Brooklyn-based actress Kate Lyn Sheil blew us away with her performance as an erudite twenty-something plagued by psychosexual jealousy in Sophia Takal’s Green, which screened at last year’s SXSW. This year, she’s back in Austin with not one, but four new films, including Amy Seimetz’s low-budget 16mm indie noir, Sun Don’t Shine, which premiered earlier this week. In this gritty, atmospheric road movie, which unfolds in the thick, muggy heat of the sultry Floridian summer, Sheil and mumblecore luminary Kentucker Audley play a bickering, anxiety-riddled couple on the run from … something. The film gives Sheil plenty of room to show off her range (and her impressive screaming abilities). She can transition from breathy hissing to explosive histrionics in a matter of seconds, creating a deceptively timid character that thrives on—and clings to—her own catastrophic volatility. Sheil’s got a ton of new projects in the pipeline, so we took a moment at the fest to get to know her a little better.
You’re part of a big group of relatively young filmmakers and actors that are constantly collaborating on new projects. How did you get involved with them?
I met a director through my friend Sean Williams, who’s a cinematographer, and that was the beginning. Then every time I worked on a movie, I would meet someone, then meet someone else through them. They are like-minded people who care about movies as much as I do.
Is that how you were cast in Sun Don’t Shine?
Amy wrote the part specifically for me; she and I had gotten to know each other really well while working on Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets, which was shot over the course of two and a half years. She wanted to do a movie with Kentucker, and one day she started g-chatting him about this recurring nightmare she was having. And it went from there.
How did you get into acting?
I’d done it since I was a kid, then went to NYU to study it. I gave it up right after college, though. I think I was getting confused—it’s strange deciding what you’re going to spend your life doing at such a young age. When I think about other decisions I made when I was 17 years old, I’m like, “You were a child.” It’s natural to back away from that at some point; it’s healthy to reevaluate. Also, I knew that I wanted to act in film, not theater, and I wasn’t sure there was a place for me; I was so into movies that were using non-actors, and I had this theatrical training background. I fell into a job I loved—I was working for a clothing designer—and thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just watch movies and that’ll be good enough for me.” But then I met these people who were struggling with the same sorts of questions as me, and it came together.
You often play characters that are consumed by jealousy and prone to histrionics.
That sort of stuff has always really appealed to me. Possession was my favorite movie for a long time; it’s just Isabelle Adjani losing her mind. Breaking the Waves, too. When I was forming this idea of what I personally wanted to do in film, I was drawn to both very, very subtle performances and completely over-the-top performances. I try to combine those two in the same role. That stuff also cracks me up: People misbehaving and flipping out is very, very funny and very, very upsetting at the same time. If there’s any sort of catharsis with acting, it’s definitely through going to extreme places.
Your scenes in Sun Don’t Shine looked so exhausting—I was exhausted just watching them. Which is good, but I imagined you doing them over and over and I wondered if that sort of thing could take a toll on you.
Fortunately there weren’t that many takes for the most emotional scenes. It also helps working with directors who are also actors: Sophia, who directed Green,and Amy, too. She knows whether you need to be left alone or prompted in some way. What also helps is being surrounded by generous people who are as engaged as you are, and who allow you to feel things.
Do you ever get nervous that you’ll start to be typecast?
Yeah, I think about that. My part in The Comedy is different; it’s not really an emotional thing like Green or Sun Don’t Shine. I watched Somebody Up There Likes Me the other night at the premiere—I have a small role—and the rest of the cast was all so incredibly charming and so good. I definitely want to work on being more charming.
Do you ever feel vulnerable exposing yourself in films?
It’s weird—the only way I know how to act is to bring a lot of myself to my characters. But I always hope they’re abstracted enough within these imaginary circumstances that it doesn’t just seem like I’m being masturbatory, or something. I’d love to do more “character work” and stuff like that, but I don’t think people really think of me that way. As for vulnerability, whenever I’m working on a movie, I love doing it and I don’t really think about the component at all. But once the movie is done then yes, it’s weird to have the experience of watching yourself but being removed at the same time, in a room full of people.
Do you feel comfortable with improvisation?
I do, yeah. But I think I prefer a combination of the two: I like to have structure, but it’s also nice to have the freedom to say things in your own way.
You’ve pretty much only done low-budget independent films until now. Would you be interested in working on something with a larger budget?
I would work on anything that I thought was interesting. I have no bias against larger movies at all; I love just as many Hollywood movies as I do independent movies. And I’m interested in anything that has an interesting part for a woman, because it’s not always easy to find those.
How do you see women fitting into the film world at the moment?
I only have exposure to a small slice of what’s being made in the world, but I think there are more people making creating interesting roles for women. On the independent level there are a lot of women making movies now, and it seems like there have been a number of breakout performances by women in the past few years. But I also feel like in recent years there’s been this shift where a strong woman is a hard and bitchy woman. In the seventies, it seems like strong women in film were sensitive but really strong, and maybe also bitchy. I just want the parts to be complex.
What would you say your biggest strengths and weaknesses are as a performer?
Access to emotions is a strength, and hopefully being present for the actors that I’m working with, which is just crucial. My weaknesses? I don’t have a very strong voice and I think there are still things that I’m afraid to do. I’m not afraid to be “big” in emotional ways, but I think I do have an innate fear being “big” in other ways. Comedically, perhaps. I love comedy more than probably anything else; it would be great to learn how to do it. I just did the SXSW acting panel with Jeffrey Tambor, which was great. It was really nerve-racking, but I went to acting school and I’ve done things like that before, just with a much smaller audience. He said some really incisive things that I agree with. He was completely right about the fact that I have to bypass my inhibitions. And he also said I needed to work on my voice. He thought that I was afraid to yell—but he also hadn’t seen Sun Don’t Shine yet.
How do you choose new projects? Do you mostly find them through friends?
Since I have mostly worked with people that I know and respect them all so much, if they ask me to do something I’m just so excited and honored. I like movies that are brave and strange. And sensitive, I guess—I think a lot things in the world are insensitive. But I don’t want that to sound sappy.