Warning: This post involves some spoilers for “The OA.”
Starring a cast of fairly unknown actors (perhaps Jason Isaacs and Riz Ahmed are among the most recognizable), the series centers around a woman named Prairie Johnson (played by Brit Marling, the show’s co-creator along with Zal Batmanglij) who, after living as a hostage in a rogue scientist’s basement for several years, is attempting to piece together her fractured life.
Born in Russia to an oligarch, Prairie nearly escapes death as a child only to lose her sight. Shipped to America, she loses contact with her father and ends up an orphan adopted by an older couple eager to be parents. Blind, she suffers from violent dreams ― premonitions, she believes them to be ― and is eventually medicated into young adulthood. It’s then that, during an attempt to reunite with her long absent father, she’s kidnapped by a scientist obsessed with near-death experiences (NDEs). Prairie is forced to live in captivity along with four other hostages, all human subjects in the man’s wild experiments aimed at chasing an afterlife.
One of those other hostages, Rachel, happens to be played by singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. If fans of the show didn’t immediately recognize her face, we’d forgive them, because we didn’t either. Van Etten has no history of acting; it’s not until she performs the song “I Wish I Knew” in Episode 3 that it’s made abundantly clear it’s her. But there she is, enclosed in a glass cage, singing and dancing along with Marling and co. in one the year’s most unexpected dramas.
“They were pretty secretive about everything,” Van Etten explained in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. “I didn’t know [the show] was coming until a week before it came out. I still haven’t even finished watching it!”
If you’ve yet to binge “The OA,” we’d advise you stop reading and head to your nearest streaming device. If you’re caught up on the show, check out our conversation with Van Etten, who, for the record, is just as curious as you are about what happens next in the series:
How did you first get involved with “The OA”?
It’s so wild, because it had come after, you know, a very emotional break from my band. I was taking a break from the road ― I said I needed a year or two to be home and be in New York and go back to school and work on my home life. And then in February, I was two weeks into school and a casting agent called my manager and asked if I would audition for a Netflix series. I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me! As soon I want a break from the road?
So did they write the part [of Rachel] just for you?
This is still a mystery to me. When I read who they wanted me to do a reading for, it was so close to home. I felt compelled to give it a try, because the character was so close to me. She grew up in the choir ― I did too. She left home to go to Tennessee to pursue a music career ― that’s in my bio. This being the intro to the character, before I learned anything else about the story, was very compelling.
So my manager got me an acting coach to prepare for the reading ― just once before I did it. The reading had to be in a couple days [after the casting agent reached out]. It was all very last minute. I went in and read for the part. It was so intense. I had never done anything like that before. My boyfriend met me afterward to cheers me just for trying. We had a martini to celebrate me just giving it a shot. And then I learned I got the part.
What was your initial reaction to the script ― this sort of sci-fi thriller story in which your character is in captivity the entire time?
Well, a lot of the story was still unfolding at that time for me. It was very mysterious. Honestly, I was still getting used to the idea I was going to try out acting at all, which seemed ridiculous. I was the only person who had no experience acting on set. Everyone else was a professional who’d worked their entire career for this. It took me a minute to shake this off, because I felt like a phony. To everyone, I was like, “I want you to know that I’m not an actor. Just give me any criticism.” And everyone was so kind.
When I first walked onto the set though ― it was heavy as soon as you walk on. It didn’t hit me, psychologically, what [a show like this] can do to you. Even if it’s just acting, you are in a cell the whole time. You grow with the other actors. You form a bond. Even if it is a fictional world, they are creating that world with you and you play off each other.
What was it like shooting scenes in captivity? Was there an emotional toll to being “locked up” during your scenes?
Absolutely. There would be times during filming when I would have to be in bed the whole time and listen to other people’s pain and negativity and trouble. And all I can do is lay there and listen. Having had no training as an actor at all, I realized I wanted to learn more about it. How people are able to go on after something like this. I was only in part of the show, but that could be your life. It takes you awhile to get used to.
It’s also a very different lifestyle than being on the road. The hours are way more intense and involve a lot of waiting around in short spurts. Every day is a little bit different. Every day of the week runs progressively later. I was only a part-time character, but most other people were doing it for months on end. That alone psychologically ― what that does to you. You only go home to sleep. Yet everybody was so positive, and you create this world on set. Your family is everyone on set. There’s 200 people working at the same time. It’s a lot of people coming together to make shit happen. It was pretty inspiring.
Did you yourself think about death a lot before this show?
Quite honestly, the thing that I questioned more ahead of time was how am I going to do a good job. I didn’t do a lot of research and I had no experience acting. I had to drop out of school after I hadn’t been in school for over 11 years. I asked myself that question of ― am I being true to myself by doing this right now? As I was learning my lines and meeting these people, I thought, everything you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing. So I thought more about life things and living things and connecting with people.
Did working on “The OA” change or influence how you conceive of death or dying?
I feel like one of the things that I took away is how important connection with other people is. And how subjective it can be.
Did you do any research on NDEs or the people who’ve survived circumstances like your character experienced?
I didn’t do any research on NDEs, but I’ve had times in my life that were really horrific. I won’t go into detail, but I drew on that. I was worried that [revisiting these times] would have an effect on me. But I ended up growing and it helped the performance. I haven’t talked to Brit [Marling] about it too much, but I’d love get her opinion on this.
You perform a song in Episode 3.
Yes, it’s a song from my first record. It was one that I thought would stand on its own. The melody shifts a lot. It’s not repetitive. It’s hopeful, but it’s still kind of questioning this idea of not being sure of yourself. In that scene, it made the most sense. My other love songs wouldn’t have made much sense.
Did you have the freedom to choose whichever song you wanted?
Yeah, they let me choose the song and they approved it. It’s the song I sang in the audition ― that’s the scene they asked me to do then. It’s funny, when the day came to do my big scene, I was so prepared and so excited. I thought, even if I was mediocre in other things, this would be it. I practiced so hard and I gave it my all on the first take. I cried. It was only later that I learned that you can’t really do that, because you’re going to be shooting the scene like, 30 times. You can’t be that emotionally involved every time! Everybody on set was really sweet about it. I must have looked like such a freshman. They were probably getting their lighting together and I’m balling.
Not only did you sing, but you also had to dance [a sequence of movements revealed to the hostages throughout their NDEs]. And the dancing is unlike anything I’m used to seeing on TV. What was the process like of practicing the choreography together?
We had a choreographer that taught it to us. We had time every day and sat with him and we’d have a half an hour or an hour to practice together. It was so hard. All the moves were very specific and I had never done anything like that. I’d done tap and jazz as a kid, but that was no tap and jazz. These are intuitive motions. Even when we were doing it, I wondered, what the hell is this going to look like? You’re in this one little world, knowing that what you’re working on is going to be taken so much further. Everything has been a real mystery.
Even watching the show, I didn’t immediately realize it was you. It was kind of a revelation, especially when you started singing.
I have old friends who were like, “What the hell?” I don’t know, man, I can’t explain why or how it happened. I’m still discovering what it is and what it means.
What was it like working with Brit Marling?
Brit Marling is very positive, very professional, very encouraging. I felt like, as a musician walking onto a set full of professionals who’ve been doing this for years, who’ve worked together on previous projects, there might have been a hierarchical system. But she was very kind to me and very welcoming and patient with my freshman abilities. She would let me know ― you think you’re bad and you’re not!
Do you think you’ll continue acting?
I don’t know if it’s something i will actively pursue. I was so flattered and tickled [to be cast] ― I know nothing about what’s happening next with the show. I would love to be involved, but I have no information there. In the meantime, I want to write a new record, and I’ve been doing score work and stuff. And I’m trying to figure out how to be home.
What are you studying in school?
I’m basically starting from scratch ― I never finished undergrad. I’m pursuing a degree in mental health counseling. It’ll be a long journey, and I still want to do music and other creative projects. I’m doing it part-time to dip my toes in it.
What made you want to study mental health counseling?
I’d been learning a lot about my process of writing ― meeting fans and learning how my style of writing had affected them. I want to understand that better and why my writing process helps me deal with things and how I can help other people find their own ways communicating.
Do you find yourself thinking about where Rachel ended up ― whether she’s still locked in Hap’s basement or potentially living in some afterlife ... or if she existed at all?
Yeah, I really want to know. I’ve been freaking out. What is next? What is the real story? You don’t know what’s real and what’s not in the show, even being in it. That’s what was insane, from one day to the next, even the writers would be like, “We’ll figure it out.” It felt like they were writing as we were going sometimes. Things moved so that fast and you’re just in the moment. I have no idea where her story goes and I’m dying to know what happens.
Overall, how would you characterize your experience working on “The OA”?
I just feel very luck that I got asked. Even though at first I thought it might just be a fluke. And I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be being true to myself ― taking a break from a school. But after meeting this amazingly talented group of people who welcomed me into their world and encouraged me, I’m so glad I did. I’m proud that I did go back to school and I feel very blessed that I’ve had all these opportunities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“The OA” is now streaming on Netflix.