A Conversation with Actress and Artist Sheila Vand
By Erik MorseSeptember 25, 2020
This year, Vand appeared in some of her most interesting roles to date; among them, as “Tail” upstart Zarah Ferami in the TNT adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and as Mina in Dave Franco’s new indie horror film, The Rental. In a recent phone conversation, Vand and I discussed her thoughts on Los Angeles, her love of genre filmmaking, and Hollywood’s struggle with Middle Eastern women.
ERIK MORSE: You recently starred in photographer/filmmaker Shirin Neshat’s short films Land of Dreams and The Colony as part of the 2019 Broad exhibition I Will Greet the Sun Again. As a surrogate for Shirin herself, your character is an immigrant nomad caught between Western and Eastern histories, an artist working between the language of poetry and the mechanism of the image, and a secret agent struggling between two belligerent countries. These tropes of in-betweenness also seem to be a perfect entry point into your own career between the worlds of film and performance art, the Iranian diasporic and American traditions, horror and whimsy, independent film and Hollywood.
SHEILA VAND: You’re making me feel very good about myself.
Do you think you are intuitively attracted to themes of paradox, dialectic, or conundrum?
I definitely think it’s intuitive more than it’s necessarily been intentional. I like to showcase variety and diversity in my work. Partially, because I have creative ADD, and the way I engage is to do things I haven’t done before. That’s also how I grow: by challenging myself and doing projects and parts that intimidate me. I saw how quickly Hollywood wanted to put me in a box. So, I needed work that represented the vast range of the type of person that I am. I have a lot of dimensions and layers, and I wanted my career to reflect that.
I see how much of a parallel there is between being a diasporic and immigrant American, and this feeling you are describing of being in limbo, of being stuck between two worlds. That’s something that absolutely resonates with me and has been a part of my identity crisis for as long as I can remember. I didn’t necessarily go down the acting path saying I want to explore that limbo per se. I was driven by my curiosities, but of course my curiosities were driven by the experiences I was having in the world.
What were some of these curiosities that led you to a career in acting?
I think there was a connection between my curiosity for the surreal and the fantastical and the fact that I felt like I didn’t fit into the structure of this world. As a light-skinned Iranian American, I felt like I was somewhere in-between. Sometimes I wished I just looked more Iranian or more ethnic. But I also want to be honest: I benefited from the shade of my skin tone. But even though I did benefit from light skin, I was always hyperaware of being a first-generation immigrant. I would still go to school every day where I was made to feel that English was the superior language, it wasn’t a good thing to speak another language. The food I was bringing was weird. A lot of micro-discriminations. And being dismissed throughout my early years as an actor for not being as good because I wasn’t white. All of those things alienate you, eat away at you, make you feel small. It takes a lot of exhausting work to constantly have to be in combat with those things.
So, I found refuge in other worlds that felt different from the one I lived in. I loved David Lynch, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky. I loved seeing these spaces that were so fantastical and different. And I felt like in those worlds perhaps my identity would make sense because in this world it didn’t.
Early in your career, you portrayed the characters of Hadia in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Sahar in Ben Affleck’s Argo. How do you think those depictions of death (or threat of death) in the time of war are emblematic of how Western writers regularly represent the precarity of Middle Eastern women?
I do feel the way Middle Eastern women were written when I was starting in my career has evolved. But it’s kind of what you would imagine. Almost all of the [Middle Eastern] men were only getting terrorist roles. Once in a while there would be a doctor — because Middle Eastern people are good at math! And the women’s roles were often quiet and most often had a veil on their heads. They were passive agents in the story or were mostly there to assist what was happening to the white roles or the male roles. Although that is something I feel that happens to all females in general. It’s hard, because I don’t want to throw those roles under the bus either. I think it’s the classic stuff you would expect. As soon as they decide your role is Middle Eastern, almost immediately your character becomes Muslim — whether religion has any relevance to the story or the character. It’s like they put those two things together in their minds. That frustrates me. I don’t often see white characters onscreen where their religion is randomly discussed or haphazardly thrown into the script. It’s not as if every time I see a white person they are portrayed as Christian.
I want to talk about your obvious passion for science fiction and horror, two genres that make up a generous portion your filmography. What is it about the fantastical or grotesque in genre film that intrigues you?
I think genre films are more limitless because you are not beholden to the dynamics of reality. If you’re playing a vampire or an alien or someone who is just living in a magical-realistic world, it feels like there’s no wrong answer. I get to be a lot more constructive in the creation of my characters. That’s why it was never enough for me to go down this path of dramas and whatever it means to be a star. Some of my favorite actors are character actors. And I’m not even 100 percent sure what “character” actor means. I know what we are referencing when we say it. Sometimes I feel like that’s a dismissal: there are movie stars and then there are character actors. I know that’s bullshit. Because we have Tilda Swinton, we have Willem Dafoe, we have actors now who are absolutely both. Those are the people I look up to and whose path I try to follow.
Many probably know you best from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but you are also in the new horror film The Rental, have appeared in the horror anthologies Holidays and XX and in Chloë Sevigny’s haunted house short White Echo, among many others.
I’m Queen of the Short Films.
Even when you play small roles, your performances always stand out. You take what could be a very incidental or miniature part and steal the film from everyone else.
I built my career on taking supporting roles. Coming up as an actor and getting shoved aside often by Hollywood, being marginalized and dismissed, I had to convince myself, and I do believe it, of the value of the supporting role. I remember there was a time in my life where I was so desperate to get meatier parts, but it wasn’t happening. So, I began to reflect on this space that I had been given. And the nobility of the supporting role. I actually do think movies are made by the supporting cast. They flesh out the world. They are the details [that] lift up the story. I had to develop this muscle playing small roles, because that’s what I was being offered all the time. I had to learn how to make it rewarding for myself.
I remember one actor saying, “You only need three memorable scenes in a movie.” But when you’re in a supporting role, this is your one moment. You want to nail it. But what matters more to me than the size of any role is the feeling that the character might be a real person out there. That’s the magic of it. There are so many of these iconic characters.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in pretty much anything from the ’90s is the perfect example of how a small part can feel huge. I’m thinking of his character Scotty in Boogie Nights or Brandt in The Big Lebowski, where he takes these supporting roles and fills them with so much life that they elevate the movie. His performances are so memorable, even in these smaller parts, because he creates such bold and developed characters. Another great, but lesser known, example is a character played by an amazing actress named Penny Allen in the 1973 film Scarecrow. The movie is incredible and stars a young Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, who are both brilliant in it. Penny Allen’s character is only in one scene at the end of the movie, but she’s like a bomb that drops on you when she arrives. She’s unbelievable and I kept thinking about her performance after I saw it. It’s like these characters become larger than their roles; they’re seared in my memory and so in a way, they live beyond the movie.
Something happens where you hit a sweet spot in a performance, where after the movie is done, the character goes up into the ether, and it’s not yours anymore. There’s something so sad in that moment. It’s like the way I feel toward the Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I want to create characters that live past me and beyond me.
You mention A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Do you think the film’s massive cult success helped to elevate other Middle Eastern characters, especially women, to more starring roles?
I’m not really sure. But I do think the film is a great example of how foreign cultures and foreign languages do not hinder the success of a movie. People were pretty skeptical of that movie until it came out, so I think its success definitely helped prove a point to investors and creators that audiences do want to see diverse stories from diverse places.
From A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to 68 Kill, White Echo, Women Who Kill, and your new film The Rental, I also think you play some of the most compelling and nuanced villains or morally flawed characters onscreen. Are you particularly interested in playing villain roles?
It’s not that I’m particularly interested in a character being villainous or sinister. I just appreciate the depth that comes with a character who has flaws. To be flawed is to be human, and to be human is what I’m interested in. I seek out characters who feel complicated and complex, because they seem more real to me. Women have been told for generations to be polite, agreeable, and obedient. So sometimes I enjoy being “unlikable” because it feels like a revolt against the patriarchy. I want to push back against some of those ridiculous pressures and norms, especially the pressure to be perfect because perfection is so predictable and boring.
Your short-lived DTLA cabaret Sneaky Nietzsche gained a lot of attention in the city’s art world when you founded it back in 2010. Tell me about its origin.
When I first started Sneaky Nietzsche, I was fascinated by the origins of performance. There was a lot of Greek theatrical tradition that I was very intrigued by. These ritualistic components. I was also reading Jodorowsky’s Psychomagic, where he writes about his early, experimental theater work, and getting into the experimental theater of Allan Kaprow, which was art, experience, and party and was also site-specific. It seemed like there was a lot more of that going on at one time.
How much of Sneaky Nietzsche was influenced by the experiences and difficulties of living in Los Angeles?
Absolutely. It was so exciting. It was a wild time. I was so entranced by the studies I was doing into experimental theater, and experiential theater in particular. I knew that I wanted to play around with a performance or a show that begins before you even arrive. I was also very much into the concept of the passive versus active audience. So, I was playing with different ways of engaging the audience. I really liked this idea of putting my show somewhere that was possibly a little dangerous. The biggest reason was that it was cheap to find a warehouse downtown. But I liked this idea that as you parked your car and walked through this warehouse you are already filled with emotions.
I was also very fascinated, and still fascinated, with theater of the senses and visceral storytelling. Storytelling that isn’t so two dimensional and flat. We used flowers in a large underground forest we had made. And when someone decided to smell the flowers, we had actually sprayed different scents in each one. If you went and opened some little drawer on our set, it wouldn’t be empty. It would be filled with little treasures for you. The entire ground was dirt and mud, because I wanted it to feel like forest. Every seat was a tree trunk or something natural that I had collected from junkyards. The whole point was that the story was going to be told through your senses so they needed to be on before you arrived.
It’s also interesting to see Sneaky Nietzsche against the backdrop of theater in Los Angeles, which has always been far more limited and conventional compared to theater in New York.
That is why ultimately why I had to move to New York for a period of my life. I wasn’t seeing that type of theater in Los Angeles. Although I did see a few shows at UCLA Live like the Mabou Mines production of A Doll’s House and some Wooster Group shows, which were as much about visual storytelling as about the text and the performance. I was always felt more affected by those shows. I don’t see why we have to sacrifice one of those elements for the others. Often, I feel like theater will neglect design, whereas TV and movies will neglect performance: it becomes all about image and visual composition and performance becomes an afterthought. But in this multidisciplinary type of theater I found that everything that matters to me personally is part of the format. So, I thought I just had to make it myself if I wanted to experience it. I think that helped us in a way with Sneaky Nietzsche. It felt like Los Angeles was thirsty for that. For that show, we had zero money to promote it. That was just before Instagram or any of these platforms. Facebook was still pretty new. It was just done through word of mouth. And it was a wild success. We were sold out every night. We had to add an additional month of performances because the L.A. Times wanted to write about it. It took on this mythology. People thought it was this secret thing that you had to be in the know about. But, actually, we were trying to publicize it, we just didn’t have the money to do it.
In addition to your work as a performer, you have been quite outspoken in your desire for social justice and political reform. You also have a new Instagram performance series called Medicinal Music, which goes to the heart of a different kind of activism, for everyday health and empathy. This project elicits a real sense of emotion and compassion within a broader, political context.
I made the project before the coronavirus pandemic started. So I’m happy certain parts of it still really resonate in this new reality we are living in. I also thought it could be a really good time for this to come out because as much as I hate the term “self-care,” it’s really important to sustain the energy to continue fighting for social justice. I wanted to explore similar themes of self-love and healing and using music, which is such a powerful tool, in a way that felt authentic to me.
I often get myself into these really dark holes, because everything feels so serious. Sometimes I feel like I have to bring light into those dark spaces with levity, by having a playful perspective about things. I hope that without saying that, the project communicates that. Somehow without saying “Love yourself!,” you see the tug of war within me as I try to process these ideas that I know will help me. But it’s okay not to be all the way there yet. It’s not a light switch that we turn on and suddenly we are healthy and healed and sane. It’s a life’s work, it takes continuous disciplined work to be a human being.
Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon and Bluff City Underground and a contributing writer to the Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, the Guardian, Frieze, the Paris Review, Sight & Sound, and Texas Monthly, among others.
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