sheila vand, the brooklyn anti-starlet
The Iranian-American star of ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ and ‘Argo’ is changing the game of what a modern starlet can be.
Photography Kathy Lo
"If you've lived 187 years, then you've seen some shit," says Iranian-American actress Sheila Vand of her role as the Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, the first-ever Iranian-Western-Skater-Feminist-Vigilante-Vampire-Thriller about an Audrey Hepburn-esque vampire who stalks the fictional ghost-town of Bad City offing its scummy bottom-feeders. Now fully streamable, the film has made Vand an indie heroine, which is not what you'd expect from someone who also just scored a recurring part on NBC's State of Affairs as Maureen James, CIA Secretary of Defense briefer and best friend to CIA Analyst Charlie (played by Katherine Heigl). Vand has been alive a mere twenty nine years, but the rising actress has also seen some shit. Curve balls are kind of her thing.
It should also be noted that Vand didn't just perfectly inhabit the lead role of stripe-clad, blood-sucking, Lionel Richie-loving heroine in the aforementioned vampire noir. The part was created and written exclusively for her by writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, who spun an elaborate 187-year-long backstory (involving a blood-high, Diana Ross, and the Bee Gees), to help her embody the Girl.
Currently on hiatus in New York City (Greenpoint, specifically), Sheila is spending time reading, thinking, and experiencing life for a minute. The self-proclaimed "Queen of Shazam" is a big music junkie, with a taste for funky electronic disco and Kendrick Lamar. The California native grew up in Palo Alto in an Iranian Family and graduated from UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where she studied acting and directing. But despite her proximity to Hollywood, showbiz was far from her pedigree. "I had immigrant parents, so I wasn't introduced to a lot of American things until later in life; I had to discover them on my own."
One of the remarkable people she discovered three years ago was visual artist Alexa Meade. After a series of Skype talks, the two began collaborating on a daring dairy-centric body of work entitled "Milk: What Will You Make Of Me?" for which Alexa painted Sheila's nude body while submerged in a pool of milk. The experimental piece, an examination of fluidity in form, was filmed and performed in Switzerland and presented in a TED Talk. "We were interested in how milk changes the shape of the body, the way it cuts it off and creates another plane. It was a very female-oriented project. We were exploring the female form. So milk felt conceptually appropriate."
"I'm not a rich kid, I've gotta fuckin' work" says the multi-faceted actress, who's been cutting her teeth in the world of make believe since high-school. Perhaps most notably with her 2011 Broadway debut alongside Robin Williams in the Pulitzer-nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo ("Working with him was as magical as you would think. I just found him to be an otherworldly talent"), and as Sahar the Iranian housekeeper in Ben Affleck's Argo, a small but crucial role of for which she won a SAG Outstanding Ensemble Award.
These days, she's knee-deep in the dog-eat-dog world of fictional politics, but the theater still pulses through her veins. "I think [theater] encourages a more nuanced and rich process for an actor. It was my acting school more than anything else was, because it just demands that of you. It's really taught me how to prepare for a role."
A vinyl collecting vampire. A government secret keeper. A powerful role alongside one of the most beloved actors in a stage performance about a tiger that haunts the streets of Baghdad searching for meaning. It could seem like these are completely unrelated, and, well, they are. "I like to do anything I've never done before, so I seek something out because it seems like a challenge." It's a condition she self-diagnoses as "Creative ADD."
Next up for the unpigeonholable actress/performance artist? She just wrapped Funhouse, a dark war comedy starring Tina Fey, written by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt co-creator Robert Carlock. And then there's the indie about a missing rodeo queen with Joe Jonas and Nikki Reed. From milk baths to fang fiction, Vand's always marched to the beat of her own soundtrack. So what advice does she have for young actors who want to follow in her zig-zagged footsteps? "I don't really think I've even figured this out yet," she deflects, humbly. But we suspect she's onto something. "Try to make your own stuff if you can. Try to take control of the few parts of this career you get to have control over. Stay curious and inspired. Be an interesting person in order to be an interesting actor." If our throbbing girl crush is any indication, her method is working.
Text Jane Helpern
Photography Kathy Lo