Kate Lyn Sheil “I like people who feel things strongly or not at all. I don’t like the middle ground very much.”

She’s one of the most studied and disarming actresses to arrive on the independent film scene in recent years, but most viewers would recognize Kate Lyn Sheil from the second season of Netflix series House of Cards, where she plays an unnervingly friendly social worker with palpably ulterior motives — until we realize that she’s just being herself. It’s a bait-and-bait in line with the Jersey-born actress’ transfixing performances in recent low-budget features, many of which are staged as a ticking time bomb latched onto her presence. Whether as an aloof epileptic co-worker to Tim Heidecker in The Comedy, as a hysterically possessive Florida vagabond in Sun Don’t Shine, or delivering a climactic 9-minute monologue in her feature debut Impolex, Sheil’s face has an opacity that lends itself to a number of different, equally surprising registers. These performances define those films inasmuch as they split the difference between conscious action and ambiguous thought, making the work feel lived-in and wholly present.

Sheil has again found material worthy of her talent in Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine, a carefully mounted tale of online dating and obsession that never forces psychology on its characters, while examining the way performance is so thoroughly an aspect of video communication. Sheil plays Virginia, one half of an exceedingly cozy Skype romance with Cody (Short Term 12’s John Gallagher, Jr.) that is based on a casual lie: the Bushwick-based Cody thinks Virginia is studying abroad in Berlin, when she’s really just a publishing clerk in the East Village. As Cody begins to catch onto her fiction, we begin to understand the prescriptive boredom of Virginia’s everyday life, even as she picks up numerous conquests on Blendr — living in the primal fear that their relationship is an “amusement park” version of the real thing. Though a dark subject, the film is buoyed by the warmth of its two leads, keeping enough distance to let us consider whether Sheil’s online persona and everyday behavior could ever match up.

In addition to The Heart Machine, Sheil has also appeared on the big screen this year in Listen Up Philip and Hellaware, but I didn’t get a chance to ask her about an upcoming project that was announced only a couple weeks ago: a new film by documentarian (and former Kim’s Video co-worker) Robert Greene, who will film her in the throes of preparing to play a real-life Florida news anchor who committed suicide in 1974. It’s a conceptual bargain that signifies the kind of challenges Sheil seeks in her roles: to channel the kind of emotional acuity that most people would prefer to avoid.

I wanted to start with the poem you read at the end of the movie. “In the silence before the crowd moves for the door, I hear the ticking of my watch, and yours, a quarter-second later/One beat of a heart machine, broken in two”. Did you write that?

No! That poem, actually, was sort of the impetus for the entire film. It was written by a friend of Zach’s many years before he wrote the script, but he really loved the poem and sort of felt inspired by it. No, I wish I had written it. I think it’s very nice, very sad.

I know you and Zach Wigon went to NYU Tisch together. Had you worked with him before in any capacity?

I didn’t even know him in the capacity of school very much. I worked at a video store [Kim’s Video], and he used to come in a bunch, and I was also a regular costumer there — I didn’t work there for very long. We had mutual friends, so I was aware of him as a person who existed, but no, we never worked together until he had seen Green and a mutual friend of ours had brought him to see it. And then he approached me about this movie.

Because I wanted to be a film actor, I would just sit at home and watch three movies a night, every night — that was absolutely as important, if not more important than my college education.

Was there anything specific that he gave you as a blueprint for portraying Virginia, or had you done any other research?

We had lots of conversations about it. He sent me lots of poems — I wish that I could remember the names of the authors right now, but I can’t — and talked about the idea that she was very interested in reinventing herself. And in correlation with that, a huge David Bowie fan…[just] the ability to sort of present one face to one person and then have something completely other going on internally. I sort of delved back into that stuff, started listening to him again, reacquainted myself with some of the lore that I had forgotten about. But mostly, it was just tackling the script — I was trying to figure out how these events could possibly unfold and how I could see them in my life, and where I’d have to be in my life to do the sort of thing that the character did. I guess it’s just sort of personal research.

It’s interesting the way this movie treats you as a sort of opaque character for the first two-thirds of the story. In the context of their relationship, she’s only ever on the computer screen, performing — then she’s either at her job or going to meet different men. We get little intimacy with your character up until we’re shown the meet-cute.

When I first read the script, I thought it was interesting that for the beginning portion of the movie, you do sort of see Virginia’s character through Cody’s eyes. So the shifting politics of who the audience might side with at various points in the film was interesting. I mean, when I read the script, I always had empathy for the character. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I hope that the audience feels that [by the end] she sort of has come clean in a way, and put her cards on the table, and said “please” — you know? I hope that people feel like they have some sort of grasp of what’s going on with her by the end. But for me, she always seemed like a very insecure person, with faults, who did want a genuine connection, but was sort of very frightened by it when she actually found it. Especially because I don’t think she was expecting it to be online.

Right. And I think she’s a character that’s predisposed to put her life in little boxes, so to speak.

Right, she compartmentalizes her life. And so she’s able to have this very real intimate relationship with Cody and keep it sort of in this Skype-internet world, and then have these very visceral real-life romantic and sexual experiences. But not really romantic. Something that [Zach and I] were very concerned about — because the opaqueness of her character was something that I wanted very much to tackle — [was for] her not to become too incomprehensible. So we would track in the various Skype scenes whether or not she was being sort of open and warm enough. Our idea for the structure of the film would that she would be sort of closed-off in some of these real-life experiences, and then very vulnerable and open and very much herself in the Skype conversations. And so the most meaningful and real relationship she has in her life is with this man she is lying to, who she never met in person. Relationships are tough!

I’ve seen a number of films that you’ve done, and I feel like your roles in general tend to be somewhat disarming. I know it’s a very different project, but in House of Cards, for instance, as soon as your character came onscreen, I was like, this can’t be good. I’m curious if you’re sort of predisposed while reading scripts, to find roles that have that kind of intensity.

I don’t know what I look for, exactly. I’m drawn to characters, but I’m more drawn to the story as a whole. So it’s kind of a difficult question for me to answer, since there are so many moving parts in the decision-making. But yeah, in real life and in movies, I like people who feel things strongly or not at all. I don’t like the middle ground very much.

You’ve been living in New York City since 2002. Do you feel like it’s easier to build a character while shooting on streets you’re familiar with? Or does the atmosphere have little effect on your performance?

Yeah, there’s certainly a frenetic energy in NYC that added something to the film. It was interesting because John [Gallagher] and Zach and I talked about how Cody and Virginia were both recent transplants to NYC. John has lived here since 2002 also. It was a little bit funny, because I lived in the East Village when I was in college, and it’s so steeped in memories. We were shooting all around that area, and I was pretending like these streets were new to me….but like, I cried on that street corner when whoever broke up with me, or got drunk at this bar, all of that stuff. It all adds something, and even if you’re acting against your relationship to it, it feeds you in some way.

Our idea for the structure of the film would that she would be sort of closed-off in some of these real-life experiences, and then very vulnerable and open and very much herself in the Skype conversations.

You mentioned having worked at Kim’s Video, which recently shut down. I know director Alex Ross Perry worked there, but also people like Robert Greene whose documentaries I’m a big fan of, and the critic Nick Pinkerton. What was it like working there?

I love those guys. My favorite guys. I can’t remember how long I worked there, but it was some number of months. All the people you mentioned worked there much longer than I did. But I was a very, very loyal, disturbingly loyal customer. I think Nick’s article really felt as close to that experience as I could possibly communicate in my own words — as he’s a much better writer than I am — but something he talks about in that article is the video store clerk caste being one of the major losses.

I wanted to work there very desperately. Lots of people did, even though the pay was horrible. It was very difficult to get a job there, and it was a dream come true, to be surrounded by all the people I had admired as a customer beforehand, because they were so knowledgeable and seemed so very cool to me. You just got to be surrounded by movies. I went to acting school [at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute], and I cannot discount that in any way — it absolutely made me the actor who I am today. But because I wanted to be a film actor, I would just sit at home and watch three movies a night, every night — that was absolutely as important, if not more important than my college education.

How did you feel when you heard that it was closing?

I mean, it had been closing for so long. I didn’t have as much of a relationship with the store on 1st Avenue as I did with Mondo Kim’s [on St. Mark’s Place]. I was busy and didn’t think about it that much, but the last few days it was open, I went there every day — it was a very emotional experience — and since I was leaving town the day it actually closed, I went the day before and ran into Alex [Ross Perry] there, and was like, of course you’d be here! I really loved that place.

Do you still watch a lot of movies?

I do. Not as many as I did during that time, but I still watch a lot. I watched that Hitchcock movie Jamaica Inn the other night, that was good. I watched this Jimmy Stewart movie, The Far Country… last night? The night before? Same night. Same night as Jamaica Inn. That was good… y’know, I had complicated feelings about Gone Girl, but I liked it. I also saw that movie Heaven Knows What, which was unbelievable.

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