ABOVE: KATE LYN SHEIL. PHOTOS BY VICTORIA STEVENS
On screen, Kate Lyn Sheil’s soft-spoken demeanor and shy smile is often deceiving; her character might be masking something, maybe a troubled past, perhaps escalating feelings of self-doubt, jealousy, or resentment. There is a brewing intensity to Shiel’s performances that captivates as it gradually unfurls.
In writer-director Zachary Wigon’s romantic mystery The Heart Machine, Sheil plays Virginia, the girlfriend of a Brooklyn freelance writer named Cody (John Gallagher Jr.). The two maintain an intimate relationship via Skype, but they’ve never met in person. She’s a New Yorker in Berlin for a six-month writing program, or so Cody thinks until he sees her doppelgänger on a Manhattan train. His mounting suspicion that Virginia is not in Germany, but within close proximity, triggers an obsessive, technology-assisted hunt for her whereabouts that leads to increasingly disturbing behavior, akin to Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. For Wigon, the central mystery to his film is not whether Virginia is lying to Cody, but rather why she might be lying.
Sheil, a Jersey City native, made her first feature film appearance in Alex Ross Perry‘s 2009 debut, Impolex. She and Perry became friends while attending NYU and working together at Kim’s Video & Music. Sheil has acted in each of Perry’s three features and also played his wife in the yet-to-be-released HBO GO series, The Traditions. Through Perry’s cinematographer and fellow Kim’s alum, Sean Price Williams, she met Joe Swanberg, who quickly began filming her for scenes in what became Silver Bullets. This prompted subsequent lead parts in films by Sophia Takal (Green) and Sheil’s Silver Bullets co-star Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine).
Following a prolific period of acting in indie films, Sheil raised her visibility this past year, thanks primarily to joining the cast of House of Cards for its second season, which left her character, Lisa Williams, torn apart from her love interest, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). In addition to starring in music videos for Eleanor Friedberger (“My Own World”) and Anna Calvi (“Strange Weather”), Sheil recently finished her work on Drake Doremus’ next film, the futuristic Equals. On top of that, the Civil War-era feature that she co-wrote with Zachary Treitz, Men Go to Battle, is picture-locked and in the finishing stages of postproduction.
CHRIS TINKHAM: I understand that you went to school with Zachary Wigon. How well did you know him in those days?
KATE LYN SHEIL: We were both at NYU at the same time, but I didn’t know Zach very well from school. I remember him coming into the video store quite a bit. So I knew him better from that world. I don’t think we ever had any classes together, but we did have mutual friends. Mostly I remember him from coming into Kim’s. He would rent movies every single day. He was big into Godard.
TINKHAM: What appealed to you about the concept of The Heart Machine and your character, Virginia?
SHEIL: I remember reading the script for the first time and being moved by how the story was about two people who are trying so hard, in a pretty genuine way, to connect to each other but are failing so miserably. And while technology is allowing them to speak to each other, it is also aiding their failure. These two people had quite a lot in common and a lot of chemistry but were too plagued by their own insecurities and fears. Because their dating is mediated and diffused by technology, ultimately it allows some of their worst tendencies to rule. But because they did have a chance, and there was the spark of something real, I thought it was very sad. Both of the characters are so lonely. I just found it to be really heartbreaking and timely.
TINKHAM: Several of your scenes occur via Skype. Can you talk how you portrayed Virginia in those scenes as opposed to when she is out and about, living her daily life?
SHEIL: We wanted to create the idea that she’s much more herself when mediated by the computer. So, in the Skype scenes, Zach and I wanted the character to be very open and vulnerable, and then for her to be a bit more closed-off and tense in her real-life scenes because the real world can feel like an assault on the senses sometimes. So, really, the person that she’s closest to in the entire world is Cody. We tried to make the Skype scenes slightly looser. Zach gave John and me permission to improvise. Luckily, we were able to save all of those Skype scenes for the last week of filming, so John and I had gotten to know each other a little bit by that point. We arranged everything so that these Skype scenes could be the most lively and honest and open that Virginia is capable of being at this particular point in her story.
TINKHAM: Are you well-acclimated with Skype in your own life?
SHEIL: No. Not at all.
TINKHAM: Some directors have actors audition via Skype. Have you ever done that?
SHEIL: Yeah, I‘ve had a couple of Skype meetings. I find the whole thing to be very distracting ’cause you can see your face there. I don’t want to look at myself when I’m gesticulating or talking about something that’s very embarrassing to me. I had a Skype rehearsal this afternoon, and I had to update Skype because it had been so very long since I had last used it. I’m not as tech-savvy as Virginia is. But yeah, I have had a Skype audition. It was awkward.
TINKHAM: What led you to join Twitter this year?
SHEIL: [laughs] Truthfully, it was to participate in a House of Cards Q&A. But I’ve had a pretty fun time on there. I was sitting around with my friend Lindsay Burdge, and she also had just joined. Neither one of us is tech-savvy. The idea of the two of us joining Twitter like five years after everyone else and being really into it was funny to us. I think half of my tweets are directly at her.
TINKHAM: Amy Seimetz tweeted that you were going to star in My Blue Chanteuse, a film that she would direct about a blue nightclub songstress. Was that an April Fools’ Day joke?
SHEIL: That was a social experiment. [laughs] It’s a real idea. We’ve talked about it quite a bit, but it was an experiment in seeing if you could come up with a kernel of an idea and then generate enough interest in that idea that you then wrote the script. But there is a very lengthy email chain about that idea, and I’m still pretty into it.
TINKHAM: You’ve taken on some very serious parts, but in your scenes with Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip, there’s a lightness to your character. It even looks like you might break into laughter at certain points. Did Alex Ross Perry ask for that initially, or did you try the scenes different ways?
SHEIL: Alex and I had a mutual understanding that there was still love between the characters. I have that kind of relationship with a few of my former boyfriends, where things got so bad toward the end that there’s this lingering, surface-level antagonism, but it’s a game at this point. The pain isn’t there as much anymore. I think it takes a certain kind of intimacy to be able to peg someone as well as she does in that scene. But there’s such a base level of love and admiration for Philip’s sense of humor and intelligence—maybe not his ability to care for another human being—that it is at least a little bit fun for my character to engage in that sort of playful antagonism with him.
TINKHAM: How did you get the idea for Men Go to Battle?
SHEIL: It’s extremely loosely based on the family story of Zachary Treitz, who directed it. He’s from Kentucky. We also wanted to work with the reenactment community in Kentucky. So the combination of those two things got the ball rolling.
TINKHAM: What can you tell me about Equals and your character in the film?
SHEIL: I got back from shooting it a little while ago. I shot in Tokyo, which was incredible. I act with Aurora Perrineau and Bel Powley, Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult, and Rebecca Hazlewood. I can’t say much about my character.
TINKHAM: What was it like working with Samuel Herring for Tears of God?
SHEIL: Sam and I never worked together. We were shot separately. We never met, but I’m a huge fan of his music.
TINKHAM: You only know him through his music?
SHEIL: Yeah. Did you see that performance on David Letterman?
TINKHAM: It was great.
SHEIL: It’s so good. I’ve watched it like a million times. What I’ve seen of his footage is really incredible. But yeah, the way it was shot, we never actually got to meet. But I look forward to meeting him.
TINKHAM: What are your thoughts on the closing of Kim’s Video?
SHEIL: Heartbroken. It was a slow march toward closing. Nick Pinkerton wrote the article that I related to most about the closing, ’cause he worked there. I think he captured the feeling appropriately. I worry for New York City without that place existing. I would have been completely lost without it, and it changed my life very clearly. I would not have a career if Kim’s Video didn’t exist, ’cause all of my earliest projects were with people I knew from Kim’s. It means more to me than I can even really explain.
TINKHAM: And now you’ve been working for Netflix.
SHEIL: Yeah. How ’bout that? [laughs] Uh-oh. I really love their original content and I love House of Cards. I was a huge fan of the show before I even got the chance to audition for it. I think that the folks running the show do such an incredible job keeping the quality so high and the writing so good, and aggregating actors who have done such amazing work before and also on the show. But yeah, I am working for Netflix, aren’t I?
TINKHAM: I have a feeling that Rachel is going to see Lisa again, maybe soon. What do you think?
SHEIL: Oh goodness, I hope so. I don’t know. They’re very tight-lipped.
THE HEART MACHINE OPENS IN SELECT THEATERS TODAY, OCTOBER 24.