Sheila Vand: "This is not a movie about being feminist"

The star of this year's coolest Iranian-vampire-Western on the real message of "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

Published December 12, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Sheila Vand in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"         (Vice Films)
Sheila Vand in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (Vice Films)

Ana Lily Amirpour's sleeper hit "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is one of this year's most unusual films. Filmed in California but set in Iran, shot in black and white with dialogue in Farsi and shot through with echoes of David Lynch and Sergio Leone, it would be a vast understatement to say the film straddles genres. As Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir put it, "You didn’t know that you have been waiting, and indeed longing, for a feminist-romantic Iranian vampire movie, with undertones of Goth graphic novel and Sergio Leone Western."

Much of the film's power is thanks to its lead actress, Sheila Vand, whom Amirpour wrote the part specially for: Known simply as "the girl," this ethereal, Lionel Richie-loving waif stalks the streets of the fictional "Bad City" in her chador and dark eye makeup (and occasionally on a skateboard) finding unsavory male victims to prey on. Salon spoke to Vand, a first-generation Iranian-American who first made waves with her role in Ben Affleck's "Argo," about straddling genres, dancing with Amirpour and the rise of hipster vampires.

People have been calling it a feminist Iranian vampire Western, giving it all these sorts of hybrid titles. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

Yeah, I understand why people are calling it that. I think it’s great that there have to be so many words in the label for this movie, and I think that’s a challenge, to have a blend of so many things. We didn’t necessarily set out for it to be all of those things.

When the movie was pitched to you, how was it described?

I knew it was going to be in black and white and I knew it was going to be about this vampire, but the script wasn’t written yet, so that’s all I knew. Lily [director Ana Lily Amirpour] also said the piece was going to be a cross between David Lynch and Sergio Leone, and to me that sounded like a world I wanted to live in.

I understand the title role was written specifically for you. Did you have any influence over how the character turned out?

I knew Lily for three years before she wrote this part for me and I had done a couple shorts with her. We’re friends, so she knew me when she sat down to write the part and I feel like my contribution to it is me. It was very much molded to who I am and my spirit, I think. After she’d already written it, we ended up having endless conversations about the character; how she would feel and how she would look and how she would move and all that stuff, but I still feel like my biggest contribution was just myself. My loneliness, my being; she doesn’t say very much, so…

You’re also a woman of few words?

[Laughs] That part not as much. I think she’s me at 187 years old, and I’m me at 29 years old.

Right. It must have been sort of a difficult role to get into, because you don’t have a lot to work with in terms of backstory, or a name even. How did you get into that character?

I found her silence to be really relaxing and meditative. Not having to say anything, there’s a power in anonymity. And I fully fleshed out her backstory. Lily created a 187-year-long timeline of the life of this girl before the movie begins; how she became a vampire, who her master was, what was her life before she was a vampire, and then this crazy journey she went on as a vampire before ending up in Bad City.

Can you give us a little taste of that? How did she become a vampire?

She was a village girl. She lived in a village and she caught a fever and she was basically on her way to dying. There was a vampire in the village who had always watched her, and who kind of ended up saving her life by turning her. She went with him to spend some time outside of Iran for a while, then came back to Iran during the violent years of the revolution and went on a killing spree of her own.

What was it like working with Lily as a director? The direction in this film is so evocative and unusual…

She’s really meticulous and demanding. Her films are like her babies, so her whole world… you just have to be along for the ride when you sign up. You get completely immersed in it. That level of detail that she works with is so liberating, because you really get to live in a very specific thought-out world, but it can also be restrictive because everything is so precise and there’s such a saturation to her process.

Previously you worked with Ben Affleck, who’s another director with a very strong vision. Obviously they’re completely different, but what was it like going from working on "Argo" to working on this project?

I think Ben Affleck is equally thoughtful in his direction, but because he is an actor he understands the actor’s process, obviously, in a more intimate way. I felt like his direction was very actor-friendly. Working with him felt more like it was about being organic and natural and free, and finding the magic that comes out of that, whereas working with Lily is more like working with a painter or a sculptor who has full creative control and is really crafting you every step of the way.

Some of the scenes in the film particularly stuck with me, like the one where you and Arash are dancing under the crystal ball. What was it like shooting that scene?

There was a lot of that scene that got cut, so making that scene was different than probably how you would imagine it. There was such a tense energy in the film and on the set, so much passion going into this project, and I feel like it was all encapsulated in that four-minute song that just plays all the way through. There’s no dialogue in the scene. It was really fun as an actor, because Lily told us to move as slowly as we physically could, and when you do that it activates something inside of you. When you’re moving that slow, everything kind of changes. It builds an anticipation that I think people are feeling when they see it. It was that song, too, that White Lies song. It’s so great.

The music was such an integral part of the film. Did you have any influence in picking that, or was that all Lily? What was the thought behind those choices?

The music was all Lily. I know she wanted it to be a blend of Iranian rock and Western. I didn’t have anything to do with the soundtrack, but Lily and I really connect over our love for music. We’re always exchanging music, and one of my favorite things to do with her is go dancing. She’s in, like, the top three people I know in the whole world, the only three people who I like to go dancing with. We’ve got this shared passion over music.

I also recently saw "Only Lovers Left Alive." Did you see that?

I did. I loved that.

There were so many similarities for me in the way the vampires were portrayed as being so hip and how music was so much a part of it. I’ve seen that a few times this year. Vampires have always been cool, but it's not until this year that I kind of started to think of them as hipsters.

It’s funny, Lily and I went and saw "Only Lovers Left Alive" together, and it came out after we were all done and our movie was out. They both came out at Sundance, and it’s a trip when you make something that is so from your own mind and then you see something else and it’s like they come from the same place. It was just amazing to watch that with her. We both looked at each other like, wow, we’re all drinking the same Kool-Aid.

What do you think it is about vampires that lends itself to these kinds of portrayals as these totally cool, kind of badass creatures?

I think there’s something sexy about vampires because they’re eternal creatures, they’re very catlike. There’s something really elegant about the way they kill. All of their power is just in their fangs and the fact that they’re not ravenous murderers. I always say vampires are the snipers of monsters.

I like that.

They’re clean and quiet, the way they kill. And they live so long that I think there’s a fascination people have with someone who has seen that much in their lifetime.

They get kind of jaded, I guess.

And they’re addicts, they’re addicted to blood. I don’t know what it is, but I think there’s something in the culture about the fascination with addiction. There’s movies about drugs, junkies… I don’t know why we glorify those things but clearly there’s something we see in that that we’re attracted to.

People are talking a lot about the movie as a feminist film. Did you see it that way?

I didn’t, because we didn’t set out to make a feminist movie. I also am not the kind of person who really looks at things with labels attached; that’s not how I perceive the world, but I understand why that’s being so heavily interpreted. I mean, the lead is a female who happens to be a badass. But is that all it takes to be feminist? I don’t know. It’s certainly not about being feminist, but it certainly follows some of the requirements.

What was quite interesting was how her chador was also her vampire cloak, and reappropriating this religious signifier as something demonic. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Again, I understand why the chador comes with such a heavy political and social affiliation, but that’s not why Lily chose to use that chador. For me it was always more a matter of convenience. She’s able to be inconspicuous with her chador, she’s able to cover up the person she’s killing; it’s much more of a technical thing. I think it references Dracula’s cape and I know Lily has talked about how it’s kind of like how when Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, he has to put on the Batsuit. That’s what it is for her; it’s her superhero costume. We never once discussed, like, this is the Muslim woman breaking free. That was never the intention.

Fair enough. I remember in an interview she said something along the lines of people were lining up for roles in the film because it was one of the few films with nuanced roles for Middle Eastern actors. Have you found that to be a challenge in Hollywood?

Yeah. I’ve found it hard not just to find interesting, powerful Middle Eastern roles, but even just badass women. There’s not that many women that are badasses. I’m on a TV show right now where you end up playing a badass and the two leads are women, the president of the United States is a woman, so I think it’s starting to slowly change. The Iranian thing, too, there’s a new kind of Iranian. There’s a new kind of American, you know, because of immigrant culture. I haven’t found that many things that I feel represent me and my unique hybrid identity, but this movie is one of those things.

The film was shot in California and in some ways it had this American, suburban feel -- but it also was meant to be a town in Iran, so it ended up as this sort of mythical in-between place, that I guess represents that dual, hybrid identity you were describing.

Exactly! It disorients you because you’re in this place that you know is supposed to be Iran, but you can see California in it and that’s Lily and that’s me and that's this whole community of people who are underrepresented, who are the diaspora. I have very much felt displaced because of being first-generation Iranian immigrants and I do sometimes feel like I come from another world, a world I’ve never been to. She’s in that world.

Do you feel a strong connection to Iran?

I haven’t been, but I do absolutely feel a strong connection to it. That’s my blood.

"A Separation" won Best Foreign Film last year or the year before, and it seems like there is such amazing creativity and cinema coming out of Iran and first-generation Iranians.

I think that’s one of the most beautiful things. Creativity loves restriction, and the fact that people have found a way, even within those insane confines, to make art, is amazing.

I know you’re working on "State of Affairs" and that you have a few things on the horizon; is there anything in particular that you'd like to work on more in the future?

I really want to do more genre films! It’s so hard to find genre filmmakers, and arthouse filmmakers. That’s my favorite stuff to do, arthouse stuff. I just like the abstract so much more than the real world, and that’s the place I want to be, so I’m trying to find more people who want to make weird worlds that I can live it.

Amirpour seems like a good teammate to have on that front.

[Laughs] Yes, she's a good one.

By Anna Silman

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Girl Walks Home Alone At Night Sheila Vand Vampires