The “plucked from obscurity” line may well sound like a cliché, but 24-year-old actress Sasha Lane really was picked from the streets and plonked on the big screen for her first acting role.
British director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) approached a then-19-year-old Lane on a beach in Panama City during her spring break. Arnold coaxed her into auditioning there and then for a role in her Cannes Jury Prize-winning film American Honey, a sun-soaked coming of age road movie that explores sex, youth and the American class system.
Lane plays Star, a teenage runaway lured into a ragtag magazine sales team by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), that zig-zags across the American Midwest selling door-to-door subscriptions. The actress was thrown in the deep end – her first ever experience shooting panned out to be a 54-day experience spent on the road, travelling from Oklahoma to North Dakota. Lane took to Instagram to express how hard she’d worked when the film wrapped: “I know there’s many out there who wish to downplay my existence, hate, and base my accomplishments off of vapid happenings, but I’ve worked hard my entire life. I know struggle, pain, and survival. I’ve kept true to who I am and have been very blessed with opportunities because of this.”
It’s Lane’s fiercely authentic portrayal of a lost 18-year-old-girl learning to fend for herself and how to love (and be loved) for the first time that has cemented her as indie cinema’s young talent to watch.
Since then she’s starred in Born in the Maelstrom, a short film directed by Meryam Joobeur, as a young biracial girl grappling with her identity, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post as Jane, a teenager who’s been packed off to a Christian conversion therapy centre. The latter is a role close to Lane’s heart – the free-spirited actress came out as bisexual at 15 and grew up in a conservative-leaning community in Dallas, Texas with her brother, Sergio, who’s also gay.
As demonstrated in both American Honey and Miseducation, Lane has the ability to skillfully translate the nuances of her lived experiences and emotions onto her performances on the big screen. She brings the same level of authenticity to her latest role in Daniel Isn’t Real, a psychological horror directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer.
“I’ve always been interested in [psychology]. That’s why I watch a lot of murder documentaries that look into the mind of a serial killer,” says Lane over the phone from her hometown in Texas. She’s taken a trip from LA to visit her mum and sister and do some “basic living for a second”.
Lane doesn’t like watching horror films that aren’t based in reality: “It’s usually not my vibe, but I’ve got really into Ari Aster’s movies like Hereditary and Midsommar – the more psychological ones, maybe even the ones with some paranormal in there, but there has to be something grounded for me to lean towards.”
Daniel Isn’t Real follows the life of Luke (Miles Robbins), a painfully shy college freshman with a troubled past, and an increasingly sinister imaginary friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, whom he created as a child to help him cope with his troubled family life. He locked Daniel in a cupboard as a child, only to unlock him years later, as a law student, when he needed him most.
Luke is stronger with Daniel by his side – his now-older, still-invisible friend persuades him to focus on photography over studying law and helps him score the number of a girl he’s into. Cassie (Lane) is a young art student who urges Daniel to use photography as a medium for processing his trauma.
The film’s handling of young men’s mental health issues stood out to Lane when she read the script. “I found it really interesting that it leaned towards mental illness from a male perspective – a young male having to deal with a bipolar mother, and him showing signs of starting to develop the same thing,” says Lane. “You don’t see a lot of young males going through that publically.”
She was drawn to the film’s portrayal of toxic masculinity too. “I grew up with a gay brother and I know he was forced to be this manly person. I’ve seen a lot of men in my family suppress their emotions, and then the energy gets directed somewhere else. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and I know that it’s such a big issue with a lot of men and it’s come up a lot recently, so it’s something I wanted to explore and be part of.”
Having studied psychology and social work at Texas State University in San Marcos before dropping out to star in American Honey, Lane is well equipped for roles that require nuanced emotional sensibility. “It was nice to be a character on the outside watching someone struggle – but being the more emotionally evolved one – as I myself struggle with it. I found it really interesting, being able to hold [Daniel’s] hand and go through what he was going through step-by-step.”
According to Lane, Mortimer envisioned Cassie with “wild energy” but also “grounded”, so she searched deep inside: “I leaned more towards that side, that energy that’s a part of me,” says Lane. “Like chill, but a little more firecracker. I tapped into my own experiences and pulled a string more to one side than the other.”
A deep connection to the character is paramount for the actress: “I want to feel like I can see myself in [the character], or that it’s something that I believe in,” says Lane, whose opportunities could be described as a small series of serendipities.
She continues: “It’s funny because I feel like [my roles] find me where I am at that moment in time, which is kind of beautiful. I very much felt myself in Star four or five years ago, and I’m happy to say I feel like I’ve evolved out of that for the better – it’s very much changed how I interact with people. I’m very thankful that those are the [roles] that find me, or that I can make the choice to be a part of.”
The evolution Lane speaks of is a work in progress, something that the role of Cassie allowed her to continue to explore. “In a weird way it was calming for me, but also a bit freaky,” she says of Daniel’s role in the film. “For someone who has, for many years, heard voices and had to deal with interactions with people and being in public while always having something in the back of my head screaming at me… It felt comforting. It felt almost normal to see it happen in front of my eyes. It was a bit of a trip.”
Lane’s latest trip involved starring in a Lewis Capaldi music video (“It was incredible. It gave me a little energy again.”) and she’s just wrapped filming for Gillian Flynn’s new Amazon series Utopia in Chicago. “There’s something about that one, because I was never going to do a TV show unless I felt I could see longevity in the character… but it’s something I’m excited to hopefully dive deeper into. Jessica’s like a feral cat learning how to use her emotions and she’s not very good at it. She’s very human and there’s something about that role that’s really special for me.”
It’s clear that Lane’s decision to be selective about the roles she takes has been rewarding thus far. “You always walk away feeling really good about your film, no matter what people say, or how they feel. You’re just always happy that people are starting to see a message through the profession you’ve chosen and the characters you play.” But the thing that Lane still struggles with most is fear. But, as she explains, it’s how you deal with it that counts. “Like what are you going to do with that fear?,” she asks in her soft Southern drawl. “Are you going to let it swallow you, or are you going to keep pushing, pushing it out of you and using it to jump? You have to tell your inner voice to shut up so you can work on yourself.”
So what is Lane most scared of? “Of people knowing me too well. I’m a very paranoid person. I always think something’s trying to attack me or get me. I think Final Destination ruined my life!”
Daniel Isn’t Real is in UK cinemas from 7th February 2020