It's a deceptively sunny afternoon when Kate Lyn Sheil walks in from the cold for coffee at Cafe Standard in NYC's East Village. She's wearing layer over layer, presumably to keep from dying of hypothermia. Have you heard that it's been a rough winter? Her cheeks are flushed. She's exhausted. The day before, she had flown home to New York after days spent couch surfing in Los Angeles. She's been audition-hopping.
Her grind is surprising to hear about, considering she's the independent film world's golden girl. Festival after festival, Sheil is regarded as the "rising star." Earlier this month, the Huffington Post put her on their list of SXSW potential breakout stars; the Los Angeles Times dubbed her the same in a 2011 article on one of Sheil's first films, Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets. "I feel like I've been breaking out for four years now," Sheil says. It's not just film, either. A recurring role on House of Cards this season inspired Film School Rejects' piece "You Should Know Kate Lyn Sheil."
At this point, she's got her very own cult fanbase. Those who've been paying attention to her for the past four years feel like they're in-the-know, part of the club. Last year, Film.com explained Why Kate Lyn Sheil Is the Best Actress of Her Generation. That's only one of about a dozen sites/writers who praise her in the same way, citing her impressive range as her biggest strength as an actress.
And she shows off that range in her latest SXSW 2014 entry, The Heart Machine. Directed by first-timer Zachary Wigon, the film tells the story of a man (John Gallagher Jr.) who begins to suspect that the woman he's been online dating (Sheil) isn't actually countries away, like she insists. In fact, she seems to have been but a subway ride from him all along. Trust, Kate Lyn Sheil completists have been all over it.
If you, too, worship the actress like she's your own Jennifer Lawrence, here's a Tiger Beat-style checklist of things you definitely already know about the actress:
- She's from Jersey City and graduated NYU's Tisch in 2006.
- She studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
- She used to work at Kim's Video in NYC, where she met director Alex Ross Perry, who cast her in her first feature film Impolex.
- She's a regular in the films of Joe Swanberg, Alex Ross Perry, Ti West, Amy Seimetz, Lawrence Michael Levine, and Sophia Takal.
- Her biggest influences are Isabelle Huppert, Claire Denis, and Andrea Arnold, and she loves the work of Preston Sturgess and Howard Hawkes.
Like the characters she plays in her films, there's a quiet intensity about Kate Lyn Sheil in real life that makes her seem like the kind of girl whose secrets might scare you. She's quiet, like she's busy reflecting on a particular shot from her favorite film Possession. But despite the dark picture her films have painted, she's capable of laughter, too—especially about how she's perceived.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Just going by what I've seen of yours, you tend to take on unconventional characters. What kind of roles and stories are you attracted to?
You know, I remembered something the other night when I was watching the Oscars. When I was little, I would always fantasize about playing someone who sacrificed herself for the greater good. [Laughs.] I remember always wanting to play scene where I could say, “No no! Go on without me!”
Like The Hunger Games?
Yeah, yeah, I want to play Katniss. A Hunger Games reboot—the older generation. But then also, I wanted to play criminals, but criminals with a heart of gold. Also, musicals.
When I was little, I would always fantasize about playing someone who sacrificed herself for the greater good.
I can see you running away from a burning building.
Yeah, like after I just robbed a bank and "Spirit in the Sky" is playing. Then my perhaps less talented but really innocent and sweet bank-robbing partner gets shot and I throw myself in front of him or her. Then I die and he’s holding me up and trying to drag me along like, "You won’t make it." Then I sing a song.
You should just write that.
Yeah, just that part. Not the rest of the movie. It can be a spec. Like hand over a tape like, "If you want me to do this, I can."
Tack it onto your reel.
I can slip it in. It'll be a dream come true.
When you were a kid, did you put on plays with your siblings or best friends?
I’m an only child but I have a cousin who's two-and-half-years older than me and we grew up together. We would play make believe constantly. For some reason, we'd always pretend we were orphaned or had abandoned by our parents. Which is ridiculous because all of our parents are the most caring people in the world. They’re great parents. [Laughs.]
I think it was the Boxcar Children influencing us, but we'd be scraping together change and we had "part-time jobs." We’d be like, "We can’t buy bread today! We’re too broke!"
[Laughs.] Were these characters always tragic?
Well, we also had a band called The Crystal Sisters. But then we also had these really rich sisters called The Fab Sisters. They were like 90210. They were out of control. I think they were definitely doing drugs and being slightly inappropriate with teenage boys. Meanwhile neither one of us had a boyfriend ever.
How old were you?
I was like eight through 11. Eventually, I got a TalkBoy and a karaoke machine with the two cassette tapes, so we would make commercials and radio shows. There are probably still a couple of those hanging around somewhere.
That reminds me of shooting fake Real World intros as a kid.
[Laughs.] I remember buying the Hawaii book!
They had a book?
I don’t know what could possibly be the contents of this book, but just like pictures and bios maybe? Real World was very much at the forefront of my brain.
So, this comes up a lot in other interviews, but why do you think you need to work on being charming?
It’s a really amazing skill and I think that people take it for granted. When I was really thinking about that, I had done a lot of serious roles where the women I was playing were really going through the pressures of being alive. [Laughs.]
It’s so difficult to just portray a human being. I want people to get credit for that and I want to do more of that because it’s a challenge to just be a normal person and make somebody laugh. Like Cary Grant. How he’s able to be so light and so nimble as a performer is so mind-boggling to me.
Is comedic timing something you’re working on or something you have that no one knows about?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. It’s definitely something I’m working on. Comedy is the hardest thing in the world. I wouldn't say I’ve got this. Obviously there’s something people see in me that makes them say, "She could play someone crazy." I think they see a willingness to access emotions that are best kept under wraps in polite society. [Laughs.]
Is it more vulnerable and revealing to play an emotionally deep character or just a regular person?
I'd say both. The challenge is to be honest and revealing no matter what you’re playing. But there’s this funny thing on a film set where if you have to cry, everybody’s like, “Yeah, yeah, really great job. Really, really good job.” If you’re playing some scene in a living room with your friend, everyone’s just like ‘OK! Moving on!’
Has House of Cards changed anything for you?
Not really. But, I mean, it’s far more exposure than I’ve had up to this point and I’m very grateful for that. It’s opened doors, for sure, but I live a very insular life.
The calls aren’t coming in like crazy?!
[Laughs.] ‘You gotta come down stat! Jerry Bruckheimer is here and he wants to see you!’
You never know. That call could be coming in right now.
I should check my phone. Watch, it comes up as Jerry Bruckheimer, even though I don’t have his number programmed into my phone.
Obviously there’s something people see in me that makes them say, 'She could play someone crazy.'
So, we should probably talk about your new movie. What do you think of the world of online dating?
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, that. It’s very foreign to me. I thought Tinder was fake when we started The Heart Machine. I thought Zach Wigon made it up. It’s wild. It’s a weird mash-up of something very technical and removed and something so extremely personal. I have no experience using it. But on a very lonely night, I made an OKCupid profile and never finished because it took too long. I still get Quiver matches once in awhile even though I never put a picture up.
There’s a lot to consider on OKCupid. You really have to judge yourself.
It’s a very, very long process. Like, “Hm, what body type am I? What do I like to do?” It’s so pervasive.
Are you someone who wishes technology wasn’t so pervasive?
Yes and no, because I’m so bad with it. I’m not a technologically savvy person. Also, it’s convenient and a shame that it’s so much easier for people to be online rather than talking to a person. I like to insulate myself, which is great, but it’s a little too great. I should deal with the reality of other humans. Every day. [Laughs.]
Phone calls are weird.
Yeah, when you get one something must be wrong, so you don’t pick up but just text the person back.
Are you on Twitter?
I just joined Twitter, and I suddenly got so nervous. It’s direct from me to the Internet? [Laughs.]
Have you tweeted?
I tweeted once. I can’t even say what it is. It’s too embarrassing. One person favorited it. I’ll forever be in his debt.