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Sheila Vand knows she's about to confuse the hell out of you. Her two breakout acting roles are dropping this week—State of Affairs hit NBC last night and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is in theaters Friday—but they couldn't be farther apart. The former, led by Katherine Heigl, is a political drama that deals with the inner workings of the CIA, while the latter, directed by newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour, is an Iranian vampire western. For State, Vand is a brainy CIA Secretary of Defense briefer who plays BFF with Heigl; for Girl, Vand is a centuries-old vampire who sucks the life out of misbehaving men and avenges scorned women. So, you know, this week is pretty clutch for Vand's acting reel, which also includes a small part in Argo.
But Vand knows exactly what she's doing. The 29-year-old Palo Alto native is all about defying expectations and breaking free from any pigeonholing. As you'll see, she's not "Iranian-American actress Sheila Vand." She's just Sheila Vand—complicated, "new age-y," and optimistic. Should she be anything else?
What drew you to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night?
I knew Lily [Amirpour] from before. We had done a couple short films together, so I already loved working with her. When she offered me the part, the script wasn’t written yet, but she had a pretty good sense of the world she wanted to create and knew that I wanted to live and play in that world. I was down right off the bat; she’s like a soul sister to me.
Did you have any input into your character?
Yeah, there were tons of conversations. It was a long process. On one hand, Lily’s an auteur, so she has a very clear vision of what she wants and where it’s headed, but she is also really collaborative in that she loves talking about ideas and giving you lots of resources to enrich your performance. Also, our shoot date kept getting pushed, so then we’d have another few months to go even deeper. But she wrote the part for me, so my spirit is in there more than I ever talked to her about what I wanted The Girl to be like. She already knew, and she molded it to who I am.
Are The Girl's record collection and interests inspired by your own?
It’s inspired by Lily’s, but we have the same taste in music. One of the reasons why we really hit it off is because somewhere in our friendship we realized that we both were obsessed with dancing and music. I always thought it was cool to be this girl in the middle of nowhere in Iran, to have all of these Western influences musically. A lot of the musical influences kind of connect to who she is in a way, too. Like, Michael Jackson is one of The Girl’s favorite musicians, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is an influence on the down-low in this movie.
Do you speak Farsi?
Yeah, I can’t read and write, but I speak and understand Farsi. It’s my first language. I’m first-generation Iranian. That’s the other thing that drew me to Lily. I don’t often meet Iranians who I connect with that much, so I was really taken aback when I met her. I was like, “You’re fucking cool, and you’re a Persian girl in L.A. That doesn’t make sense.” We vibed on that.
Do you tend to run into more conservative people?
I don’t have a problem with the conservative part of the culture; it’s almost more like I have issues with the flamboyant, showy part of it. I don’t have a problem, period. It’s just a weird identity thing to be born and raised in a different place than where you actually come from. There’s been a distance for me. I feel like for so long, growing up, it was either Iranian or American. I was never quite enough of either one. I hadn’t really found the space between for the hyphenated cultural person. For me, [A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night] represents that. This movie is a mash-up between Iranian and American. That’s why it’s like an Iranian Western. It’s taking something so iconically American, which is the cowboy western, and putting it on top of a story that takes place in Iran.
Would you say that you made this movie because there wasn’t anything like that out there?
That was part of it. First and foremost, we wanted to make a movie that we would want to watch, and that we thought would be fun to be part of, but Lily is an artist. Lyle Vincent, who shot it, is an artist and the cast is comprised of people that are more than just actors. Everyone is committed to trying to do something original and bold. That’s what we ended up with.
One of my best friends is Iranian-American. She grew up in Connecticut and just moved to Iran for her Master's, but she’s having trouble trying to fit in.
Yeah, because you’re neither here nor there. You are part of this displaced society, and there’s not really a voice for the diaspora. For me, this movie is creating a voice. It’s a voice of an exiled culture almost. You could never make this movie over there. It had to be an Iranian-American movie.
Would it ever be shown there?
It will be all over the black market, and we’re all about it. I’m so excited to see what the response to this movie is there. Because, I’m hoping, people like me who’ve felt underrepresented are going to come out of the woodwork and hopefully it’ll bring some of us together. We’re our own thing, we’re our own voice that is uniquely Iranian and American. Or Iranian and other things. Lily grew up kind of all over the place, and Arash [Marandi], who plays the James Dean character, he lives in Germany. It’s pretty international.
This movie is so defined by its music. Do you do anything musically?
My boyfriend works in music. He manages a bunch of bands, so I almost know more about the music world than I do about my own industry. [Laughs.] I am a huge music fan. I went to my first concert kind of late in life because I had these immigrant parents who never taught me about it. I remember since that concert, which I’m too embarrassed to even tell you who it was.
Just say it. Is it N*SYNC? Is it Hootie and the Blowfish?
I wish it was N*SYNC. I spent college going to every festival. I made this thing called Sneaky Nietzsche a couple years ago. It’s like an underground, experiential performance art piece, centered around live music. For that, I put a band together and I sang in it, but as a crazy Dia de Los Muertos type character. That was my little foray into music. I’m still interested in that kind of stuff, creating a theatrical world, an alternative scene almost that mixes art and nightlife together.
I love dancing. I love going out, but I fucking hate clubs and I hate scenes. I feel like there’s not really a place for people like me that wanna go out, but they don’t want a scene. They wanna be there to dance, not to be looked at. So I kind of created that with Sneaky Nietzsche a few years ago. But I’ve been busy acting, and I haven’t been able to do something like that again. It might be time to throw another crazy party.
Where would you throw those parties?
I did Sneaky Nietzsche in this 6,000 square foot underground warehouse right off of Skid Row that I rented. At that time, I had absolutely no money and I took everything I had and put it into this show. There were like 30 different designers involved, and dancers, and musicians. We created this underground forest. LACMA, a year later, asked me to remount it at the museum for a night. Out of the blue, I was like, “Sure!” I’m not gonna say no to LACMA. I did it at the museum but it wasn’t quite the same because part of the whole thing was the history of going to Skid Row and not really understanding where you were. This was pre-Sleep No More, so that kind of shit was really mysterious and exciting. [Laughs.]
Growing up, how’d you discover all of the art that influenced you? I know some of your big influences are Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch.
Having immigrant parents, I really had to discover all of this on my own. Whenever people ask me how I got into acting my answer is that it’s the only thing I never quit. As far as my influences, a lot of that came through people in my life. I’m a total late bloomer in so many ways. I just didn’t grow up in a family that was well-versed in that. What I do is like a million years away. My dad and my brother are computer engineers; my mom was an accountant.
Whenever somebody would recommend a movie that I would obsess over, I would chase it and try to watch everything else that filmmaker made. With Jodorowsky, that was a handful of years ago when El Topo was re-released. A friend told me about it, and when I watched it the first time it went right over my head. I was way on another planet when I was watching it, and then I watched it again and understood every word of it. To me, it was a really big deal. I hadn’t seen a film that had balls that big, that just didn’t give a shit about making sense in a rational way. It made sense in an intuitive way. Then I went deeper into Jodorowsky and got into Psychomagic, and I read his book and his Shamanism and Tarot, and all that.
I don’t know where it comes from because there’s nothing in my upbringing that lends itself to it, but I’ve always been fascinated by the abstract. I need a challenge. I like straightforward storytelling, too, but it doesn’t excite me in the same way. I’m obsessed with my own imagination. All the time I’m in my head and I love it. There’s no other place I’d rather be than in my own crazy head.
Do you channel that into your own writing or art?
I do. A big way that I deal with my own darkness is through my own work. The last couple years, things picked up with acting, and I was like, I’m just going to let that happen now. Now, in the last couple months, I realized there’s a really important part of me missing, and it’s making my own stuff. There’s nothing like it. For me, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was the next closest thing. If I were to make my own thing it would be something like this. It comes from the same world that my head lives in.
That’s interesting that you brought up having immigrant parents that didn't necessarily introduce you to pop culture because I've had the same experience. I feel like I’m always catching up with my peers and discovering things late.
It’s true! I have a lot of friends that live in New York. I am there half of the year. They’re all so cultured and worldly, and I used to kind of give myself a hard time. I used to wish that I could’ve started earlier, but really I think that there is something also beautiful about where we come from which is that we started with pop culture. Now, you see pop culture is trying to get more underground. Kanye and Beyonce, those are two of the biggest people in pop culture and they’re using indie artists and unknown, Scandinavian electronic musicians to write their shit.
Did you see that the whole Yeezus tour was influenced by Jodorowsky?
Yeah, it was The Holy Mountain! I read an article on that, actually. Dude, he’s everywhere right now. It’s funny, he’s become a little bit like Bukowski. It’s like the “hipster thing” to like, and I’m like, “I have been fucking loving Jodorowsky for so long!” Now it’s back in the cultural consciousness. [Laughs.] Not that it’s a competition. Jodorowsky really is a man after my own heart. I am so sad that maybe I missed the boat on making a movie with him, although he just made a movie. I haven’t seen The Dance of Reality yet.
But there’s something there. With how fast technology moves, all of the information is out there, so there's more of a demand for the abstract because we’re sick of facts and words. We’re so inundated with information that maybe that’s what’s pushing people to go beyond that.
I’m trying to think now what’s cool about being an immigrant that maybe a hoity-toity New Yorker doesn’t get. [Laughs.] I grew up blue collar. That put a fight in me. I would never still be acting right now if I wasn’t used to that kind of blue-collar grind. It’s in my blood. You work really hard for everything. Nothing’s really easy. I graduated from UCLA as a theater major, and when I graduated half of my theater class had already quit within a year or two after graduation. There were only five of us left that were still doing it. To me, that was crazy. I was like, you thought you were going to be a fucking star in a year? [Laughs.] The difference could even be just that we can probably look at something and see it, instead of over-thinking every little thing.
When you stuck with school, was that a personal choice? Or was it a thing you did because it’s what people do?
I partially wish I didn’t go to college. Some of my best friends in the world are people I met at UCLA. For the friends I made, it was really worth it. It never even occurred to me to not go to college. I was raised to take my grades so seriously. I had to get an A, you know. I had those awesome Persian parents and education was everything. To me, education was important. I was smart enough back then to realize that I didn’t want to end up just with a high school education.
But it wasn’t until my last year of college that I took school seriously. Even though I was a straight-A student, I knew how to weasel my way through. Even now, some of the most interesting things I know are things I learned in college, so I’m glad I stuck with it. As a human being, I think I’m a more well-rounded person. I studied abroad in Spain, I learned Spanish, I did crazy things, and I feel like I experimented in ways I wouldn’t have if I was just thrown into the real world.
As far as being an actor and an artist goes, sometimes I wish I had those extra four years. Like I said, I’m a late bloomer, so I think I would have been crushed by the world if I was an 18-year-old in L.A. or New York. I don’t think I was tough enough or grown up enough. I would’ve been manhandled by the world. [Laughs.]
There’s a tendency to think that your life is over if you’re not a child prodigy, especially when you see your younger peers killing it and when you have artist friends who you’re trying to motivate. But how do you fix that?
It’s really weird. It’s a timeline that we make up in our own heads. I mean, it’s a little more real as an actor because you are the product. So, the way you look kind of makes a difference with the roles that you’re able to get. I definitely chilled out big time on feeling like I’m in a pressure cooker and need to hit it big now. I was just like that since I was a kid. I remember, I took piano lessons when I was 15 for two years. I was really good at it. But then I was like, “What’s the point? It’s too late to be a virtuoso.” But I would have been if I stuck with it.
The culture is all about results—I know this is new-age-y—and not thinking about the journey. Also, I guess I have friends and I don’t know how to shake them into realizing life is not as short as you think it is. For me, I just kept persevering and seeing how things have just worked out. A couple of years ago I was like, the universe has my back. As long as I don’t forget that I’ll be fine. I don’t know what the rush its. You never know how things are playing out and why they play out the way that they do.
It’s frustrating when you see that it’s so celebrated.
Yeah, but those people are fucked up, too. Especially the ones that succeed as really young kids. I have some friends who were famous when they were 22, and some of them feel like they never deserve things. That comes with its own baggage.
You just can’t give up. It’s the only thing. You can never give up. Lily made A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and it’s her first feature. It’s been huge for her. She went down so many different roads before. She went to art school, she was in a band for a while, she lived in the woods for a while. All of those things probably are part of what made this amazing film. Sometimes you have to go down the road you’re going down. Maybe if she made her first feature 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been as original.
Have Jodorowsky and shamanism shaped the way you’re living your life? Or are they just ideas you’re fascinated by?
I think Jodorowsky’s spirituality comes in waves with me. I get busy and caught up in Earth stuff. I get really into a bubble and that’s when I’m like, I need to take a trip to Mars so that I can see Earth more clearly. [Laughs.] Then I take a trip to Mars and I’m like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Perspective.” It’s true, that’s the best way I can put it. [Laughs.] It’s important to me and people don’t get it. People are quick to judge that. To me, it is a spiritual thing. Once a year I’ll go into the middle of the desert with people I barely even know, with no running water, just to unplug completely. Then, when I come back, I know what I’m coming back to.
So what made you choose State of Affairs?
State of Affairs has been such an amazing, fun experience. I think I got excited about it because I thought it would be a cool way to show a whole different side of me that I haven’t really had a chance to show the world, and my hope is that it will lead to more films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
It's funny because State of Affairs comes out the same week as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and people are going to be fucking confused as hell. [Laughs.] This girl is an American CIA agent on an NBC TV show, and she’s a creepy Iranian vampire in this art-house movie. I wanna confuse audiences. I don’t want them to be able to pigeonhole me. State of Affairs is helping me in a lot of ways to burst outside of any box anyone wants to put me in.
Who do you play?
I play this girl named Maureen James. I’m a CIA analyst, and I work a high-intensity job. It’s kind of about how we prioritize all of the crazy things going on around the world, and also how the intensity of your job as a CIA agent affects your personal life, which is the part that fascinates me the most—the human side of it, and what it does to you as a human being to have to keep so many powerful secrets.
Do you have a lot of really smart lines that you have to memorize?
Yeah, there’s a lot of CIA jargon I’ve had to learn. We’re all smart. You have to be smart as shit to be in the CIA. A lot of CIA agents are actually recruited super young so it’s full of 27, 28 -year-olds who are like, “We’re the smartest kids in the class,” and who want to serve their country. [Laughs.] But going back to the immigrant thing, I think it’s cool that my role is just a normal American named Maureen James. That’s a big step for Hollywood to make a Persian-American and have the world look at her and see her as another American.
I don’t have a problem playing a Middle Eastern role, but also why does it have to be about them being Middle Eastern every time?
In one of your interviews you said it was an advantage being Iranian-American.
Yeah, because the industry is so competitive. It did help in the beginning when there’s a smaller pool of competition with brown actors than white actors. But then I got to the point where I had enough under my belt and I started to say no. I didn’t want to become the spokesperson. It definitely has its advantages, and a lot of Iranian roles are really fun and cool and interesting, but I want to take them only if I find them to be cool and interesting, not just because it’s a Persian role and I’m a Persian person. I never wanted to become a spokesperson because I’ve never even been to Iran. Who am I to be “the Persian one”? The chosen one? [Laughs.]
That’s funny because I feel like minority actors are always made to be spokespeople for their race.
Exactly. It’s so funny, the questions people always gravitate toward are, “Were your parents supportive?” They expect that stereotype every time, that my parents wanted me to be a doctor. It’s like, no. I was pretty normal. My parents were strict in a certain way, but every parent in the world would probably be freaked out if their kid wanted to be an actor. It’s not just a Persian thing. I would be freaked out. I’d be like, “Why? Are you crazy?” This shit is not easy.
So is it weird when you see the ads for State of Affairs?
It is. It’s just starting so none of it is real to me. It’ll be real when I turn on the TV and I can’t believe that I’m on there every week. I love what I do so to do it every day, I’m enjoying it. It’s also six months out of the year, and then I get the next six months to do other stuff.
Did growing up in Palo Alto ever make you want to be part of that tech industry at all?
[Laughs.] No, I’m so technologically not savvy. I can’t even answer emails like a normal person. I turned off all the notifications on my phone recently and it has changed my life. I hope you print that and everybody gets inspired to do the same thing. Nothing happens on my phone now unless I go to it. Nothing is in my face.
Will you check it, though?
No. That’s the problem. I’ve become completely disconnected now because nothing is pulling me in. I don’t know what’s going on with friends or the world, but people have such FOMO with that shit. I got rid of my personal Facebook page a couple years ago. I don’t think I have missed out on a single thing.
Are you okay with Twitter?
I still don’t understand Twitter. I got it at first, and I really tried to use it. But then I was like, why would I want the whole world to know my thoughts? I like Instagram—that one I can handle. There are no words. It’s just visuals. Again, keep it abstract. Keep it obscure. We don’t need people all up in our grills. I feel bad for people. I feel like people get so obsessed with that stuff.
I watched some video recently that was all about how the new epidemic that we’re fighting in the world is loneliness and how it all stems from our obsession with social media. The deeper you get into your relationship with the Internet, the more isolated you actually become. It’s so ass-backwards because I think people think they’re connecting, but they’re not using the Internet as a tool anymore. They’re just using it as a distraction.
I think that’s completely true. There are these weird little Twitter communities and if you aren’t a personality in that community, it makes you question yourself.
Exactly. There’s something interesting about what trends and why it trends, but you have to be careful in the way that you participate in it. The Internet has a culture of its own. Memes and things that blow up, I’m fascinated by that. I still understand that it’s a fake world. It’s made of satellite dishes. My boyfriend is so into the Internet. He doesn’t do social media, he just loves seeing what’s out there. He loves culture and believes that the Internet is such a big part of culture, and it is, but I respect his way of looking at it in an anthropological way.
But when you want to detach from that culture, that's when you have to make your own stuff. That’s what I feel. Instead of your entity as liking or not liking things, why don’t you make shit that people can like or not like? It’s also such a platform for hate. Nobody goes on the Internet usually raving about something positive. They flex their muscles by hating on shit. That’s silly. We’re not in high school anymore.
Tara Aquino is an associate editor at Complex who's seen A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night three times. She tweets about her obsession here.