With a decade-long career, Sheila Vand has made a name for herself as an artist both on stage and on the screen. She is best known as an actress for her role in the 2012 Best Picture winning film, Argo, for which she won a SAG Outstanding Ensemble Award. She has also performed on Broadway, in television, and on numerous other creative projects such as photo series and musical experiences.
As for her current work, Vand is currently starring in Snowpiercer, an American television show based off the South Korean-Czech science fiction film of the same name. Her most recent role is starring in Dave Franco’s horror/thriller directorial debut, The Rental. It follows the story of a pair of couples trying to relax on an AirBnB getaway before things go awry. Vand performs alongside Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, and Jeremy Allen White in this highly centralized narrative. The Rental adds to the list of worthwhile releases from IFC Films this year.
We were gratefully able to talk to Sheila Vand for an exclusive interview. We discuss the reception to her new show, Snowpiercer, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, her experience starring in The Rental, and the hopeful future for representing those of Middle Eastern descent in film.
To begin, Snowpiercer just came out and this has been a significant project for you. How does it feel finally seeing it released, especially given how COVID-19 has affected all of our daily routines?
SV: It’s been a long time coming for us with this project, so it’s really nice to have it just out in the world instead of having that anxious feeling of waiting for it to happen. I was nervous when it was first coming out because it takes place in this post-apocalyptic world. I didn’t know how people were going to feel in the time we’re living in right now, but it seems like it just made it more relevant, and so far it doesn’t seem to have deterred anybody. I think that it’s maybe even more connectable since we’re realizing that we’re not that far off from this type of apocalypse if we don’t start taking care of the earth in a better way, if we don’t start taking care of each other in a better way.
Definitely. You started shooting the show two years ago, so I can only imagine how long it’s taken and how unique the journey has been for you, getting from that point to people just finally seeing all of your hard work.
SV: It’s had its challenges that took as long as it did, but it also allowed for at least some time for the cast to get to know each other more, which I think allowed us to build a little more chemistry with each other. I started to get more used to this in my career that by the time something comes out from the moment that it’s shot, there is often a window of time, and I learned to kind of forget about the project until it comes out because you never know how long it’s going to take. I’ve found that to be a pretty decent strategy because then by the time that it comes out, it’s like a fun surprise. Like, “Oh yeah, this thing that I did”! And sometimes it’s better to have some distance when you watch your own work because you can have more perspective when you see it.
Do you feel like now it’s kind of like watching not necessarily something else, but you can connect to it in a way other people are right now?
SV: To be honest, I haven’t been watching it myself much because I am very kind of picky about how much of my own performances I like to watch. So, I am a little removed from that, the experience of being a viewer of the show. But I just think in times like these, I’m really grateful for all of the work that is emerging directly from this COVID experience. I also think it’s nice to have some places for people to escape because reality is so intense right now. This being such an action-packed show, it airs on the side of entertainment in the sense that it allows people a place to maybe escape into, and sometimes that’s useful too. That can also be something that people need when reality is as intense as it is right now.
Speaking of intense escapes from reality, The Rental is about to hit wide release. I very much enjoyed your performance in it. So, you’ve already worked on films in the similar genre of thriller/horror. Is there anything you learned from those that you brought to your performance in The Rental?
SV: I love doing genre and horror movies, particularly because they give you this chance to exist in a totally different world from naturalism. I’ve learned throughout the process of doing a few genre movies now, the way to guide an audience’s experience as they’re watching it. Because for me, one of the most exciting parts of genre movies is they’re very transportive. You’re able to kind of go into this other world, but I think it’s on us as the creators to really flesh out that world, make it feel realistic and alive. I tried to bring that kind of intention to this movie of knowing when we want the audience to know what’s going on, when we want them to be on edge, not knowing what’s going to happen next, and playing around with the tension in that way.
I certainly got that from this movie. How was it like leading in a film alongside actors like Dan Stevens and Alison Brie? Also under Dave Franco’s direction, how was that experience?
SV: It was really exciting for me, and this cast was a large part of why I wanted to do the movie. I have so much respect for this group of actors that I knew it would be a strong group of people to be playing with. I was also excited that it was such a small ensemble, so we each really get a good piece of the pie and it’s very concentrated and focused primarily on these four people. I was excited for that type of ensemble work. I feel like it was more like theater in that way, where there are actual scenes that last longer than half a page. The movie is just as much about these interpersonal relationships as it is about horror elements. It was cool to bend the genre in that way and blend two different types of movies in a sense.
It was also a big deal for me to be number one on the call sheet because as a middle Eastern American actress, I don’t always get the opportunities I think I deserve. To be a lead in a film alongside my white contemporaries, it should be more common, but unfortunately it’s not. So this was a big opportunity for me. I was very excited to embrace the challenge and show that ethnic actors, actors of color can carry their weight just as much as any white actor out there, as long as we get the chances, which thankfully the world is finally starting to get to the point where it’s giving us some of those chances. And I really felt like this movie gave me that chance, I’m grateful for that.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a point where your character in The Rental has to face racial bias, even though that has little to do with horror elements in the story as a whole. How did you feel taking that on and how was that introduced to the story?
SV: I loved that element when I read the script. I was so happy that they included my character’s race in this very elegant way, because it didn’t take over my character, but they didn’t ignore the fact that she was a Persian girl and that would color her experience in life. Like you said, there is this moment of racial discrimination and gaslighting that happens to her. I thought that Dave did such a good job of showing how these microaggressions occur and that there is this middle ground of racism as well, that isn’t so black and white, isn’t so extreme, but can be just as painful and disturbing for a person of color. There’s this moment in the movie where my character experiences that and some of the other white characters don’t completely believe her which is what we call gaslighting.
It’s just a very common thing, something I’ve experienced a lot in my life as well. It honestly feels psychologically horrifying. To me, it feels like the perfect thing to include in a horror movie because that feeling you get when you’re not sure if somebody is doing something racially motivated against you, it does feel like horror. Because you have to both process the pain of being discriminated in that way, at the same time as you’re processing the authenticity of that feeling, whether or not it really was motivated or not. Then, if the people around you, especially your closest friends, don’t believe you, it makes you feel crazy. That feeling is like a psychological thriller in and of itself.
I actually took notice to that because, myself, I’m Iranian. I’ve had similar experiences. To see that in film, I know what it’s like to have our experience shaped by the people around us in the smallest ways, and you usually don’t see that represented itself. When people usually talk about representation, they usually just mean casting a person in the film and then you have a representation. But how do you feel about these experiences being more normally portrayed even if the movie is not about them?
SV: I think it’s great. I think it’s so important. We, as storytellers who make film and television, have our finger on the pulse of culture and we have the power to move the cultural needle. I think we’re finally waking up to that responsibility that the stories we put out there get reflected back through culture.
And so we have to take that responsibility of what we say, what we’re putting in people’s minds and in their hearts, we have to make sure is creating safe spaces. At the same time, we also want the liberty to be artists and to explore things that are difficult. I think there’s a sweet spot between being responsible and sensitive in the way you make your art without feeling like you have to be walking on eggshells the whole time, without feeling like you can’t take risks anymore. Like you said, it’s about how we’re represented. You can’t just do it in the casting. We have to have diversity behind the scenes as well and the people who are creating the stories or, at least, having conversations with the people we’re representing.
Dave did have several conversations with me and created such a comfortable space where if there was anything strange that they might’ve written about my character, thankfully there wasn’t, but I always felt like I could easily bring that up to him and that he really wanted it to feel authentic to my experience. I think that’s probably going to grow as a community, as a human race. We have to start looking at each other more authentically instead of painting everything outside of white people with big, broad strokes. It’s not accurate. It’s not right. And it’s not fair. Those things get internalized and we get conditioned in really insidious ways that I’m glad we’re beginning to unlearn and reverse.
I agree! To finish off, are there any upcoming projects that you would like to make our audience aware of?
SV: I have a small personal project that I have just begun releasing on Instagram. The first few episodes have already been released. It’s called Medicinal Music. It’s a video playlist that explores mental health issues and the use of music to heal mental health issues. It’s also a bit of a critique on social media and the internet. Because we just digest so much information through our screens and we don’t challenge that information in us, and we don’t challenge the effects of spending that much amount of time in cyberspace. And for me, I think it’s another epidemic. It’s another pandemic, the internet. We’re not using it very responsibly and it’s hurting us. It’s really making a lot of people sick. So that’s a project I’m very excited about and I hope people connect to it.
It was really made just to cheer people up because I suffer from depression and anxiety and it’s all been really aggravated this year, but it’s been there for a long time. I think it’s because of the way society is structured. It doesn’t feel like society is made to protect people like me. It doesn’t feel like society is built for people like me to thrive in and that’s really upsetting to me. So, I made this project to explore some of those ideas and to try to create more space for people like me to heal. And for me, music has been one of the most powerful tools I’ve ever had to combat my own depression and anxiety, so I’m just hoping that by promoting that and sharing some of the songs I love, people can turn to that. We’re such an over medicated society. We need to start looking at alternatives that aren’t pills and you know, even, some of the stuff on the internet with wellness makes me sick to my stomach
It’s also commodified. And I’m just obsessed with music. I think music is the greatest achievement of mankind. So, I think people need to be spending more money on it. That’s where we should spend all of our money on. We should just be buying music. I could just go on forever about how I feel like all of the wrong things get supported in our culture. It seems like Coronavirus has forced this mass collective introspection and that part of it is really great. I want to keep pushing that forward because this is kind of the first time in my lifetime that I feel like people are seeing the world the way I’ve always seen it, and that’s really comforting. Because I have felt alone for a long time in the way that I feel about society, and now I’m realizing I’m not alone at all. There’s actually so many people who feel this way about society