Great flick, bad city Sheila Vand on the myth­i­cal set­ting of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ira­nian-Amer­i­can actress Sheila Vand, star of stunning vam­pire film A Girl Walks Home Alon eat Night, tells Don­ald Clarke about break­ing the mould in the myth­i­cal Bad City

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Con­struct a pic­ture of the United States from its me­dia and you could be for­given for con­clud­ing that there was scarcely a Mid­dle Eastern per­son in the en­tire na­tion. Those few who did make it as ac­tors found them­selves play­ing ter­ror­ists and as­so­ci­ated hood­lums. There are, of course, vast im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties from that part of the world in the US. Some­where close to two mil­lion Amer­i­cans have some Ira­nian an­ces­try and a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of those live in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The ex­cel­lent Sheila Vand is among their num­ber. You will re­mem­ber her sig­nif­i­cant sup­port­ing role as the house­keeper and nar­ra­tor in Argo.

Next year you can see her along­side Martin Free­man and Tina Fey in the provoca­tively ti­tled com­edy The Tal­iban Shuf

fle. Right now, she owns the screen in Ana Lily Amir­pour’s stunning Ira­nian-Amer­i­can vam­pire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Break­ing stereo types

“We are a newer im­mi­grant com­mu­nity,” she tells me. “For the Mid­dle Eastern com­mu­nity, com­ing into me­dia, it is like it was for the African-Amer­i­cans once. It’s about break­ing stereo­types. We have to break that mould. We be­gan play­ing a bunch of ter­ror­ists and started to slowly ex­pand. I do think there’s some­thing in­ter­est­ing hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple are get­ting that it’s a multi-faceted com­mu­nity.”

A Girls Walks Home – de­spite touch­ing on the era’s un­avoid­able eter­nal crea­ture – is cer­tainly not deal­ing in stereo­types. It is an ut­terly sin­gu­lar film. Set in a ver­sion of Iran that in­cor­po­rates shades of the old west, the pic­ture fol­lows Vand’s mys­te­ri­ous lone­some woman – clad in a black chador – as she floats dan­ger­ously about the streets.

Like many of the more in­ter­est­ing re­cent vam­pire films, A

Girl Walks Home in­spires end­less po­ten­tial al­le­gor­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Many have sug­gested that some­thing is be­ing said about misog­y­nist at­ti­tudes in both the US and Iran. Was that part of their con­ver­sa­tions?

Meld­ing of cul­tures

“It wasn’t re­ally part of the dis­cus­sion,” she says. “But for Lily and I there is just noth­ing strange about a girl who is strong and a bad ass. Of course that’s in there. You get that when­ever you have a strong char­ac­ter who doesn’t get that

Bad City is a com­pletely fic­tional place. I never had the op­por­tu­nity to go to Iran but the cul­ture is such a large part of my life it felt like a mytho­log­i­cal place to me. This is maybe the part of Iran that lives as mythol­ogy

strength from mim­ick­ing a man.” Fair point. We’ve seen such char­ac­ters be­fore. What we have never seen be­fore is this sort of meld­ing of cul­tures. When word got out about A Girl Walks Home at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, many re­ports sug­gested that the movie was ac­tu­ally shot in Iran. In fact, it is all filmed in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia and plays very cre­atively with that con­fu­sion. Where the heck is this myth­i­cally mud­dled ‘ Bad City’? “Bad City is a com­pletely fic­tional place,” she says. “I never had the op­por­tu­nity to go to Iran but the cul­ture is such a large part of my life it felt like a mytho­log­i­cal place to me. This is maybe the part of Iran that lives as mythol­ogy. A lot of peo­ple in the di­as­pora are in that po­si­tion.” Sheila is in an ideal po­si­tion to rep­re­sent that com­mu­nity. Her par­ents – dad is a com­puter pro­gram­mer and mom i s an ac­coun­tant – left shortly af­ter the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion and Sheila is the first of her sib­lings to be born in the US. It shouldn’t sur­prise us that she gets to grips with Farsi in the film. “Oh, Farsi i s my first l an­guage,” she says in a pure So- Cal ac­cent. “I was speak­ing it grow­ing up. I was born in Cal­i­for­nia but English is my sec­ond lan­guage. Ac­tu­ally, when act­ing in Span­ish and English, there is a bit of a dis­con­nect for me. It also added a fun dy­namic be­cause all the crew spoke English. There was this strange switch when­ever she yelled ‘ cut’.”

Fresh prej­u­dices

Raised in Palo Alto, a grad­u­ate of UCLA, Vand has lived her adult life in post- 9/ 11 Amer­ica. The stan­dard story is that life changed for Amer­i­cans of Mid­dle Eastern de­scent on that day. New sus­pi­cions are said to have arisen. Fresh prej­u­dices were minted. Does any of that ring bells with her? “Yeah. I was pretty young when 9/ 11 hap­pened,” she says. “I grew up in a very pro­gres­sive com­mu­nity. I didn’t have many prob­lems. But there was a shift in peo­ple’s per­cep­tions. I would say I was from Iran and I am not sure what that meant to peo­ple. But ev­ery mi­nor­ity has gone through this. And this film is part of the process of chang­ing that. To make an Amer­i­can film set in Iran is al­ready a com­plex pow­er­ful thing.” That’s true. And how in­ter­est­ing it is that the vam­pire has of­fered a route into that part of the world. An eastern Euro­pean myth, re­vived in the 18th and 19th cen­turies by gothic writ­ers, now of­fers one of the most fe­cund nar­ra­tive tem­plates of the age. It seems as if any is­sue can be in­ves­ti­gated through the agency of the blood­sucker. Let the Right One In? Only Lovers Left Alive? There are end­less ways of ex­ploit­ing those sto­ries. “Any­thing you do can be­come part of the lore. I was re­search­ing this and I re­alised that’s what hap­pened with Let the Right One In, for ex­am­ple. You never ac­tu­ally see her prey­ing. You can make up your own rules.” You can, for in­stance, tell a fem­i­nist story? “Hey, this movie is all about girl power.” That’s about the only thing it has in com­mon with the Spice Girls. “Ha ha. It is very dif­fer­ent to the Spice Girls movie.” A good dou­ble bill? “Oh yeah.”

Sheila Vand “I grew up in a very pro­gres­sive com­mu­nity.” Above: with Arash Marandi in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

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