'American Honey' Star Sasha Lane On Road Tripping And Finding Hope In Flyover Country [Fantastic Fest Interview]

Andrea Arnold's American Honey is a remarkable movie and one of the best films of 2016. At the center of this intimate and quietly epic drama is newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, a young woman who escapes her abusive home by joining a "mag crew" of equally disaffected youth. We follow this crew as they travel from state-to-state, peddling magazines, having misadventures, and finding hope and pain in every nook and cranny of the the American heartland.

Lane gives the kind of raw and brutally real performance you do not often find from more polished and experienced actors. The same applies to an interview in a karaoke room at Fantastic Fest – she's not one to offer a canned answer. Over the course of a too-brief conversation, we spoke about working with a director as empathetic as Andrea Arnold, what it's like to work with Shia LaBeouf, and how most movies turn away from the subject matter explored in American Honey.

I saw American Honey at 8:00 in the morning and I was worried because it is a very long movie and I was very tired. But I was riveted from the first scene. It flies by.

Yeah!

What was it like when you watched it for the first time? How did you feel?

Dude, I was like...it was so intense. I couldn't even watch it as a movie and still to this day can't watch it anymore because there's so much emotion and it's so intense. I was just remembering how I felt on that day and how my brother was there and so many different things. But it's cool. You get into it. The trailer I feel like is a good overall [representation] but the movie hits hard. It hits hard, like when "God's Whisper" comes on.

The trailer does a good job of selling the more exciting aspects of the movie, but there is a lot of subtlety in it. A lot of unseen emotions.

Definitely.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but [director] Andrea Arnold found you on a beach, right?

Mmm-hmm.

So how'd that happen?

It's just as weird as it sounds. Literally. She picked me out from the beach and we ended up talking and I stayed a week with her. It was the most bizarre, random thing ever, but so organic – "I'm doing a movie, I dig who you are, I want to get to know you more, throw you in some situations." By the end of it, she's like "You ready to go? Because I'm ready to go" and I'm like "Yep, let's go!"

Were you aware of her at all before you met her?

No! But I went and watched Fish Tank after and I really dug the whole aesthetic of it and who she was and how she was describing Star as a strong person. Even if she's naive and impulsive, she's free-spirited. She's a good strong girl. She's not just the come-save-me type thing.

You're from Texas, right?

Mmm-hmm.

So had you visited many of the areas seen the movie before? Oklahoma and the middle of America?

I hadn't... Oklahoma is the only place I had been, but knowing the midwest and Texas and knowing the type of life and those kinds of people...it was very familiar, even though I hadn't been there.

Since movies are so often made on the coasts, I felt like this is one of the few movies to really, truly get this part of the country. Even at its ugliest, it's familiar.

Yeah! Exactly. People are always like "Did you learn things about America? How was it like road tripping?" And I'm like "No, I know that!" I'm from that. Even if I hadn't been there, it was very much familiar territory.

And this was filmed as a road trip. You guys did really just drive all around these states as a group. How much of the shoot was carefully structured and how much of it was figuring it out as you went along?

Pretty much all of it was written. The parts in the van were the most...that's documentary style. Because if anything, [Andrea Arnold] would say "I want you to bring up this, but do as you do." Sometimes we'd be in the van and they'd randomly turn the camera on. But we're just chilling. We're just doing as we do as we talked. That was improv'd, documentary style. The rest was directed, but we were still free to say as we said it and that's why editing was awful! [Laughs]

The cast really feels like a unit who have been traveling together for a long time. Did you have the chance to hang out before the movie? Did you do a lot of hanging out off set to strengthen your bonds?

We met a week before we started filming and from then on, we were just in it. I had days where I worked without them a lot, but as soon as I was done filming, I'd go hang out with them and go right back to work. We were constantly together. We lived in hotels, so all we had to do was hang out in parking lots. And we were in that van, so we were scrunched up next to each other in a van, so it's just like...I know you. I know you.

A lot of sing-alongs.

Yeah! Which is cool because it brings people together. That connection was very much inevitable.

Was there a lot of music played on the set? Music is so important in the movie.

We actually had to cheat certain things, because we had each song playing as we were going through it. It was very real, very alive.

American Honey trailer

What was your acting experience before this? Had you acted in anything at all?

No, man. I was just in college, studying psychology and social work, which I feel plays a little bit into it. Acting...honestly, I'm so uncomfortable and so awkward that I could never think about setting foot in a theater room or acting class. I had nothing under my belt before this.

You really can't see any of that on the screen. You seem like a natural! Was there something Andrea Arnold did to help get you comfortable with yourself?

She just made me feel so...like everything about who I was was the reason she chose me. So she helped me build up this confidence. It was like, "Sasha, it's not like you went for this and begged her to do it." She just really believed in me and everyone on set really believed in me. As we'd film, I'd get more comfortable because I felt I was doing right and they were all supporting me. They found a lot of beauty in how I went about things. You couldn't help but feel comfortable with her and very supported. Since it's such an authentic movie and such a world that I know and since I connected so much with Star, it was very natural.

And then there's Shia LeBeouf, who's the one big name in the movie. Was he also hanging out with everyone else in the trenches?

Yeah. There was no disconnect between professional and non-professional. We were all just a group of people chosen for a reason, down for the same reason, getting to know each other on this road trip.

He has a reputation for being intense. What was it like to share so many intimate scenes with him? And did you learn anything from him?

I think it's the same thing. There just wasn't any factor of "You're Shia LaBeouf and you've done this for so long." We were in a bubble and we were just down and we fed off each other's energy. All of us just connected so well. So each scene was like "I know you as a person" and we just fed off that.

The movie is a really emotional roller coaster. I actually want to talk about a specific scene. [Note: minor spoilers for the next question] The sequence where you catch a ride with the truck driver feels like it's setting up something horrible and because I've seen so many movies, I'm just waiting for him to reveal himself to be a monster. But then he turns out to be a good guy with a family who buys a magazine subscription from Star. They have a great and touching conversation. In a movie filled with people who have been hurt and will continue to be hurt, it offers up so many glimpses of hope and positive encounters.

That is...I'm just so happy that is what you saw. That is exactly how I feel. These situations, these people, this side of America...there is so much fucked up shit in it, but there is so much beauty as well. There's beauty that comes together because people in these communities live in such situations that they have nothing else beyond relying on each other and having love for life and themselves. I think that people like [Star] and the rest of these kids are constantly overlooked because of how we are and act and look. There are beautiful souls in all of us and there's light. I think that's why Andrea found all of us, because she saw that light in each and every one of us. For that to get across, I think it's perfect. That's exactly what it is. There is hope. It's not just darkness or sadness or pity. No, these people are good with who they are and they're living life, because what else do you have? You have to take it as it comes. You can't just constantly judge a situation or a person because of what you're used to or how they look. They might turn out to be this sweet man who asks you what your dreams are. You know? It's really nice.

There's so much empathy in the movie. Do you think that is the result of Andrea Arnold not being from the United States? Can she look objectively at people who other filmmakers would overlook?

I think Andrea has a very genuine heart and she thrives in chaos and loves chaos because she finds such beauty in it. That's why we connected well. She saw this and said "No, there is this beauty" and she was down to be in it and explore it. She is a very empathetic person.

You're working on other projects now, right?

I just did a short and I have some other things lined up, but who knows what comes next. Life is anything.

Is acting something you want to keep exploring?

If I can keep doing it in a way that I feel good with and I can walk away and be like, "I did that for a reason and that felt right with me," then I definitely want to.

What kind of movies interest you? Any directors you'd love to work with?

That's the thing! I don't know anything about the film industry. I thought I knew films, but apparently I don't know films or people! [Laughs] I want to say... I love movies like Girl, Interrupted and Infinitely Polar Bear. I love action movies. I don't know their names, but there are certain people I've seen from certain movies that I've loved and would love to work with. I know they're outside the box and they're trippy and deep. I'd love to go for things like that, but also part of life and part of why I'm here is that I was open to whatever came my way. So who knows what I'll find an interest in next, you know?

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American Honey is in theaters today.