In interviews, actress Kate Lyn Sheil can come across as quiet and a bit shy. But make no mistake about it — Sheil is driven as hell. How else to account for her spectacular rise as an indie darling over the past several years and her recent brush with fame thanks to a supporting role on the second and third seasons of “House of Cards”?
Since coming out of nowhere in Alex Ross Perry’s breakout indie “The Color Wheel” (her first feature project), Sheil has gone on to become a go-to actress for other budding indie auteurs including Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Rick Alverson and Amy Seimetz. She can currently be seen at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival in two projects: the short “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” and the Visions entry “A Wonderful Cloud,” directed by and co-starring a former boyfriend of hers, Eugene Kotlyarenko (“0s & 1s”). Coming up, she’ll be at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in April in support of the competition title “Men Go to Battle,” which she co-wrote, and will be seen opposite Kristen Stewart in Drake Doremus’ upcoming sci-fi romance, “Equals.”
Sheil is currently in the midst of shooting the TV version of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” in Toronto, so she won’t be in Austin this week for SXSW. With that in mind, Indiewire called her up before the festival got underway to discuss her rise and insane work schedule.
You have so many films either in pre- or post-production. Since your first season on “House of Cards,” you haven’t slowed down, at least in the eyes of your audience. What’s the ride been like?
It’s funny to talk about the pace now because I kind of feel like I’ve slowed down a little bit, which has been great because I was… I’m very proud of every movie I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of, but there was a brief window of time where I was working at a very rapid clip and I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I was giving myself enough time to build a character that I could really stand behind and be proud of. And the movies all came out so incredibly well and the filmmakers are all amazing, but I kind of wanted to back away and spend more time on individual projects. And then “House Of Cards” came along, which was amazing but a different style of working for me, and that sort of changed everything in a way because it was an ongoing project and one character that I could focus on for a longer period of time.
But yeah, it kind of changed everything for me in a way that was pretty nice at the time. I’m just an absolute maniac because I don’t like having free time at all. But I feel like I’ve had a lot of downtime in the past year. [laughs] But I am terrible with free time. I turn into a real monster; I just don’t know what to do with myself.
When you say that “House of Cards” “kind of changed everything” for you, are you referring to the kinds of offers that came your way once you got cast in the Netflix series?
I mean it changed the way I worked in that it’s a different format. It’s a machine that has a lot of moving parts, so you have to be on your game to fly into this already moving thing. At the same time everyone on that show made it so incredibly personal, and I felt very welcomed and supported there. It was just the best possible way for me to enter the television world because I’d never done anything like that before. Like, I can’t imagine a nicer crew or set of actors.
It would be silly of me to say that I didn’t have opportunities that I hadn’t had before because certainly it was the work of mine that the most people have seen. So yeah, the other incredibly comforting thing about “House Of Cards” is that it functions in the same way that any movie set would. You go in, you know your lines and you block and if anything isn’t working, you address it on site. And then they set up the lights and then they go and you have to move relatively quickly because there’s so much to accomplish, where as in independent film, not only is there so much to accomplish, but oftentimes [you] don’t have that much money. So I’m used to working pretty quickly. So the transition was a little bit less scary than I was expecting it to be.
How have you handled the transition from being generally unknown to, I’m guessing, getting recognized because of your work on “House of Cards”?
To be honest, it really hasn’t happened very much. I spend most of my time in New York, where I live, and kind of in that world I’ve been stopped in the street almost as often for… like one time Keith Poulson and I were standing outside anthology film archive and people came up to us and were like, “Oh, you were great in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me.'” They realized I was the woman who played the wife at the beginning.
And people have recognized me for “The Comedy” fairly often in New York. So in that very insular microcosm I haven’t really been recognized for “House Of Cards” all that much more than I would for something else. It’s funny, here in Toronto I went to get a coffee the first day I was here and the woman working behind the counter asked if I was an actress and then asked me if I lived here and I said no, I was shooting something. She was like, “Oh, is it ‘House Of Cards’?!” [laughs] “House Of Cards” is not shooting in Toronto! But of course, there’s a much wider spectrum of people who have seen the show and have been really incredible.
The entire thing has been very lucky and very positive. In Los Angeles, I’m sure I’ve been able to get into more rooms because of the show, I’m positive of it. But I don’t know how to calculate it. I try not to think about it, but it is a very, very lucky thing.
You’ve been acting since 2007 and you made your name by working in the Brooklyn indie film scene with filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and company. You’ve been open in interviews, saying how your friendships with these filmmakers led you to work with them. It’s kind of a whole kind of incestuous bubble.
Your involvement in “House of Cards” came as a welcome surprise to me. Was getting cast on a show of that nature always something you were working towards? You do have to pay the bills somehow…
Yeah, I mean that was nice. The thing is that I did go to school for acting. It’s been a funny, in-through-the-backdoor route for me. But I didn’t really have a specific goal; I’ve never been really good at planning ahead. But I did study drama in college and then stopped doing it for a little while, a couple years, after I graduated and then found my way back into it through working with friends, from people who I knew from just going to the movies all the time. So coming at it from this very movie-obsessed perspective and we were all starting out together. I was in Alex’s first feature and that was my first feature as well.
But in terms of the transition to working on “House Of Cards,” I didn’t feel that I was betraying any sort of ethos that I had for myself because I like stories however they’re told. Movies are certainly where my heart is, and they always have been, but the material I got to play on “House Of Cards” was so great. It was so fun and such an exciting time for me. It’s different, but it wasn’t a goal of mine necessarily. It was a surprise for me to get the part, but it wasn’t like, “Oh, I can’t believe this is the direction my career is taking,” or anything like that.
And for actors who want to follow a similar path, what’s your best advice? How did you get by working on micro-budget features for so many years?
Oh God. I’m always really quite bad at giving advice because my particular path has been based on circumstance and luck — it’s been circuitous. I had jobs. I worked for a clothing designer for a long time and she is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met and she was so flexible and generous with my schedule. And then I worked for very little money on a lot movies for a long time and sort of just banged people over the head with my presence, and also very, very lucky to be asked to be a part of those movies.
Now I audition and am a traditional actor in that sense, but that’s not the way I started. Out of the gate, graduating from college, it’s not like agents were banging down my door, nor did I want them to be. But I was not in danger of that having happening at all. And the way that I got into, like we already discussed, was just being a giant fan of movies and meeting people who wanted to cast me because we had similar sensibilities because I was meeting them at Robert Downey Sr. retrospectives and things like that. I guess if you want to be involved in movies, I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but for me, just educate yourself as best you can. Become part of the world; go see the movies that are the kinds of movies you would want to be in or would hope that a movie you would be in would be even half as good. And be part of the film community. That’s kind of the only advice that I can give because that’s the only thing I can pinpoint, besides working hard or caring about it a lot and being dedicated. But it’s the only thing I can single out that I definitely did that led to my being asked to act in movies.
Moving on to “A Wonderful Cloud,” which I adored. After watching it, I caught up with Eugene’s web series “SkyDiver,” which tracks the rise and fall of your brief relationship, via intimate Skype conversations. Were those chats real or acted?
It was a pretty interesting hybrid. The details in the short are generally pretty close to the truth. [The breakup talk] was the first time we had talked in quite a while, but we also scheduled it knowing it was going to be filmed.
Even though you had scheduled it, I can’t imagine that not being awkward, for you especially.
Oh, yeah. I seem really nervous in the series, don’t I?
Yeah, and it works.
It was awkward, but also I’ve always felt that Eugene is an unbelievable and special filmmaker.
“A Wonderful Cloud” will no doubt drum up more attention than “SkyDiver” purely based on the fact that it’s a feature film. Before signing on, were you at all apprehensive about journalists like me asking probing questions about your past relationship with Eugene based on what’s portrayed in this film?
[laughs] I was mostly apprehensive about you, Nigel.
I’ll play nice.
Of course! I thought about it certainly. But the movie — essentially, making it for very little money and very quickly and it was improvised — it made the most sense to have the characters be in a not entirely dissimilar situation from the two of us as real people. If I were playing an astronaut or something, if you’re improvising it’s a little bit easier to keep it close-ish to yourself. With that having been said, the characters, the relationship they had in the movie lasted for years and they lived together. Not to undermine—
—what you had.
What Eugene and I had, but it was long distance and lasted for a couple of months and was a very different situation.
So you weren’t working through major issues on set.
[laughs] No, no. I didn’t bring anything from New York, like, “Here you left this at our shared apartment that we used to have.” Our actual lives are pretty different from the characters. Sure, I did certainly consider it and think about it, but also felt that it was far enough away that it was okay.