rising stars

Sasha Lane: ‘American Honey saved my life’

Six years after she was plucked from obscurity to star opposite Shia LeBeouf, the actor continues to make outsider parts her own. She talks to Ellie Harrison about her tough Texas upbringing, learning on the job and playing Utopia’s elusive antihero, Jessica Hyde

Sunday 08 November 2020 07:11 GMT
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‘If I can make films that touch hearts and connect people, that's beautiful’
‘If I can make films that touch hearts and connect people, that's beautiful’ (Rex Features)

Sasha Lane always plays the rebel. “Somebody make me a f***ing fairy princess, please,” says the actor, sighing with exasperation. “I promise I won’t say f***.” She is the type of plucky young star you imagine can do anything but, until now, Lane has excelled at playing the daring renegade, whether it’s as a teenage runaway in American Honey, the dazzling coming-of-age film that made her name in 2016, as a spliff-smoking “bad kid” in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, or, this month, as a violent fugitive in Amazon Prime’s Utopia.

The 25-year-old puts these sorts of roles down to her 20 tattoos and her dreadlocks. “I’m immediately seen as dirty and dark,” she says, recalling when she attended the illustrious Met Gala event in 2018, wearing a white lace dress. “I had diamonds in my hair – diamonds,” she says, with faux indignation. “Somebody was like, ‘She's so grungy.’ I was like, ‘What about this outfit says: ‘I'm gonna do a head bang and burn a town down?’ No. I'm sipping with my pinkie up and feeling very graceful and I wish you would just let me have my moment.”

Lane is just as captivating to watch on Zoom as she is in her films. She plays with her distinctive dreads – piling them atop her head, sweeping them over her shoulder – and her hands spiral around each other as she talks in a rhythmic southern drawl. When we speak, Lane has just got off a video call with her one-year-old daughter. She's currently in Atlanta, where she’s rumoured to be shooting the new Thor-spin off series, Loki, with Tom Hiddleston. “I'm just gonna skip over that one,” she says, laughing, when asked about it.

No one could have foreseen that Lane would end up here, though she is easily one of the most intriguing actors of the moment. She’d never planned on acting, let alone liked it, and thought she’d join the Peace Corps after college. But in 2014 her life changed forever when, aged 19, she was spotted on a Miami beach by Andrea Arnold. The director had just lost her lead actor for American Honey, the dizzying, sun-soaked Cannes Jury Prize-winner about a girl who decides to cut and run with a band of misfits. Among the tens of thousands of students getting wasted on spring break, Lane stood out.

“It was a crazy trip,” says Lane. “Me and my friends had been kicked out of a hotel and we ended up on this beach. I had no care in the world and that's when Andrea saw me.” Arnold told Lane she was making a film and later that night, while two of her friends were passed out from partying on her hotel bed, Lane improvised scenes in the lobby. “I had definitely been drinking that day, but I can hold my own,” she says now.

The next day over breakfast, Arnold asked Lane to stick around for another week. Lane was cautious. “I was like, ‘Alright, well if you turn out to be a murderer this is not gonna go well for you. I know s***. You're gonna have to really hack up my body if we're gonna do this.’ Which is weird to say to someone, but I did,” says Lane. She stayed, and by the end of the week she’d been cast in the film opposite Shia LaBeouf. She dropped out of college and flew out to Oklahoma to start shooting.

Her resulting performance as Star, a teenager from a broken home who hits the road with a travelling, partying sales crew in the midwest, was magnetic. With no professional experience, Lane managed to delicately balance her character’s mixture of vulnerability and grit.

Lane, like Star, left her life behind to go on the road with the film’s cast and crew. “I didn't know how to act,” she says. “So I didn't know what to do other than pull stuff from my own mind. I got to the point where I’d be crying to Andrea, saying, ‘I can't tell the difference between who I am and who Star is.’ We were in a bubble and had no visitors. We slept in s****y motels together, we were in the van for hours. There was no escaping American Honey.”

Star’s love interest in the film is the crew’s wild, hyperactive “business manager” Jake, a rat-tailed LaBeouf who Lane was reportedly dating off-screen. LaBeouf was intense on set. In one instance, Star was supposed to be angry with Jake, but Lane was struggling to conjure the emotion. “I was just laughing,” she says. “So Shia started telling me, ‘You're ruining this scene. You're f***ing ruining the whole movie.’ I knew what he was doing but it hurt and it was pissing me off. I just snapped and then they started filming and it was like, ‘Oh right, I see what you did there. You f***er.’ It was smart.”

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Lane and LaBeouf in American Honey
Lane and LaBeouf in American Honey (Rex)

The kids in the film, who are from forgotten, midwestern towns, are in a demographic that Donald Trump claims to be the voice of. Our interview is a week ahead of the 2020 election, and Lane is not convinced. “He's had his time and he has nothing to show for it,” she says. “He didn't deliver. I understood, especially back then, why certain people voted for him. They just wanted to believe that he would put money in and give us jobs, but it didn't work out that way.”

Like Star, Houston-born Lane moved around a lot as a child, between Texas, Florida and Dallas, and helped raise her little sisters. “I don't really like to talk about my family but my mom was gone a lot,” she says. “I played this role of being the glue, trying to keep everyone together. I grew up really, really young. Bad things happened to me as a kid but I had this feeling that it made me a better person. I have empathy and perspective.” As a result, she continues, she “internalised a lot because I never wanted people to feel my pain. I wanted to appear strong and light and be able to take care of everyone. Meanwhile, I would sit in my closet, give myself like 10 seconds to cry, then I would suck it up and be like, ‘OK, move forward, time to go get my sisters some food and act like everything's OK.’ I got really good at pretending things were OK.”

When Lane went to college, she started to crack. “I ended up getting diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder,” she says. “There are voices in your head, things are really dark. It's hard to explain to people who care about you that you can't sleep and you're hearing voices all day and you're sad and you're just tired. By the time I was a teenager, I was so tired.”

Lane at the Met Gala in 2018
Lane at the Met Gala in 2018 (Rex)

In the weeks before Lane met Arnold in 2014, the voices were “saying something nice for the first time”. “They told me, ‘Hold on, something’s coming that will allow you to fill your purpose and let you breathe,’” she says. “People ask me all the time, ‘If American Honey didn't happen, what would you be doing?’ Truly, I don't think I'd be here. I think it saved my life.”

There is a serendipity to Lane’s acting career. First, American Honey came out of the blue. Then, in 2018, she starred in Desiree Akhavan’s gay conversion drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post as a girl raised in a hippy commune. The part resonated with Lane as someone who refuses to put a label on her sexuality and whose brother had a difficult time growing up gay and black in Houston. “I've never seen myself as someone who's like, ‘Hey, I'm queer, I'm bisexual, I'm this,’” says Lane. “I just have a very broad and open and unique way of loving. I can literally fall in love with a f***ing squirrel. Anyone.”

Her brother, she says, “always prayed he’d be normal”, much like the characters in Cameron Post try to “pray away the gay”. She says the film moved some elderly conservative viewers to tears and has helped to change people’s minds.

Forrest Goodluck, Chloe Grace Moretz and Lane in The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Forrest Goodluck, Chloe Grace Moretz and Lane in The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Rex)

After that, Lane landed roles in the warm indie drama Hearts Beat Loud and the horror Daniel Isn’t Real, and her latest project is the US remake of Dennis Kelly’s Utopia, about a gang of bright youngsters who are in possession of a cult graphic novel that seems to predict disastrous real-world epidemics, making them the target of a shadowy deep state organisation. Lane plays yet another woman on the run, Jessica Hyde, who has been evading The Network all her life and who helps the young group survive.

Lane as Jessica Hyde in Utopia
Lane as Jessica Hyde in Utopia (Rex)

Lane studied feral cats to get into the character’s mindset. “For them, everything is survival mode,” she says. “You're terrified someone's gonna capture you. You don't hang in packs because you're a loner. That's Jessica Hyde.”  

She may be stuck playing the rebel but, through playing misunderstood outliers like Jessica Hyde and Star, Lane wants her work to bring people together and help us to understand each other. “I’m not the biggest public speaker,” she says, “but if I can make films that touch hearts and connect people, that's beautiful. Of course I want to be a part of that.”

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