With the release of Ana Lily Aamirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night just a mere matter of days away, we had the distinct pleasure of discussing the innovative project with the film’s leading star, actress Sheila Vand. Known for her role in the Oscar winning Argo, Vand plays ‘The Girl’ in this American/Iranian feature that depicts the story of a vampire, prowling the streets at night. We spoke about the challenges in playing such a nuanced role, and whether Vand decided to give the character a name and back story herself. She also told us why she hates labelling films, her own ambitions to direct one day, and the personal joy in creating a film that crosses between American and Iranian cultures.
I was really excited by the world that Lily wanted to create. When she first told me about the project she hadn’t written the script yet, so all I knew was that it was going to be a black and white vampire movie that was a cross between Sergio Leone and David Lynch and I love both of those filmmakers so I was excited about what would happen with a fusion of those two ingredients.
The film is so ineffably cool. Did you get a sense for that while shooting or was that all implemented in post-production?
I always felt from the beginning that the character had a lot of swagger and style. But I didn’t know, visually, how moody the whole thing was going to be. That was something that really came in the editing process. The other thing is, experiencing everything in colour was something that really changed once we saw what it looked like in black and white.
It must make watching the film back quite surreal, as what you see is so different from the personal experiences you had shooting the movie.
I remember Lily would sometimes let us watch the playback on the monitor and we’d see it in black and white and then they’d switch it over to colour and we’d all scream, we were disgusted – make it black and white again! The way it was shot, it was very specifically lit that wouldn’t translate in colour.
The part was written for you, that must be quite humbling? But also, does it add pressure on you knowing it’s been designed to match your own sensibilities?
I didn’t feel that way because Lily knew me very well. We’d made a few short films together and we were friends, so I think it really was crafted to my spirit. I actually felt the opposite, it was more effortless to slip into the role because I didn’t have to think, ‘am I really right for this? Can I pull this off?” because it was just me. That was something that Lily emphasised a lot – she told me I was the girl. I found that very liberating.
The character is nameless – just called ‘The Girl’. Did you create a name for her, or leave it as it is?
There was a point when I was preparing for it when I told Lily I wanted to have a name, because she does have a name. She was human until she was 19 and became a vampire. Even if the audience never know it, I wanted to know it – so she does have a name, but only Lily and I know it. It’s fun to have a little secret.
There aren’t actually many lines for you in this film. Does that silence give you more room to manoeuvre? More space to create a back story?
I think it’s actually more difficult. Obviously you don’t have text to rely on to express yourself, so it’s mostly about presence. Even though she doesn’t say very much, I still wanted the nuances and subtleties to shine through. It’s something that could easily fall flat. I wanted to be as deliberate as possible. Why she decides to look at somebody, why she walks away, why does she stop, and why in that moment? All things I was thinking about and putting a lot of intention behind.
Conversely, when told you have only a few lines, it must be a nice relief – not too much to learn…
[Laughs] Yeah it’s relaxing. It makes it a more meditative experience, and it was so right for her, because more than anything else, she’s lived a long life and she doesn’t need to engage in the same way. Time doesn’t exist for her in the same way it does for everybody else.
Was it a challenge portraying an old character in a young person’s body? To manage the contrasting sensibilities?
Yeah I tried to focus more on the old woman. I observed my grandma actually, a lot, in preparation. I visited her a handful of times and really noticed how profoundly still she was. She didn’t feel the need to speak unless she really had something to say, and there was a very slow, serene energy to her that comes with her age, and I tried to dial in to that and bring that sense of calm and boredom to the girl, because that’s what I noticed in my own grandmother, that there was a boredom.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is unable to be defined by any one particular genre – that must be quite rewarding?
It really is. In general, I’m an anti-label kind of person, and I really think that films are meant to be experienced and I understand we have to put words to it and find categories for films in order to discuss them before people see it – but at the end of the day, a great movie can’t be described in words and it has to be seen and it’s meant to be seen. So I definitely get a kick out of the words that people are trying to cram into the label of this film.
Vampires are a quite common stomping ground in cinema, and rightly so – as it does breed some brilliant movies. What do you think it is about vampires that makes for such prosperous cinema?
I think there’s something very romantic about vampires. They’re the most elegant of all the monster creatures. The way that they kill is incredibly delicate and precise. They live so long they have a jaded air to them that people are attracted to. I have this idea that we glorify these devious things like gangster movies because it’s a projection of our own darkness. People like to see flawed characters and imperfect beings because we’re imperfect creatures ourselves. That’s my hypothesis!
This is a really remarkable achievement for Lily, a unique vision fully realised. You mentioned before she’s a good friend of yours – it must have made for a fulfilling collaborative process?
Yeah. When I met her I had just finished theatre school and I was trying to meet, emerging, young filmmakers and when I met her I believed in her vision right away and I loved her psychedelic, otherworldly approach. It’s so difficult to make a real film and the struggle to find art within the business has been an ongoing thing for me, so yes, it was incredibly rewarding. And encouraging to know that it can happen, that art-house indie cinema can thrive. There’s an audience for it.
Have you had any ambitions yourself to one day work behind the camera?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m an academically orientated person. I have no doubt that I’ll dabble in all of that stuff eventually. But I do feel that age plays a big part in the path of an actor, so I’m like, let me get this off the ground while I’m still young – I can be old and get into filmmaking. One thing at a time, I guess. I have great ambitions to do it all. We’ll see [laughs].
In regards to Iranian cinema, do you pay close attention to the industry and what’s coming out of Iran?
Not as much as I could be, but I’m familiar with all the big filmmakers – Kiarostami, Panahi, Farhadi – I do try and keep up, but in general there is so much cinema, I always feel like I’m behind. But I also love the creativity that has born out of what’s happening over there. I think there’s something about Iranian cinema that bears a very subtle, yet powerful commentary and even A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I consider to be an American film more than Iranian, still has that same flavour of restraint.
Panahi is a great example in making social commentaries in the most subtle way – but A Girl Walks Home has a few taboos within it and isn’t explored to show them, be it drugs or sex. It’s pretty daring.
Yeah, that’s why I wanted to be part of it, because I knew it was going to have balls. Particularly working with up and comers it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Lily – she has guts. She is a relentless creator. I was never apprehensive about those elements of the film, I celebrated the fact that it pushed boundaries. Those were the elements that really make it American – a film that could only be made in the States. The complexity of an American film set in Iran is one of the more interesting parts of this movie and it’s interesting how people process that. Immigrant culture is so big here in the States and this is an example of it. This is still so classically American. There’s a character based on James Dean, and the Spaghetti Western elements – something so iconically American. Bringing that into an Iranian setting, I love that stuff.
It does feel like a real collaboration of cultures – that must have suited you well as an actor? Because you are part Iranian and part America – you must have felt at ease with the crossing between the two cultures?
I did, I really did. Everyone involved was some sort of hybrid Iranian. That was one of the more special things about it. I’ve always felt a bit disconnected to my Persian roots because there isn’t a voice that represents my particular identity, but I feel like this it it.
Finally, I love the striped shirt. Did they let you keep it?
[Laughs] They were all my clothes actually. My personal clothes, so I did keep it. But now I feel like I can never wear a striped shirt again because people will be like,’ oh you’re dressing like the girl?’ so I’m not allowed to wear that shirt anymore!
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is released on May 22nd. You can read our five star review of the film here.