There’s a kid outside a drive-thru Starbucks kicking out a pair of box-fresh Stan Smiths in the dense urban sprawl of Mid-City, Los Angeles. She could be 14, she could be 25. Wearing an oversize denim shirt and knee socks, her dreads tied atop her head in a scrunchie, she chews gum and texts on an iPhone. She has no bag, which suggests she lives close by. A pack of Camels pokes out of her shirt pocket. There’s an elastic band around her wrist. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asks. New to the area, she searches for a place to perch. In Mid-City, there are no fancy cafés or pretty parks. Spotting a brick wall by a grassy knoll, she takes a look around to make sure it isn’t private property.
Sasha Lane hardly paints a picture of a star already discovered by Hollywood, after her lauded performance last year in British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s gritty indie American Honey. That said, intriguing pieces of her puzzle are inked on her small frame. Across the knuckles of her left hand is a tattoo of the word metta, a concept central to Buddhist tradition. “It means love and kindness, wishing well to others as I do myself,” she explains. “Then I have my siblings’ birth dates — the last two digits of the years they were born.” She points to her pinkie, where a friend applied a hollow heart in a bathroom stall during a music video shoot. The inside of her ring finger bears the digits 071. “Usually magazine crews name themselves after the route they take,” she says. “We were the 071 crew.”
A phenomenon of impoverished America, magazine crews exploit young workers by sending them out door-to-door selling subscriptions for months on end. Lane was never a member of a real mag crew, but she talks like she was, after playing one over 1,200 miles of travel and 54 days of guerrilla shooting for her breakout role in American Honey.
In 2015, Arnold discovered Lane on a beach in Miami, where Lane had gone on spring break from Texas State University in San Marcos, where she was studying psychology. Lane hung back for an extra week, intrigued by whether Arnold’s offer to make her the lead in her next film was legitimate. “I threatened Andrea not to kill me,” she laughs, recalling how concerned she was about trusting someone she’d just met.
Released last September, American Honey is an epic road movie revolving around Lane’s character, Star, who flees a life of poverty, abuse, and despair by joining up with a crew led by dysfunctional partners Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Krystal (Riley Keough). In the vein of Larry Clark’s Kids, it captures the language, rhythm, and emotional spectrum of today’s disaffected youth. It works in part because the cast lived the life even once the cameras were off. “We were all homies hanging out,” Lane says. “We had this whole mag crew mind, like, ‘Are you down or not?’ ” Much of the cast, including Lane, had no prior acting experience. Arnold, she says, “kept telling me the reason she chose me was because of who I am — that naturalness. At a point I was like, ‘Fuck it,’ and blindly jumped in.”
Lane’s blithe approach notwithstanding, her performance carries the movie. She has already won a British Independent Film Award for Best Actress, and is nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for lead actress. (American Honey and Arnold also received nominations.) Her empowered portrayal of Star was an extreme version of her own reality: She’s a former waitress and athlete whose parents divorced when she was young. “I don’t like to express my stuff,” Lane says. “You can expose yourself if there’s something greater to it than just helping yourself. I’m not really good at helping myself, you know? But others, yes. So that’s the perfect outlet for me.”
When it comes to Lane’s own background, the details remain sketchy. Born in Houston of mixed parentage (her mother is from New Zealand, her father African American), she’s said she grew up poor in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. She talks about a brother two years her senior but is guarded when it comes to discussing her other siblings or her parents, revealing little beyond acknowledging their existence. Conversing with her is intense, even when she’s enthusing over Jaden Smith’s music or her favorite TV show, Shameless: “The first time I watched that I was like, ‘Your shit’s crazy too, man? Awesome!’ ” Her eyes are glassy — either a sign of fatigue or a hint that she’s burdened with emotions — and often say more than what comes out of her mouth.
“It’s such a blessing how I was raised and where I came from, everything I’ve gone through, good and bad,” she says. “It made me who I am, and that’s really beautiful. That whole Cinderella rags-to-riches shit has fucking pissed me off. [The media] use words like ‘destitute.’ Well, good job looking up that source, homie.” She tuts and lights another cigarette. “I have such mixed emotions about it. I don’t want anyone to put a label on it. At the end of the day, I was always gonna be aight. I know how to live and I don’t wanna be Hollywood’s charity case.”
Having relocated to Los Angeles, Lane has landed several roles. She’ll appear opposite Chloë Grace Moretz as a teen forced into gay conversion therapy in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on the Emily M. Danforth coming-of-age novel. She’ll also star as a fugitive with psychic powers in director Paul J. Franklin’s upcoming Hunting Lila.
Still, she’s found it difficult to adjust to the gossip mill, which has panted around her rumored offscreen romance with LaBeouf. And she’s treading carefully into the world of fashion. (She recently started a campaign for Louis Vuitton with Bruce Weber.) “I don’t enjoy photo shoots, and I don’t wanna be compromised,” she says. One particular feature in GQ, for which she was photographed near-naked on a couch, renders her furious. “If you’re gonna do an interview with me, why the fuck are we focusing on if I’m dating someone? Why aren’t you asking me what my mind is like or what I think about? They’ll ask, ‘How much did you make?’ Would you ask that to any other person?”
The biggest adjustment since her discovery by Arnold, however, has been in her head. (Lane has previously revealed that she struggles with mental health issues: “It’s a blessing and a curse to have to deal with these issues in the spotlight.”) She points to a palm tree to explain how new heights have added both new possibilities and new expectations: “To go from thinking that treetop is as high as you can go to someone saying, ‘You can touch anything’? That’s amazing, but it’s scary, ’cause I was used to my box.” It’s also forced her to face the harsh realities of Hollywood, including being refused jobs because her skin is either too dark or not dark enough. “You wanna put me as a strong girl in a picture, but sometimes I don’t feel like that,” she says. “Why can’t we show something that’s more raw? We pretend like everything’s perfect and then we wonder why someone does a movie and then kills themselves.”
How has her family reacted to her film career? “They all know I’m about it,” she says. “I don’t think they understand how much it means to me or how hard it can be. Which sucks sometimes. When I first moved out here my dad asked, ‘What are you gonna do if you lose money?’ I can’t blame him, because where we came from — are you fucking kidding me? You’re gonna risk all that you’ve been through for something that doesn’t seem real?”
Lane insists that money is not a motivation, and that she’s far happier living close to Koreatown than in the glitz of Beverly Hills. She’s found a Hollywood veteran wise to the fame game in former co-star and now close friend Keough (whose grandfather, Elvis Presley, offered more than his share of object lessons in its dangers). Arnold maintains contact, and Lane’s managers are the producers from American Honey.
Desiree Akhavan, the director of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, reveals a maternal pride when asked about Lane. “How often does someone explode overnight and deal with it as beautifully and elegantly as Sasha?” she says. “It’s an intense situation. Sasha is so endearing. You wanna protect her.”
Lane, though, resents any notion that someone else has created her opportunities. “Coming from where I came from, I used to be really cold,” she says. “I was always an understanding person, but you could not get an emotion out of me. I was not gonna show you that.” She eventually got over that, she says, on her own, not through acting roles. “Sometimes I get annoyed when people think that’s the only way. You gotta fuckin’ work on it.”
The interview done, Lane dashes across the road to await the delivery of a stove to her new home, with barely even a parting goodbye.
“I’ve never seen anyone quite like Sasha. I was instantly charmed by her,” Akhavan tells me later. “Good fashion is telling a story without words. Her face does that, but she doesn’t pour it over you [like] a lot of people who are damaged as a result of their experiences. There’s a maturity that hasn’t got in the way of her fun, and it’s a fascinating juxtaposition.”
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