You may have seen Sheila Vand as a housekeeper named Sahar in Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” or currently on NBC as a CIA analyst opposite Katherine Heigl in “State of Affairs.” Or, you’ve seen her in what may be the first Iranian vampire noir ever, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” an ingenious work of pop pastiche written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who Vand calls “Lily.”
When she’s not cultivating her screen career, Vand is foremost a performance artist, who starred on Broadway with Robin Williams in “Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo” and has worked independently on her own exhibitions, such as a musical act she dubbed “Sneaky Nietzsche.” Vand brings her onstage dexterity to the role of a lonely, sullen, centuries-old vampire known simply as “The Girl.” In a desolate ghost town torn from the pages of dusty American westerns by way of Italian neorealism, wrapped in a chador, the girl furtively roves the streets in search of male prey. And sometimes on a skateboard.
Shot in B&W widescreen in Taft, California—here the template for a dreamy, evocative oil town called Bad City—”A Girl Walks” premiered at Sundance to rapturous applause, played theaters in the Fall and is now on VOD via Kino Lorber. Vand and I spoke on the phone. To prime her introverted, stealthy bloodsucking character, Vand watched YouTube videos of cats and snakes, especially cobras, “to strike the balance between hyper-alert without being physically tense. Lily wanted it to be clear that the Girl wasn’t just human: she was something more than that.”
Your collaboration stems beyond merely performance, right? You created this character together to a degree.
She wrote the part for me. I felt at liberty to just be myself and there was something freeing about having the part written for me. I felt like I could do no wrong. When she asked me to do the project, there was no script. That gave me permission to exist within this world she created, although there was a ton of work that I did to craft the physicality of the vampire. Lily created a 187-year-long backstory. All the things that aren’t in the film I know about: how she became a vampire, and the journey she went on before arriving to Bad City. She doesn’t say very much, to me it was really important to have all that backstory. There weren’t any clues on the page. More of the information came through conversations with Lily.
Your character is somewhat anonymous. She doesn’t have a name, aside from “The Girl,” she’s virtually silent. You must’ve had to rely on a lot of physical gesture, in addition to this backstory that you’ve created to imbue her with identity. It must be challenging to be denied certain character conventions. It’s like a silent movie performance.
It is a challenge on the one hand but at the same time I knew it was really silence that was going to serve the story and the character the most. Because there is so little that she does, I feel that the nuances stand out even more. It gives more power to subtlety with her. There were times when I felt so contained and that almost felt suffocating. But I felt it was appropriate for her. She’s trapped in the circumstance of being a vampire. It has completely put her inside of herself. Any frustrations I was feeling were appropriate for the character and I manage to kind of internalize and use them. She’s 187 years old. She’s an old lady. I observed my grandmother a lot when I was preparing for the role. I noticed there was such a profound stillness to her. She has been through so much in her life that she doesn’t feel the need to say anything. She doesn’t need to hear the sound of her own voice. The stillness was rooted in the girl’s age and what it’s like to have lived so long and have seen it all, and nothing surprises you.
This movie can be violent and scary but also funny. Were there particularly harrowing scenes? Were they liberating? You’re going around killing some pretty unsavory men.
It’s technically a challenge because you’re dealing with blood and prosthetics and the fangs completely changed the shape of my mouth; there are a lot of technical things going on. It’s really fun because you get to act out your darker impulses. Even her loneliness, and her boredom, there are certain qualities to her I feel I need to repress in my daily life and I got to fully go there in this movie, and to explore things society sometimes tells me I am not allowed to feel. Part of it has to do with being a public figure. There’s a piece of yourself you’re sharing with others and once you step into that, that piece is not yours anymore. Sometimes I have the impulse to say, “Fuck it. I want to be myself,” but then I realize you have to draw the boundaries for what is yours, and what you want to keep personal, and what you want to share. Some of those things you have to repress because they come from a darker side of you. Maybe they’re not part of the person you want to be. Violence and loneliness are not the most celebrated aspects of our culture.
Have you been offered other genre projects after “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”?
Some of my favorite work is abstract work. I’m of the mentality that naturalism has its value but we live in the real world and so for me, I can see naturalism around me every day. I’m a lot more fascinated by things that are born in the imagination that go beyond what we perceive on a daily basis. I’m doing another indie film right now called “The Highway Is For Gamblers,” and that’s definitely rooted in the surreal. I’m playing this very cool character who has something supernatural about her but you never quite figure out what that is. It’s directed by Alexandra McGuinness, and it’s her second feature [after “Lotus Eaters”]. It’s an eerie, moody script.
Was there anything specific from your art background that you drew upon to play this role?
In general, there’s a lot I’ve brought from my performance art background, which is mostly just risk-taking. I feel so free and open when I’m creating art. My favorite work has no boundaries. I took from that to push the box and either try to find my way out of the box or make something new out of the box.
What other directors do you want to work with?
They’re all pretty big so I almost feel silly. I’m a huge fan of David Lynch, and Leos Carax and Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Michael Haneke. I’m more interested in the auteurs because that’s the power of film: You get to make a world of your own, why not break every rule because you can? It doesn’t have to be real. It’s not real. It’s a movie. You might as well take full advantage of that. My favorite films are films that feel like dreams. I’ve definitely always had an obsession with bending perception. Even my own visual art and performance art has a lot to do with perception and how to shake people out of autopilot and show that the mind is more malleable than you think it is.