Nothing about Sasha Lane’s past would suggest a future in the movies. The 21-year-old star of American Honey, the new indie film from British director Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights), grew up in Texas with divorced conservative parents and an older brother who derided Lane’s free-spirited appearance — unruly dreads and a growing number of tattoos — as stumbling blocks to her future. She had never acted a day in her life.

But her independence, quiet strength, and bubbling energy were exactly what caught Arnold’s attention two years ago when she first spotted Lane messing around with a friend on the beach during spring break in Panama City, Florida. Arnold was frantically looking for a fresh face to play the lost lead in her cacophonous road-trip film, which centers on the specifically American world of “mag crews” — itinerant groups of teenagers traveling together through small towns selling magazines during the day and partying hard at night. Lane, then a freshman at Texas State University, was looking for an escape from a life that didn’t quite feel like her own.

“I was at a very low point mentally,” says Lane, who was studying psychology and social work in college, planning for a career working in mental hospitals. “I was very hopeless. I’d been constantly told I needed to change, that I wasn’t going to make it in this world. So to hear Andrea tell me I was beautiful — my hair, my tattoos, my spirit — it felt really, really great.”

Flattery aside, Lane was still as foreign to the world of movie sets and film crews as Arnold was to Walmart parking lots and honky-tonk bars. Lane says she startles easily in a crowd. She can’t stand being the center of attention, and she “freaks out” with a camera in her face. “It’s kind of bizarre that I’m doing this right now,” she says.

But she took the giant leap of faith with Arnold and her band of misfits — which included a team of nonactors, plus Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough as the two leaders of the crew — as an opportunity to reinvent herself on her own terms. “It was just a feeling,” Lane says with a bright, wide-eyed expression. “I felt whole and complete [upon meeting Arnold], as if my purpose could be fulfilled through this. It felt really right.”

For Arnold, her gamble on an untested newcomer paid off in ways she never expected. “We would film, film, film, and then I would put the camera on Sasha and it would make sense of everything else,” says Arnold, who cast the then 19-year old three weeks prior to the start of filming. “The whole thing was quite chaotic, and I deliberately wanted that, but she gave us some grounding.”

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American Honey first screened in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it landed the Jury Prize before heading to Toronto earlier last month to debut for North American audiences. Lane has been part of the journey every step of the way, and like her character, Star, she has experienced a world greater than she ever could have imagined. She has already signed on to two new films, and though she never intends to take a proper acting class, she is ready for more adventure.

“I know now that I can go beyond what I’ve known and what my environment was,” she says. “I don’t know what’s next, and I like that idea. It’s a little scary, but it’s also beautiful. When you’re open, anything can come your way.”

American Honey
  • Movie
  • 162 minutes