“I’m much more interested in being an artist than an actor,” Sheila Vand tells ET.
For the 33-year-old Iranian-American actress, putting art first has meant a move from Los Angeles to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and a slew of unique roles in ensemble-driven indie films. Her latest, We the Animals, a restless and imaginative coming-of-age story, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca International Film Festival this week after winning an Innovator Award at Sundance. (The film will open in theaters in August.)
Based on Justin Torres’ celebrated novel of the same name, the movie stars Vand and Raúl Castillo (HBO’s Looking) as working-class parents to three boys whose unbridled energy propels the story. “I was excited that the book and the movie don’t shy away from the complexities of how we love each other, and how we love ourselves,” Vand says of the family’s volatile dynamics. The cast and crew lived together over a six-week shoot in upstate New York. “We were all fully immersing ourselves into this experience -- in some way becoming these animals.
“I think the deeper we put ourselves into that, the wilder we all felt,” she continues.
Now one to watch, Vand first got her break when she landed a small role as an Iranian housekeeper in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo. The role resonated with audiences so much that a scene resolving her character’s fate was added to the final cut of the film.
“Because of whatever it was that I did, the vulnerability I brought to the character, people cared about that one Iranian in the movie,” Vand recalls. “I was able to show this giant studio, ‘Yeah, of course people are going to care about the Middle Eastern role.’ That was a big thing.”
More critical acclaim came with her first starring role in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a vampire-Western genre mashup shot entirely in Farsi, which she learned growing up in Palo Alto, California, to Iranian parents. “When you act in a different language it’s like an extra layer of character,” she says. “It’s nice to have that extra separation between reality and when the fiction begins.”
Soon, Vand found herself in more mainstream projects, with roles in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, State of Affairs and 24: Legacy before moving to New York, to feel immersed in culture that inspires her and to pursue more meaningful work.
That began with Aardvark, which premiered at TIFF last year and opened in limited release earlier this month. The film stars Zachary Quinto as a schizophrenic man whose therapist (Jenny Slate) winds up in bed with his movie star brother (Jon Hamm). Vand completes the unlikely pairings as a romantic interest to Quinto’s character. “I really felt like that was the beginning of finding parts and stories that I thought were a little more fulfilling than some of the other jobs I’d been getting,” says Vand, who will return to TV with TNT’s anticipated TV adaptation of Snowpiercer.
“I want to stretch my imagination, I want to see what’s beyond this world that I already live in,”Vand says. On the series, she plays what she calls “a treasure chest of a character” opposite an ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Alison Wright and Lena Hall. “The writing is not like any TV writing I’ve ever been involved with before. The storylines are so complex. It’s a lot more character-driven, I think, than the movie,” she says, adding that it will offer fans a deeper dive into the world created by the graphic novel and Bong Joon Ho’s 2014 film.
The liberty to make bold, more selective choices at this point in her career seems to be paying off. “I have finally started to gain the courage to say no to things that don’t inspire me, and from the moment I started doing that, better work began to come my way,” Vand says. “I’m learning to trust in my own abilities and to believe that I have a right to be here,” a feeling she recalls having while shooting another upcoming film, Vulture Club with Susan Sarandon, Edie Falco and Matt Bomer. “It’s another one of these strong ensembles that I just felt so honored to be a part of and to play with actors whose work I’ve admired for so long. Those are the moments where you’re like, Wow, it’s really happening, I’m really out here on the playing field.”
Vand is ready to create her own opportunities, too: “I feel full of stories… I think there’s a real thirst for more stories told by women and people of color, and I want to be part of that tidal wave of change.”