Discovery: Sheila Vand

By
Photography Brian Higbee

Published November 25, 2014

ABOVE: SHEILA VAND AT THE LINE HOTEL IN LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTOGRAPHY: BRIAN HIGBEE. STYLING: LIZETTE PENA. MAKEUP: MICHELLE MUNGCAL/JED ROOT. HAIR: CAILE NOBLE/JED ROOT.

“Lily always knew that the tone would be a cross between David Lynch and Sergio Leone,” says actress Sheila Vand of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the first feature film from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour. Set in a fictional Iranian town called “Bad City,” the film stars Vand as the titular girl. If the title sounds foreboding, it’s not—or at least not for The Girl. Vand’s character is no shrinking violet vulnerable to the undesirable figures of the night; she’s a vampire.

“I was not into vampires at all before this film, but I knew that whatever Lily would do was going to be a much cooler version than what we’re used to seeing,” Vand explains. Shot entirely in black and white with all dialogue in Farsi, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is certainly cool, eerie, and stylish. Yesterday, the film was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

Vand, who grew up in an Iranian family in California and graduated from UCLA, is also a performance artist. Lately, though, she hasn’t had too much time for her art. Before A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Vand played a small but significant role as the housekeeper to the Canadian Ambassador in Ben Affleck’s Argo. She’s currently acting opposite Katherine Heigl and Alfre Woodard in NBC’s new drama, State Of Affairs. Next up is The Highway Is for Gamblers, another independent film with Nikki Reed, Bonnie Wright, and Joe Jonas. “I’m really excited for it,” says Vand. “It’s taking me back into the realm of weirdness, which is where I belong.”

AGE: 29

HOMETOWN: Palo Alto, California

THE BEGINNING: I tried every hobby as a kid, and I quit everything. Then I did theater in middle school and high school and I never quit, it just kept getting more and more serious over the years. I decided to major in theater in college. Being a child of immigrants, you kind of have to teach yourself everything there is to know about American culture. I was a little bit of a late bloomer; I feel like I was very mainstream as a kid—all the music I listened to was whatever my older brother listened to, which was pretty much all gangster rap. And I grew up on cartoons. I watched cartoons every day for way longer than you’re supposed to watch cartoons. Towards the end of high school and in college is where I really started to develop my pretentious palate that I have now.

NOT THE FAMILY BUSINESS: My brother and my father are computer engineers and my mom is a CPA accountant, so I come from a pretty mathematically-oriented family. I’m definitely the black sheep of the family. To this day, when people ask me what my brother and my dad do, I don’t quite know. I’ve asked them so many times. I just can’t wrap my head around it. I have always excelled at math as well, [but] computers I was never good at.

FIRST PAID ROLE: I did a guest-star on an NBC show called Life (2007) that Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi were in. That was right after college, so it was a reassuring thing to get a job so quickly. It made me realize that I maybe had what it takes to do this professionally. I remember that I was really paying attention to what Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi were doing because I had really done zero on-camera work. I was taking a lot of cues from them and learning on the spot.

MOST FORMATIVE EXPERIENCE: One of my most formative experiences was definitely working with Robin Williams on Broadway [Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, 2011]. I learned how much you can gain [from] opening your heart up, and he was one of the most open people and performers I’ve ever seen. I was constantly taken aback by how willing he was to try anything the director wanted—he was afraid of nothing and he would try it in front of all of us in rehearsals, because that’s the way theater works. It’s not like film where you do your work at home and then when you show up on the day, you’re ready to go. Theater is so much more about the process. Seeing him go all the way out of the box and try everything until [he] found exactly what works was really inspiring. Even during the run of the show, he was tweaking things. And his work ethic I took a lot from. He would get to the theater an hour before everyone else every day.

WORKING ON ARGO: I was sort of the baby on set in that movie. It was my first huge movie and most everyone around me was a seasoned vet. I felt so respected and present in that process. It was such an incredible group of people. Everyone there was so egoless that I got a little bit spoiled by that experience. Having that energy on set makes such a big difference. Since then, I have worked with some people who have more diva behavior and it can really crush the vibe. I’m not talking about Katherine Heigl, by the way—she’s really sweet.

MEETING LILY: A mutual friend had referred me to do a reading of a different feature script that she’d written. I was out of the country at the time, so I couldn’t do the reading, but I read the script and I loved it, so I wanted to meet her anyways. We met in a coffee shop in Westwood, and right away I was taken by her energy and enthusiasm and her balls. One of the first things I noticed about her was that she was pretty relentless about the kind of films she wanted to make. I think to be an auteur, you have to have some serious balls in this business.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT: [At that point] I’d done a few short films with Lily, so we knew each other’s vibe. She decided that she wanted to turn this short film of hers into a feature and said, “I want you to be the vampire.” I love her style and her vision, so I was onboard right away. [My character] is also a cowboy, which is something that I had in mind. She’s a vampire, an old lady, and a cowboy, which is a really interesting mix of things to put together.

THE RIGHT KIND OF VAMPIRE: Since playing a vampire, I really love them. I think that they’re complex creatures. I love Let the Right One In (2008), and I feel like we’re in that same genre of vampires. I love the idea of a vampire living in a world that’s not full of vampires. I’m fascinated by the outsider, and a vampire is somebody who is by nature a misfit. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) came out after we were done shooting, but I also really love that movie. I like the modern-day twist on the age-old story.

ART VS. ACTING: I started making my own artwork because I had a lot of downtime as an actor starting out. In the last couple of years as things have picked up acting-wise, I haven’t been able to make as much of my own stuff. I’ve really realized what a void it creates. They work two different sets of muscles for me. I’m a real critical thinker, and I’m a lot more intellectually stimulated by making art because it’s all your creation—it comes from a deep place inside of your imagination. Acting is really about servicing somebody else’s vision. But, when I’m acting, I feel like I get something that is a lot more intuitive and primitive then what art gives me. My art exercises my mind and my acting exercises my body.

VISITING IRAN: I really want to go. It’s a tricky place, as everyone knows. Between Argo and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and even my own performance art, I’ve done some pretty controversial work that I’m not sure the government would approve of. It’s a really strange thing to think that there’s somewhere in the world that you’re not allowed to go to.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT IS CURRENTLY PLAYING AT SELECT THEATERS. STATE OF AFFAIRS AIRS MONDAYS ON NBC.