Some actors have trouble making more than a few feature films in the span of two years. Kate Lyn Sheil has made 16 of them, and has seven projects currently in post-production. Not only is Sheil one of the most prolific artists of her generation, she’s also one of the most electrifying. In picture after picture, she’s displayed the radiance of a young Meryl Streep and the fearlessness of a Cassavetes-era Gena Rowlands.
Her latest role is in Amy Seimetz’s vividly impressionistic crime drama, “Sun Don’t Shine,” which explores the fractured bond of a couple on the run. Sheil and Kentucker Audley portray the pair of troubled lovers who desperately attempt to evade the eye of cops in the Florida backwoods. In this exclusive interview, Sheil chats with Indie Outlook about her extraordinary career, her key collaborators and her first major venture into screenwriting.
Q: You’ve appeared in 16 feature films over the last two years. So naturally, my first question is, how have you been able to handle them all?
A: I don’t know. [laughs] I’m glad that you think I did handle them. Once you get to a movie set, it’s a very immersive experience and so much of acting is reacting to your surroundings. Each of these films is a different experience, and so for me, I feel that if you’re present as an actor, that helps each performance to be a little bit unique and specific to the environment in which you’re making the film. Then there’s the work that the actor does beforehand, the individual stuff that you do in your room by yourself. I want to have more time to do my character work and legwork as an actor before I get to the set. I’m proud of all of the movies that I’ve done in the past, but now I’d like to experiment with taking quite a bit of time working on each role.
Q: Have your classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute served as a major influence on your approach to acting?
A: They completely formed my sense of identity as an actor. The Lee Strasberg school and the way that I approach acting now is basically inseparable. I wish that I were a more disciplined person, and I’m trying to figure out how to bring more of that into my life. I had acted in high school and it was obviously what I wanted to do, but I think I really started to learn how to act when I went to Lee Strasberg. There are so many incredibly talented actors who never went to acting school, but for me, it was extremely informative and helpful.
Q: The first feature you appeared in was 2009’s “Impolex,” directed by Alex Ross Perry, whom you’ve subsequently worked with on 2011’s acclaimed “The Color Wheel” and the upcoming HBO series, “The Traditions.” Has that collaboration been instrumental in your development as an actress?
A: Yeah, I feel like we grew up together. I’ve known Alex since we were about 19, but it seems like so much longer than that. I feel like we went to grammar school together or something. We met at Kim’s Video where we both worked, and we talked about our love and consumption of movies. When Alex was making his first feature, he asked me to be in it, which made me so excited. It was the first film for both of us, as well as for our friend Sean [Price Williams], who has been Alex’s cinematographer ever since. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I’m just so proud of Alex. He’s always been extremely talented, but I think he’s getting better and better. We shot “The Traditions” and are in the process of editing it now. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to be that comfortable or free of nerves, since Sean and Alex are such good friends of mine. The first job that I have on a set is to get over how nervous I feel, and that job was taken away on “The Traditions.”
Q: Has working with people you’re comfortable with enabled you to be more honest oncamera?
A: I think it helps a great deal. I want to get to a place where I can be working with a total stranger and bring a similar degree of readiness and openness. It’s so extremely helpful to work with people that you know and trust.
Q: One of your frequent collaborators, Kentucker Audley, told me that it’s his goal to have his onscreen persona be as close to himself as possible. Would you say that the same applies to you?
A: Yeah, when I look at a character, the first thing I try to do is find similarities between myself and my character, and then recognize where I differ from it. The places where I differ are jumping off points for me to try and build specific traits for the character. The only way I know how to act is to figure out how I, as myself, would relate to all of the imaginary situations and try and bring it as close to myself as I can, but I’m becoming more and more interested in doing more character work. That’s exciting to me right now.
Q: One of my favorite lead female performances from last year was your portrayal of Genevieve, the girlfriend consumed with paranoia and jealousy in Sophia Takal’s “Green.” That character had some striking parallels to your role in Joe Swanberg’s “Silver Bullets.”
A: Yeah, I can definitely see similarities between those two characters. I remember one time I was doing a Q&A with Joe where someone brought up how my characters in both films were dealing with jealousy. Joe said that he thought the opposite about “Silver Bullets,” because he felt that in his film, his character was dealing with jealousy over my character. That was never the way I thought about that movie at all. I thought that was interesting that our processes were the mirror image of each other.
Q: What do you think keeps Genevieve confined in such a damaging relationship?
A: She and her boyfriend have been together for a few years and there is such a discrepancy between where my character places herself in terms of her work and [personal life]. I think that she was in the process of becoming a more fully fleshed out human being while growing up, but the power dynamic between the two of them has changed. It’s reaching a point where her boyfriend is no longer going to be the teacher who knows infinitely more than her, and where she is able to be a fully independent person, but she doesn’t know how to make that work within the relationship.
It’s the fact that she abandoned her life to be with him and has nothing to do and can’t seem to motivate herself to do anything. I can relate to it a lot, and it made me think of what it would be like if I wasn’t able to practice acting everyday. I think that she had great plans for herself, but I think she’s caught in the inertia of doing nothing and can’t break herself out of it. She can’t get motivated to carve out a life for herself, and the friendship with Sophia’s character gives her a taste of what it would be like to be a person with a life of her own. But ultimately, she abandons that for hanging onto the relationship. It’s hard to walk away from a relationship. [laughs]
Q: Sometimes the more damaged a relationship is, the harder it is to walk away from it.
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: One filmmaker I previously interviewed for Indie Outlook was Eugene Kotlyarenko, who has a mesmerizing conversation with you via Skype in his film, “SkyDiver.” To what degree was that conversation real?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know how much Eugene wants to reveal about that movie. I can say that it was the first time I had seen Eugene’s face in months and months, and a lot of that conversation—the parts about how we might have never talked again but were now seeing each other for the first time in a long time—was real. I think Eugene is brilliant.
Q: What is your interpretation of Joe Swanberg’s “The Zone,” in which you star opposite Kentucker, Sophia and Lawrence Levine? To me, it seemed like a final statement from Joe, in regards to his previous work.
A: The series of films that Joe made about making movies all ring very true to the experience of what we do. Interpersonal relationships are extremely complicated and you’re playing pretend a lot of the time, so Joe was exploring that kind of artifice. I think all of those movies are really interesting, including “Silver Bullets.” “The Zone” is really personal to me because we filmed it at my apartment. I think the best part of that film is Kris Swanberg’s [critique] that she gives at the end.
Q: Kris told me that she couldn’t remember if her speech was scripted or not.
A: That was just Kris being the incredibly intelligent woman that she is. [laughs] I do think that movie is the end of something for a lot of the people involved in it.
Q: Your work in “Sun Don’t Shine” has been garnering comparisons to Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” Would you cite that performance as an inspiration?
A: I love Gena Rowlands and I love “A Woman Under the Influence” so much, but I would never, ever dream of comparing myself to her. [laughs] I was not thinking of “Woman Under the Influence” all that much when we were making “Sun Don’t Shine,” but there were two performances that I did think about: Isabelle Adjani in “Possession” and Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Miami Blues.” The performance I gave in “Sun Don’t Shine” is really unlike either of those two performances, and again, I would never suggest that it was anywhere near as amazing as them. They’ve all been hugely important to me, and all I can do is study them and enjoy them and hope to take something away from their work and do the best that I can in my own work.
Q: Is it important for you to play characters that go against the conventions Hollywood deems as likable or accessible?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I like my character in “Sun Don’t Shine.” She has a lot more of myself in it than people may assume. A lot of people are drawn to roles that are difficult, angry and explosive. Those are always so interesting. I’d love to play someone who is extremely charming, but first I’ll have to learn how to be charming. [laughs] It would be fun for me too, but I’m a shy person, so it’s not immediately accessible for me to do that sort of thing. It would not be interesting for me to play someone’s nice girlfriend in a movie. People are all so weird and strange, and I would be a very lucky person to keep playing characters that are as complicated as the one Amy wrote for me.
Q: Did your character’s loose-fitting, childlike wardrobe enhance your approach to the role?
A: The clothes were extremely helpful. I’ve worn my own clothes in many of the low-budget movies I’ve made in which I was playing someone not all that different from myself. Wearing clothes that aren’t yours informs everything. It changes the way you move and feel. If you don’t feel comfortable about what you’re wearing, it changes the way you feel about yourself. I felt so gross and unattractive in the outfit that I wear for most of the movie, and it helped in the scenes where she wants her boyfriend to like her but he [remains distant]. As for the pink dress, [laughs] I thought it was at least a bit more flattering, so when I put it on, I felt better. It felt like a sexier outfit at the time, which was perfect for the scene. We had a lot of help from the elements and the props and clothes that were chosen for us.
Q: How much discussion did you and Kentucker have about your characters’ history together prior to the events in the film?
A: Amy would send us e-mails with giant chunks of prose writing about mapping out scenes and throwing out ideas, so we were very familiar with the story and the thinking behind it. There wasn’t a lot of rehearsal time. On the first day we got there, Kentucker and I drove around in the car by ourselves and we improvised what our first date might have been like. All of that took place within a couple of hours and then we started shooting. We shot for a week, then took a break for a couple weeks before coming back to shoot again, so we had time to mull things over and develop our characters. For me, with Amy, it always felt very conspiratorial. We were going to make something together and we were going to go all the way with it. It felt like this great secret that we both shared with one another.
Q: “Sun Don’t Shine” has one of the most perfect final exchanges of dialogue I’ve seen. Was that always meant to be the ending?
A: Yeah, that’s all Amy. It was always meant to be the last line, and I think it’s a great line too.
Q: Was most of the film scripted?
A: There was a little bit of improvisation and Amy made room for it to be a possibility. I think Kentucker improvised a little bit more than I did. There are some really funny lines that he came up with. A small fraction of my voice over was improvised too.
Q: You recently told Indiewire that you co-wrote the script for a Civil War-era film you’re making with your boyfriend, Zachary Treitz. After acting in so many features, what sort of films are you most interested in writing yourself?
A: I’m interested in all sorts of films. I was interested in making a period piece, and I want to make movies that feel like they came out of nowhere. Anything I could possibly say beyond that would sound really pretentious. I want to make movies that seem like they came from a different time and place, and I also want humor to be involved. Making a genre film is a very exciting challenge for Zach and myself. It’s set during the Civil War, but it’s primarily a period piece. I like [Andrea Arnold’s] “Wuthering Heights” quite a bit. That’s a great reference point.
Q: I’ve been thrilled to see such a big marketing push for your horror film, “You’re Next,” which features many of your past collaborators, including Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and AJ Bowen.
A: I have a very, very tiny part in that movie, but I’m really excited that it’s getting out there. I recently saw a screening of the film, and I think it’s really good. Amy and Ti and Joe are so extremely funny in it, and the film is also very scary too. I definitely jumped a couple times.
Q: I was looking for you in the trailer, and was wondering if you were behind one of the masks.
A: I’m the hand that puts on the song at the beginning of the trailer. [laughs] That’s me.
“Sun Don’t Shine” screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday, May 9th. For tickets, click here. It is also available on iTunes, Amazon and VOD. “You’re Next” opens in theaters on August 23rd.