Sasha Lane makes her acting debut as the lead in American Honey , a new feature by English filmmaker Andrea Arnold. The previously untrained performer plays Star, who joins a “mag crew” traveling across the midwest selling periodicals door to door, where she’s under the questionable managerial control of Krystal (Riley Keough) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf), both of whom join her in a love triangle scenario. Lane appeared at an IFFBoston-sponsored screening of American Honey at the Brattle Theatre, where she spoke about her director’s working methods (of note: Most of the cast never saw a completed screenplay, but instead only specific pages given on specific days). I talked to Lane the next morning at the Liberty Hotel, where we continued to speak about her own experience of Arnold’s production. At the start of the transcript, we were talking about regional background—Lane was born in Houston, and spent much of her life in locations near Dallas, though she concedes she “popped around a lot.”
DigBoston: That must have given you a personalized perspective on American Honey, with all the location shooting, and how it skips between urban spaces and rural spaces. The Kansas City sequence is one I’m thinking about—the sort of awed reaction everyone has when they arrive.
Sasha Lane: Truly. And the way Andrea Arnold works, she’d tell us, “don’t look at anything yet.” She’d do the camera [setup], and then she’d have us look at where we were at. So, like, being on top of the van in Kansas City—you’re really taking it all in.
On one hand, you’re performing, you’re playing a character. On the other, “performance” is probably not exactly what your director is looking for—she’s looking for something adjacent to an acting performance.
That’s what made it a little easier for me to come into this, because she was really big on it being raw and real. I mean, we were staying in motels that had bedbugs, all of that. Usually, there’s a prettier side to her movies. But on this one, her and [cinematographer] Robbie Ryan were saying they wanted something real.
I had times where I had to say, “Andrea, I don’t know the difference between myself and the character, and it’s freaking me out.” And it’s cool, because you’re so into the work. But psychologically, you’re getting a little fucked. You’re like, wait…I’m Sasha, and that’s Star. I’ve only seen the movie twice now, but I can finally watch it and be like, “Your poor heart,” or, “this is what you’re doing—not so much me.”
Not to baselessly speculate, but I’d guess that Arnold would probably be very interested in capturing the sort of moments where you’re legitimately confused about your own identity.
She definitely loved that confusion. But also, sometimes, she would need me to know the difference, because she’d need me to react in a certain way. And some of those times, I’d need to know a little more [about the screenplay]. I’d be so in the moment, not knowing what tomorrow is, and I could only perform in the way I was feeling. Some of those scenes, I’d need her to tell me more about why the character was doing something, or what the next step of the film was, so that I would know how to get into it. Or else Star was going to be Sasha, because I don’t know any other way.
Arnold’s films seem almost obsessed with the textures of specific places. In Fish Tank , rightly or wrongly, you get the impression that she knows the landscape quite intimately. But that’s not necessarily the case with American Honey, because she’s not based in America—so did you feel like you had to be her eyes and ears with regards to authenticity?
Sometimes. The thing about Andrea is that she respects whatever she’s doing. She has respect and love for everything. She spent a lot of time in America before the movie, traveling with these kinds of mag crews, going to these different kinds of places. That’s how she found me, on a beach—she’s always taking it all in. So you trust that she is going to do it justice. But she was open to us being like, “No, we don’t do that.” Even for small things. Like she’d want my hair down for a specific scene, but being out in that heat, the hair would’ve stayed wrapped up.
Were there moments where you’d disagree on the more psychological aspects of the character?
The scene where I’m looking at [a large stash of] jewelry—I was kinda like, “I don’t give a fuck about possessions, and I don’t think Star would care either.” But Andrea wanted me to look at it in awe, like an idea was forming, because the character had to go make money. She needed my character to look at that jewelry and see that she was going to build a life.
Was the camera something that consciously factored into your performance? The way it moves, in terms of both position and focus, can seem unplanned, or at least not meticulously so.
Sometimes you had to think about where the camera was at. But some of the beauty was that, especially with the scenes in the van, it would just be us talking and hanging out. Robbie would happen to be there, but you don’t know if he’s looking at you or looking past you. So you just keep doing what you’re doing. And it catches you, or it doesn’t catch you, depending on what the scene was.
If you continue acting, you’re sure to encounter some rigorous blocking. And there’s freedom to be found there, but it’s radically different, right?
I did a short film, and they were like, “We have to block you like this so we can shoot you like that.” They’re fixing a sink to be in the frame with you, but it’s really over there, while you’re over here. It was more like, “We have to cheat into this [composition.]” With Andrea, she created this universe, and then just put us in it. You didn’t have to worry about “I have to step here, then I have to step there,” you just started stepping. At some points, we had the same mind. The scene around the fire pit, I just had this feeling to jump over it—and she comes over, saying “I was just going to tell you to do that.” She gave us this space, and we couldn’t help but fall into the steps that she wanted us to step into.
Conversation has been edited and condensed.