The Heart Machine
John Gallagher Jr., Kate Lyn Sheil, David Call
(Parts & Labor)
US theatrical: 24 Oct 2014
Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) met online and after realizing they had many things in common decide to start dating. The only problem is he’s in New York and she’s in Berlin, which means their romantic exchanges are limited to cyber sex and conversations over Skype. He looks at her longingly and she tells him she’ll be back in NYC at some point in the near future, and then one day he sees someone who looks just like her on the train ...
Part The Conversation, part Blow-Up and part Her, Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine is a sophisticated romantic thriller that captures the spirit of times with poignancy and tenderness.
Anchored by the fantastic performances of the leads, it should be the film that finally allows Sheil to breakthrough into the big leagues. Her performance is an astutely observed portrait of what it’s like to be a modern woman, trying hard to envision herself as an independent sexual being, while trying to adjust to the rules established by a society that has nothing to do with her own world view. She is the rare femme fatale that breaks your heart. Sheil is also coming off a stellar year, having turned unforgettable supporting turns in Netflix’s House of Cards, Andrew T. Betzer’s unmissable Young Bodies Heal Quickly and Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. We had the opportunity to talk to Sheil about her work, her views on online dating and being the center of so many “it girl” pieces.
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Your performance in the film is fantastic and I kept thinking it reminded me of someone. Then I realized that you’re a huge Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert fan and it made sense! Do you try to emulate their techniques in your own work?
That’s pretty much the nicest thing ever. Hmm, Adjani is mostly known for Possession and that’s a very emotive kind of histrionic performance, but I feel like both of those actresses have a quiet intensity that I am drawn to in people. I’ve never consciously emulated either one of them, or I would never deign too. [laughs]
Did you have the chance to go see Huppert when she did The Maids during the summer?
I didn’t get to see The Maids, but I saw her in 4.48 Psychosis years ago at BAM, I wish I had seen her this time around as well.
You said once that you felt strange saying they were your favorites because you don’t speak French, has that feeling changed at all?
Even though obviously there’s something beyond language, I feel it sounds a little bit pretentious of me to say I love someone whose language I don’t speak. I literally can not understand what they’re saying, but there’s something very magnetic about them.
In 2014, we’ve seen you had the worst dating year ever, from Listen Up Philip and House of Cards to The Heart Machine.
Yeah, it’s been some tough times ... at least I think so.
How’d you end up getting these kinds of roles?
I guess that’s just how people see me. It’s a good question but you’d have to ask the myriad of men who have cast me in these roles [laughs].
The Heart Machine is basically structured like a noir and it has all these poetic moments, like the very first scene where you read Cody a poem and you’re pretty much giving away what the movie will be about. Then one of the last scenes has this gorgeous composition, in which your face is cut in half by a mirror, while you’re on Skype and in Cody’s bedroom we can see the Obama HOPE poster, which just gives the whole shot a very bittersweet touch.
That’s great! Zach will be so happy to hear that.
Was he extremely meticulous about things like these?
Yeah, he sorta had to be, because Virginia was constructing her entire bedroom to hide traces of where she was, so we would look at the frame and move things. The nature of the deception was such that we had to be very particular about the way the room looked, also the cinematographer and Zach orchestrated these very complicated shots. I don’t think any of the movie is handheld, it’s all very exquisitely filmed and planned out. This also had a lot to do with the inner lives of the characters, because we talked a lot about how these two people were recent transplants to New York and were constructing new lives, so it’s all very deliberate. The only thing that’s very loose are the Skype conversations which were improvised, not entirely, but we were encouraged to stray from the screenplay. The only thing that’s easy for them is this relationship.
Did you build a backstory for Virginia?
Sure. I think this idea that she was constructing this ideal vision of her life and then how she’s gobsmacked and taken by surprise by this relationship, by this man she’s falling in love with, and realizing she can be unguarded around him ... I don’t think that’s what she expected. Because of this misconstruct of her life that she’s bent on creating, she sacrifices this very genuine thing. It’s very sad.
I’m terrible at meeting people, so online dating actually works great for me and in a very silly way I see it as a throwback to Jane Austen-like times when people would exchange letters before even meeting, but there’s also this weird dichotomy between this sense of romance being preserved, and also the fact that we honestly have no private lives online, a Google search might tell someone much more about you than you’d ever expect.
It’s a weird dichotomy and we talked a lot about how both of these characters are relatively shy, so the technology is what allows them to meet. Even if they’d been in the same place physically, like at a bar or something, they probably wouldn’t talk to each other. This mediated thing allows them to be open, but also deceitful and cagey and to compartmentalize their lives. So the same thing that allows them to fall in love allows them to be self-destructive.
Did you feel like Virginia had to lie to keep safe from psychos?
Yeah, I mean, when I read the script I trusted both characters implicitly and understood where their deceitful or obsessive behavior came from and that was why I wanted to do it so badly, because I could relate to both of these very flawed characters and when something like that comes your way, you have this attachment to it. I thought, I can see myself doing similar things, so I can protect this character, I think certainly there is this anonymity with online dating and people need to be careful, but I never thought that Virginia had to lie, I don’t think she’s lying to protect herself from a real danger, but protecting herself from the danger of being exposed or falling in love with someone and getting hurt in that way.
I feel like Virginia joins a list of very strong female characters from 2014, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Eleanor in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby who take their sexuality on their own hands and create their own identities. Was this something that drew you to her?
Yeah, I think that was sort of the thing. Virginia is setting out to create the perfect version of herself and so that’s a part of why she begins lying, because her relationship with a man who is loving and genuine is not something that she was looking for, I think she was more interested in this free sexual exploration and then she falls in love in a sort of traditional way.
Were you worried that Virginia would be too much like a symbol and not a fully realized person?
Zach and I had a lot of conversations about her trajectory, you know, like has she revealed enough? Has she opened herself enough? I was worried but I loved that the script starts with Cody and then departs from him, and the audience doesn’t really know who to trust. It was written very well and she was fleshed out quite well, she wasn’t just the crazy object Cody was becoming obsessed with. I worried that if handled improperly by me, she could turn into somebody very cold.
The film also makes sex look very awkward, which I loved.
Yeah, especially over Skype! It was super awkward to shoot as well, but that’s how it should be.
Why do you feel that independent movies have always been better at dealing with sex than mainstream Hollywood films?
Yeah they are all very misty, like the car scene in Titanic, but I think that it is that they do allow for that awkwardness and not the joke of awkwardness, but the genuinely awkward thing that sex should be. Also there are all of these shades of grey and everything is complicated about it and independent films allow for these complications to be explored.
I have to ask something about You’re Next, since you’re in it with Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz who have directed you in several movies ... was there some inside joke about the film being about the indie people trying to defend themselves from the crazy world?
I mean, probably. I would have to ask Adam and Simon, but yeah, at that dinner table scene Joe and Ty very much make fun of this. Ty says something about his film playing at an underground film festival and Joe says “what does that mean, like in a basement or something?” [laughs] I think all of those people came to work in the film and it was a very natural progression for all of them because they were all friends or had worked together. So yeah, I’m sure there was some sort of hidden agenda.
I read that you’re obsessed with Serial, and you’re usually very outspoken about the things you love, so what else are you obsessed with?
Good question. I go see movies constantly, but I don’t think I’m consistently obsessed with anything as I am with Serial. I don’t know, I’m taking recommendations. [laughs]
How do you feel about being the center of so many “it girl” and “breakthrough” articles?
It’s totally because of the really amazing people that I’ve gotten to work with and so, I feel extremely lucky. There isn’t really an easy way to describe this, especially because I’ve “broken through” many times already and anytime anyone says that about you it’s really flattering and it means you were involved in a very good project, which is really all I want.