Film

Kate Lyn Sheil Takes on the Role(s) of a Lifetime in ‘Kate Plays Christine’

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The title of the film that I’m discussing with its star, a tall, pensive young woman in jean shorts who is sitting across from me, is a simple declaration: Kate Plays Christine. But within this seemingly irreducible statement exist enormous complexities, beginning with the subject of the sentence.

Kate — or should that be “Kate”? — is 32-year-old actress Kate Lyn Sheil, who, for nearly a decade, has impressed, whether as a lead or in supporting roles, in nano-budgeted movies, many by New York–based filmmakers (see “The Sheil Reel“). In her latest project, we watch Sheil investigate the short life of and occasionally perform as Christine Chubbuck, a TV news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, who killed herself on air in 1974, at age 29. Directed by Robert Greene, among independent cinema’s foremost boundary-crossers, Kate Plays Christine, which opens at the IFC Center on August 24, is billed as a documentary, a term that is particularly porous and destabilized here. Yes, Kate does play Christine, but only sometimes — and in a deliberately flat, inept style in stilted re-enactments. More often Kate is playing herself (an actress researching a part, who travels to Sarasota with the filmmaker and crew) or several different, heightened versions of that self (a performer who occasionally becomes enraged with her director) when she’s not being herself. The ontological free fall is riveting, occasionally terrifying to witness, and the multiple meta-feats could never have worked as successfully as they do without Sheil’s nimble interrogation of acting itself.

Her ability to so smartly lay bare the existential pitfalls of performing may be rooted in her early disenchantment with the profession. As Sheil says in the opening minutes of Greene’s film, in what seems to be a “real” autobiographical précis, she had wanted to be an actor since she was nine, explaining of the profession’s appeal: “Acting somehow became this outlet for me to be seen.” Yet shortly after graduating from New York University’s drama program in 2006, she quit. (Concurrent with her years at NYU, Sheil also studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.) “I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the auditioning process and beating your head against the wall [and] people not knowing you,” Sheil told me last month during a late breakfast at a Soho café. “I’ve never considered myself a person who can go into a room and ‘wow.’ So I was just very disillusioned with the entire process.”

But thanks to friendships she made in 2005 during a brief stint working at Mondo Kim’s, that late, lamented cathedral of cinephilia on St. Marks Place, her interest in performing was revived. Employees at the rental redoubt ranked among the city’s most movie-mad, as Sheil did (and still does, pulling out her phone, not impolitely, during our conversation to fact-check herself on the name of the director of Mike’s Murder, a little-known Debra Winger vehicle from 1984). Her Kim’s colleagues included director Alex Ross Perry, who cast her in his first feature (and hers), Impolex (2009), and in his three other movies released to date. Another co-worker was cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the cameraman on Perry’s films and on Kate Plays Christine, among many other titles. “I would credit Kim’s Video with basically my entire career,” Sheil says with complete sincerity. “That’s where I found my community; I was sort of adrift in New York before Kim’s Video came into my life. We started being ready to make things at similar times, so it was a very lucky confluence of events.”

Of the dozens of independent, impecunious movies Sheil has worked on, some with a larger circle of confederates affiliated, however loosely, with her Kim’s coterie, the actress has mostly fond memories. “I think I’ve rarely felt as free as I did on certain of those projects. You’re [often] tasked with doing more than your particular job. There was something very innocent about it. You feel so invested when you’re trusted with more than acting or boom-opping or whatever it is, when you’re a team making something rather than coming in for the day and doing your acting and going home,” she says — before adding that “working with your friends sometimes gets tricky.”

The actress pauses for a moment and decides not to elaborate, suavely shifting to reflect on her more recent experience of working on television. Her small-screen projects include two seasons of House of Cards; the first three episodes of The Girlfriend Experience (co-created by Amy Seimetz, who directed Sheil in 2012’s Sun Don’t Shine); and the Cinemax horror series Outcast, the second season of which she will begin shooting this month. “Sometimes it’s nice now to be presented with the challenge of having a more rigid script and figuring it out. Breaking down a script is fun for me. On TV, you have to fit into a moving machine,” she explains.

Sheil’s collaboration with Greene on Kate Plays Christine, perhaps her highest-profile film so far, returned her to one of her Kim’s-forged alliances. Although the director worked at the shop before Sheil did, they became pals more than a decade ago through other Kim’s employees. Kate Plays Christine echoes themes found in some of Greene’s earlier work; his previous documentary, Actress (2014), also blurs the lines between performing and being, fiction and fact. Greene had begun thinking about telling some aspect of Christine Chubbuck’s story around 2004, shortly after learning about the journalist’s ghastly demise. (Chubbuck shot herself in the head while reading the news on the morning community-affairs show Suncoast Digest; the incident is alleged to have partially inspired Paddy Chayefsky’s script for 1976’s coal-black TV satire Network, lines from which Sheil recites in Kate Plays Christine.) When Greene finally decided, about two years ago, on the point of entry for the project — of approaching the newswoman’s life and death “almost as a mythological thing that we’re trying to investigate rather than trying to uncover all the details of the story,” as he explains by phone — he had only one person in mind. “The title of the movie and the concept of the movie came together at the same time,” Greene says. “There was never anyone else that could do that role.” (In a bizarre coincidence, another Chubbuck film, Antonio Campos’s more conventional biopic Christine, starring Rebecca Hall in the title role, is slated for release in October; the movies premiered within a day of each other at Sundance in January.)

Sheil appears in nearly every frame of Greene’s heady film, a project that highlights her exceptional qualities. “[Kate] is a thinking person,” Greene says. “We needed someone who, when you put the camera on them, the process of them thinking through something becomes cinematic. I knew that the film would only work if you could get inside the head of the person who was trying to take on the role.” Sheil has a particular gift for being at once intensely focused and slightly removed; as Greene explains, “She has a kind of opacity in the way she presents herself. When you’re reading her performances, you don’t always know where she’s headed. And for this movie, that was essential.”

If audience members are uncertain as to what Sheil might do next in Kate Plays Christine — or which “version” of the actress they’re actually witnessing — Greene was also not fully informed of what her next move would be. “I always had in mind the narrative of the film, which is that I’m supposed to lose myself in the study of Christine Chubbuck and it’s supposed to seem somehow dangerous or obsessive,” Sheil says. “[Yet] I wasn’t keeping Robert abreast of what I was doing. There are frustrations that I express in the film that were totally true,” she continues, referring to her exasperation with her director during the Chubbuck re-enactments, moments that Greene had deliberately wanted to be “failures.” “But they’re exaggerated, because I would never speak to [him] like that in real life. So it’s a whole jumble of fiction and nonfiction, truth and acting.”

Right after Sheil tells me this, we start talking about some of our favorite movies that are about actresses acting: John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977), starring his wife, Gena Rowlands, as a mercurial stage performer (unprompted, Greene, when I speak with him, tells me that Rowlands is one of Sheil’s “heroes”); Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), in which Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart refract and reflect their own off-screen personas. These movies — scripted, fictional projects in which the documentary aspects are foregrounded — operate as the inverse of Kate Plays Christine. Sheil then reminds me of another essential title that needs to be included in this mini-canon: Arnaud Desplechin’s divisive Esther Kahn (2000), about the unlikely ascent of a young actress in Victorian-era London. “In it, Summer Phoenix” — who plays the title character — “basically says the reason she wants to become an actress is for revenge,” Sheil says. “Which has always struck me as being so astute.”

“What is it that you’re avenging?” I ask.

“Well, I could probably be a lot happier if I could figure that out,” Sheil laughs. We then go back to what she says at the beginning of Kate Plays Christine, about acting as a way of being seen. “I was a very shy kid, and it was a nice experience to be outside that for a moment, to be outside that shyness and to be recognized,” she explains. “The first part I ever played in school was Medea,” the incongruity of which — Sheil was in fourth grade at a private school in Hoboken when she was cast as Greek mythology’s most vengeful mother — makes her laugh again. “I remember really liking that and getting positive feedback. In terms of revenge, I think, yeah, just suddenly being seen in some way, having light shed on you. And then you’re like, ‘Ha-ha! I’ll show you!’ ”

With Kate Plays Christine, vengeance is hers.

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