Kate Lyn Sheil

The Reluctant Professional

Apr 26, 2013 Photography by Ray Lego Web Exclusive
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In November of 2011, New York-based actress Kate Lyn Sheil attended the AFI Fest in Hollywood, where four films that she had acted in were screened: Sophia Takal's Green, Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel, and Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets and The Zone. Sheil had attracted attention at SXSW earlier in the year with some of the same films, but given that Los Angeles crowds are less connected to the microbudget scenes in New York and Austin, this was an almost gaudy introduction to an unknown talent.

After the first screening of Silver Bullets, Sheil joined Swanberg and cast mates Jane Adams and Ti West for a late-night Q&A with the audience. The film ends with a close-up of Sheil facing the camera while tears roll down her cheek. But, for much of the Q&A, her eyes gazed downward as she refrained from speaking. More than 15 minutes went by before an older gentleman pointed to Sheil and pleaded, "Can she say something?" This prompted Swanberg to tell the story of how he met the actress through cinematographer Sean Price Williams, a mutual friend. Finally, the gentleman asked Sheil, "Are you a professional actress?" She didn't answer yes or no. "I went to school for acting," she said.

Sheil, who grew up in Jersey City, graduated from NYU's acting program in 2006. In conversation, she speaks carefully and in a low tone. It's not clear that she's finished her thought until she punctuates it with an affirmative, "Yeah." When she quotes someone else while recounting a story, her voice takes on a more colorful inflection. She admits that she's shy in group settings with strangers, such as the aforementioned Q&A, and she reveals a self-deprecating humor that's consistent with her acknowledged hang-up about considering herself a professional. Still, she sounds confident and decisive when discussing her approach to acting.

Her performances exude a quiet, slow-burning intensity. For Green, in which she plays an intellectual grappling with mounting jealousy, she had to portray love scenes with Lawrence Michael Levine, then the boyfriend and now the husband of the film's writer/director, Takal. The three of them were roommates during the making of the film. In Swanberg's Autoerotic, Sheil plays a woman with a fetish for autoerotic asphyxiation. Sun Don't Shine writer/director Amy Seimetz, after acting with Sheil in Silver Bullets, wanted to see her intensity exploded. Seimetz wrote Sun Don't Shine's lead female character, Crystal, with Sheil in mind for the part. In the opening shots, Crystal and her boyfriend, Leo (Kentucker Audley), are tangled in a manic roadside scuffle that has the two of them wrestling each other to the ground and rolling in a puddle. As the contentious couple travels by car up the Gulf Coast, the burden of an earlier ordeal is compounded by Crystal's fits of paranoia, panic, and jealousy. With the role, Sheil played bigger, louder, and more animated than she had before, and that appealed to her.

In January, she starred as Harriet Beecher Stowe in PBS' The Abolitionists. This spring, in addition to Sun Don't Shine, she appears in a small part in Bob Byington's Somebody Up There Likes Me. She shares scenes with Seimetz again in Ti West's upcoming The Sacrament and will star alongside her friend and former NYU schoolmate, Alex Ross Perry, in HBO's The Traditions. Currently, she's working on a film, partly set in Kentucky, that she co-wrote and is expected to re-team with her Sun Don't Shine co-star, Audley, in Alison Bagnall's Funny Bunny.

We asked Sheil to discuss her role in Sun Don't Shine for our print issue feature on her and Seimetz in our Winter 2013 issue, which is still on newsstands now. These are portions of the interview that were not used for quotes in that article.

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): How would you describe Crystal, the character you play in Sun Don't Shine?

Kate Lyn Sheil: I think she's somebody that from a very early age has had to deal with bad situations, and she's become extremely manipulative without realizing it or meaning to be. Her ability to manipulate is so deeply ingrained in her that she behaves in manipulative ways before even knowing that she's done it. She's just always in fight or flight mode.

Did you workshop the characters or have much rehearsal?

We didn't have a lot of rehearsal time for Sun Don't Shine. We started shooting, I think, the day after I arrived there. Amy and I talked a lot about it beforehand, which was extremely helpful. And we did one thing where she filmed me as Crystal talking to a therapist...nothing from the movie but sort of an extrapolation of what could happen to the character down the line or how she might reflect on the experiences in the movie. But most of the preparation was personal or done through conversations with Amy.

Do you like rehearsal?

It depends. Usually I like rehearsal. I think it's helpful. I understand the argument for not rehearsing, certainly. There is sort of a freshness to the first time that is not repeatable, but I think it really helps to have the rote basics of a scene down and very much have a handle on them so that you can feel safe to build upon them and move around in a scene.

What was it like being directed by Amy? What are her strengths as a director?

She's great, first of all. She's got a million strengths as a director. She's a wonderful, wonderful  actress, so she just had an innate sense of when to leave the actor alone. I think directors can interfere too much with actors on set, and she had a real sense of when to leave people alone and then when to come in and somehow say the perfect thing to send you in the right direction if you were veering off. And also, she knows movies, so she wouldn't ask more than she needed from you. She wouldn't ask less than she needed from you. It was her second feature, but she knew what she wanted backwards and forwards. She knew her movie so well. And also, a strong sense of what you want is so crucial for a director. Sometimes they don't always know exactly what they want. If Amy had any unsure feelings, she didn't let us know about them. It just seemed like we were in very, very good hands the whole time.

Was it a difficult shoot physically?

Yeah, it was Florida in June and July, so it was very hot. But the days were pretty short. I got very sick during the second shoot. That was just a weird thing that happened to my body.

Was it heat-induced?

No. I'm still not entirely sure what it was, but they thought I might have spinal meningitis for a little bit. I just got super, super sick. So I kind of cut down on our shoot time, which was unfortunate, but we got it all done. So that was physically difficult, but that was just for me. We had an RV that we'd get around in, so there was always a place to go with air conditioning. 

I heard that this scene was cut from the film, but that you went into the mermaid water tank.

Yeah, I did. [Laughs] I'm a really bad swimmer, which I don't think I clearly communicated to Amy beforehand. Because I would think, "I'm gonna be all right to swim in scenes. It's something that I should be able to do, like ride a bike." But yeah, she needs to swim from the dock into the actual mermaid tank area. You know the pink dress that's in the movie? They had modified one of those with all of these flowy scarves that were sewn to the bottom, in jewel tones that were creating a mermaid-like appearance, and I kept getting tangled up in them, so by the time I had swum a very short distance from the dock to the tank area, I was already exhausted. [Laughs] And Amy is a really great swimmer and grew up in Florida and grew up in the water. I think because she is so good at it, she didn't imagine that I was having such a difficult time. I was out of breath already, and then you have to exhale all the air from your body and sink downthat's how you sink. Anyway, it was just pathetic and humiliating. [Laughs] I would get down a little bit and then freak out and swim back up. And there's an underwater loudspeaker, that's how the mermaids hear direction during the show, and I went under one time and heard a sort of muffled guy in the booth say something, and I was [thinking], "Oh no, they're kicking me out." Like, "Get that girl out of the water, she's terrible." Then I got back up to the surface: "What did they say?" And then the mermaids went under to get the information again, and they came back up, and then they're like, "Oh, he said 'wardrobe malfunction.' Your top's down, honey." [Laughs] So I'd just flashed everyone in the audience, which was humiliating again. Anyway, it would have been a beautiful scene, but I failed on every level as far as I was concerned. But yeah, that was going to be the beginning. It was a dream sequence, kinda, that was to be the beginning of the film. Maybe Amy's just saying this to be kind to me, but I think that she's happier without it.

Who were the people in the audience?

The crew.        

How did you and Amy meet? Was that through Joe Swanberg?

Yeah, it was. Amy produced Silver Bullets, a movie that I did with Joe. But I think that was 2008 that we started that, and I met Amy on the second day that I worked on that movie.

In an interview with Sophia Takal, she told me that Amy was the one who recommended you for Gabi on the Roof in July, is that correct?

Yeah, she was.

Was that your second feature?

Impolex, a movie that my friend Alex Ross Perry made, was my first feature. I started working on Silver Bullets before Gabi on the Roof in July, but Silver Bullets didn't come out until long after Gabi on the Roof in July. I think, yeah, that was my second feature.

How did you wind up in Impolex?

Alex and I were the same year at NYU, but we actually didn't meet until we worked together at Kim's Video. We were just friends. We worked together there, I did for a few months and then Alex continued to work there for a long time. We would always see each other at movies in New York, repertory stuff.

You didn't know each other in school?

We met in 2005, which would be our junior year, I believe. He was in the film program, I was in the acting program. So we didn't see each other that much in school.

NYU, it's pretty competitive to get in there. Were you a good student or did you have awesome letters of recommendation?

I don't know. [Laughs] I mean, I guess I was a pretty good student. And you audition to get in. I don't know. I couldn't believe I got in. I was absolutely shocked and then didn't apply anywhere else. Yeah, I definitely thought that I was going to show up and be just the dumbest, worst actor that they admitted that year, just a fluke. But yeah, I think it is a pretty competitive school.

How did you get into acting? Was that something you wanted to do when you were a kid?

Yeah, I think fourth grade I was in a play, and it stuck. And then I always acted in high school. I did a lot of musicals and community theater and high school productions. I never became anywhere close to professional or, um, good. [Laughs]

Do you sing?

[Long pause, answers hesitantly] N-n-n-o-o-o. [Laughs] I mean, I was in a lot of musicals, and I was in the choir and I took some lessons when I was young, but I generally have a pretty normal girl voice. I'm certainly not blowin' anyone away.

What was the fourth grade play that you were in, do you remember?

It was Theseus and the Minotaur. I played Medea.

Are your parents in the arts?

No, they're both public school teachers.

Are your parents very liberal?

They're pretty liberal.

What happens when you start appearing in movies, and one of them is titled Autoerotic, and the character you play has an asphyxiation fetish? What do you tell them?

Yeah, I just didn't talk to them very much about that one.

Did you have any reservations about playing Genevieve in Green? Because I'm curious how the conversation went when Sophia said that she wanted to make a film that explores her own jealousy, but that she also wants you to act in love scenes with her fiancé?

I was probably naïve about it. I think Larry was more aware of how dangerous it could be. Sophia and I were so close at the time. It was, to me, the equivalent of her saying, "Do you want to get lunch with me tomorrow?" It was like, "Do you want to do this thing with me?" And it was like, "Yeah! Absolutely. How can we make that happen?" So I didn't think all that much about it'cause Larry and I and Sophia all lived together at the time. We're extremely close, and it was so obvious to me, and to Larry, and to Sophia, there was nothing. That Larry and I were like brother and sister to one another that I didn't really think about that. I kinda thought I was the perfect person rather than a stranger or somebody who had not been vetted. We all knew that I was trustworthy in that way. But yeah, in hindsight, it's kind of a crazy thing. And there are very real feelings involved in that movie.

So how do most of your parts come to you? It seems like a lot of them are through people you already know.

Yeah, most of the parts I've gotten have been through people I know and working with the same people over and over again. I've worked with my friend Alex three times so far. We just finished something else, a web series for HBO GO.... I've been really lucky to be able to work with people who I think are really talented: Joe Swanberg and Amy and Sophia. And I do have representation now, and I go out on auditions, which is good. But almost every job that I've ever gotten has come through people that I know.

With these auditions, you stay in New York?

Yeah, or put myself on tape. But yeah, stay in New York.  

At that Silver Bullets Q&A, finally someone asked you if you were a professional actress. You answered by saying that you had studied acting. Would you answer the same way now?

I guess I'd say I'm a professional actress. I always do shy away from the idea of being a professional. I don't know, it's just a weird hang-up that I have. I remember reading something that Asia Argento said, something like, she wants to know how to do a lot of things but never be an expert about anything. I want to keep a sense of fun about it, I guess, and not just think of it as a job. So maybe that's why I shy away from being called professional. But yeah, I'm a trained actor. I think when you work on movies like the movies that I've worked on, there's maybe a misconception that, 'cause we're making our own movies, that we're not actors by trade. But a lot of people are actually trained actors.   

How did the Abolitionists project come to you? 

That was an audition. My manager got me that. That's probably the only time in my adult life that I've ever gone on an audition and actually gotten the part. My batting average is not very good. [Laughs] But yeah, that was a great experience. I loved that.

Was that your first foray outside of the indie film scene?

Yeah, kind of. There have been projects where people that I'd worked with on smaller movies brought me on for their larger projects, so I've worked on some bigger movies. But that was the first time I'd been cast by somebody that didn't know me, and it was a funded thing by a corporation. But Apograph [Productions], the company that made that for PBS, everyone was great. And the director, Rob Rapley, was really great to work with. So I definitely enjoyed a great experience.

You're close with so many folks who both act and direct. Does directing interest you?

Yeah, it does.

Have you done it yet, at all?

No, I haven't. And I don't know when I will, but I am trying to do more stuff behind the scenes as well. I've done a bit of production design, and I wrote this movie with my boyfriend, and I'm doing some producer stuff on it, and working with the actors. Yeah, I just like making movies. But I do love acting. I'm not trying to move away from acting at all. But it's nice to diversify.

What can we see you in next? What are you excited about? Of course, there's the film that you co-wrote with your boyfriend.

I really am pretty focused on this movie we're making now. And then, there are a bunch of things that may or may not happen in the near future. I'm supposed to be working on Alison Bagnall's next feature, called Funny Bunny, which should be great. And a few other things, but I'm not really sure. I don't have a firm schedule for the next, like, ever, which is great. Which is really nice.



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Julie Bayl
July 12th 2018
1:53am

Hello, I received a phone call from Kate Lyn. Her message said she would like to talk to me about my book, Focus on Survival. She said she would keep trying to get hold of me but I have been on holidays for the past 2-3weeks and just returned. I do not have her phone number. She said her name was Kate Lyn Cashew New York. At least that’s what it sounded like. If this was the film director Kate Lyn I would appreciate speaking with her. My email address is attached above for her to make contact. Thank you for passing this info on if this is the lady I mentioned. I have been investigating making a movie or serial using my story.