'The OA': Musician Sharon Van Etten on Her Acting Breakthrough (Q&A)

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

The indie artist also announces a full-service deal with Paradigm.

Indie darling Sharon Van Etten was two weeks into an undergraduate program at Brooklyn College when she got an email to audition for Netflix’s latest surprise hit series The OA. The supernatural mystery, from co-creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, was Van Etten’s first foray into acting, with the singer-songwriter tackling the role of Rachel, a singer who discovers her vocal talent after a near-death experience. Her big break came after casting agent Alan Scott Neal — for the series' casting director Avy Kaufman (The Night Of, The Sixth Sense) — recalled seeing Van Etten open for Nick Cave in 2013, and through his “mental rolodex,” thought she fit the mold. "I don't know what kind of adjectives he was using to find me, but for some reason he remembered that show at the Beacon Theatre in New York."

Already spring-boarding from her dramatic debut, Van Etten has also secured an appearance in David Lynch's hush-hush and highly anticipated Twin Peaks reboot, set to premiere on May 21 on Showtime. But even before she first stepped in front of the camera, Van Etten had dipped her toes in to the world of film and tevision, initially by contributing to soundtracks -- including Adult Swim's Squidbillies and Amazon’s Gortimer Gibbon’s Life On Normal Street -- and then by scoring her first feature film, the Katherine Dieckmann-directed Strange Weather, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall.

The career transition also led her to restructure her team, as she today announces exclusively with Billboard her new full-service deal with Paradigm for agency representation in music, film and television. “We are thrilled to welcome Sharon Van Etten to the Paradigm roster,” Kevin French, one of Van Etten's new Paradigm reps, tells Billboard. “We are longtime fans and very excited to get working on the next phase of Sharon’s career."

Adds Van Etten: "I feel over the years, I’ve tried to remain loyal and let my career grow naturally out of necessity. I’ve worked with the same agent ever since I started doing music, but he decided to not stay in the business anymore. [Paradigm] will be my first time working with a full service agency -- it's intimidating, but I’m open to learning how to grow with them."

Billboard caught up with the singer-songwriter about her surprise career shift, meeting David Lynch, and learning to trust the universe.

How did you decide to try out acting? Were you a theater kid growing up?

As far as acting goes, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. I had just told my band in 2015 that I was going to be taking a break so I could spend more time home and focus on writing and going back to school. I was two weeks in when my manager got an email for me to audition for Netflix series so yeah [laughs], it was very out of the blue.

You have been very successful in your music career. Why did you decide to go back to school?

Well, I had never finished my undergrad but I know my main focus was to get into the mental health counseling program at Brooklyn College. In the meantime on the break after 2015 in the summer I started doing more collaborations with other writers and trying to figure out how to work more from home and still go to school. And it was during that time that I had got asked.

What drew you to the role in The OA? Did you have any previous acting experience?

If you call my high school production of West Side Story acting, then absolutely I have four years of experience [Laughs.] I read what I was supposed to read for the audition, and it was very close to my autobiography, leaving home to pursue music in Tennessee, which is a big chapter in my life. I knew that I had to be prepared, so I got recommended a coach just a few months before the audition, because it’s so outside of my realm.

It was very helpful and encouraging to let my natural self shine through a little bit because it was also part of the character. I didn’t know anything surrounding the beginning of the story -- the context, the setting. I went to the casting office, which while waiting felt like the dentist office. They called me in and Amy [Kaufman] was behind the camera herself. She just told me to read. They said thank you, and that was it. I got a call the next day that I did [get the part].

In the show, your character Rachel discovers her singing talent/ability following a near-death experience. During one particularly emotive scene, you sing one of your own songs -- “I Wish I Knew” off of 2010’s Because I Was In Love LP -- a cappella. Was that always part of the script?

Yeah in the reading that they sent me, it said that I should sing something. And I had picked that song in my mind, as a song of my own, if I had to [sing] in front of them. But when I first did the reading I stopped where the text ended and I didn’t sing right away. I wasn’t sure if they would want me to. I sang that just because I felt like as a melody by itself, it’s a very strong melody, and it doesn’t repeat itself and it’s not specifically about a romantic relationship. It’s really about being unsure about yourself and they ended up really liking it. When it came time to shoot the actual scene, they wanted me to sing that song for the show.

You worked very closely with the series' co-creators Brit Marling, who starred in the project, and Zal Batmanglij, who directed. Was that intimidating?

I was the only person that didn’t really have any acting experience walking in there -- everybody else, that is their life. So, I walked in there with my heart on my sleeve, and let them know that I felt very lucky to have the opportunity. I feel like the music industry is very planned out and very thought ahead, and everything is on the fly and improv in that [acting] world. But everyone was very welcoming and encouraging, and took me under their wing. And the actors are all incredible. They made everything seem much better. It makes me want to learn more about the process when I see them engage with each other.

The show has been a massive success for Netflix. Did you see that coming?

I hadn’t even seen myself on screen and I hadn’t seen any edits... I didn’t know until a week before that it was coming out. And [the show's] whole team is very mysterious and secretive. I feel like I’m on the edge of my seat too, just like the rest of the viewers. I have no idea what’s next, but they did a really good job of letting it remain a mystery.

Are there plans for a season 2?

I have no idea. I can honestly say that they haven’t told me anything. I don’t know if anything happens next or what happens next. If they do something, I would love to be a part of it. I definitely want to know what happens to my character.

Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend -- the brother of show creator Zal Batmanglij -- scored the series. Were you friends previously?

We met before. It’s funny, because his brother is the director, and he would be listening to his music a bunch. Randomly, he did a collaboration with Hamilton Leithauser, a friend of mine, and my boyfriend got asked to play drums in his music video. When the universe kind of shows you how small it is, it encourages you that you’re on the right path. [Rostam] did some really beautiful arrangements for the show.

You’ve also nabbed a role in David Lynch’s forthcoming Twin Peaks revival on Showtime. Were you always a big fan of the original?

Well, I was a bit young when it first came out. I saw it in my twenties and it was pretty mind-blowing. And I admired David [Lynch] so much -- his spirituality, and literally following his dreams no matter how dark they go, and always seeing the light in everything. I can relate to that. I never met him before, that was pretty random as well.  He is a presence, I will say that.

Would you like to do more acting?

I acknowledge that I still have a lot to learn and but I feel like I'm a musician first and I’m open to interesting [acting] parts. I love reading stories and I love collaborating. I did my first score recently [for Strange Weather] and I loved doing that. It was a challenge but it’s such a different way of writing and I think I can only improve as a songwriter by learning how to write in such a way. I would love to try acting again but that’s not my main career.

Tell us about the scoring experience. How did you first get involved with the project?

The director, Katherine Dieckmann, is one of the most beautiful people I’ve met in a long time. As you get older, it’s harder to meet people and make friends as an adult. As soon as we sat down together, I felt a change of spirit. She is just magical and she loves music so much and really believes in what she’s doing. Starting out that way, I felt encouraged, even though I had never done anything like this before. She came in as a fan, I read her script and it was a really beautiful strong story about a woman trying to move on with her life. And writing the music was really hard. I learned a lot about my style and my sensibilities and how to communicate more.

What was it like to see the film at its premiere?

It’s an emotional experience. I love cinema. I love going to the theater but then you’re also around people who are experiencing it for the first time. I lived with it for almost six months to a year and I’ve seen it in so many stages… to see it and know that it was done. I got teary to hear everyone’s reaction around you, and just seeing all the love and support.

What’s next for you, music-wise?

Withdrawing from school in the spring and doing the show opened up my summer to spend more time in the studio, and without meaning to I wrote enough songs to record a record. But I had no specific plans to record. I was just starting to think about when I would go to the studio… trying to find some new people to work with and collaborate, to just try something new.

We’re [still] in the process of doing a little digging, seeing what I’m comfortable with because it’s always hard to fully let go. We still have a couple things to see if there is a season two [of The OA], when that will happen. That’s kind of what I’m waiting on. If that happens, I will schedule my life around that. In the meantime, I’m just writing and focusing on being home for a little while.

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