Sasha Lane’s sweet dreams come true in ‘American Honey’

Sasha Lane in ‘American Honey’
Sasha Lane in ‘American Honey’ A24

It sounds like something out of old Hollywood, a time and place where legend had it that fresh faces could be discovered in malt shops.

Last year, Sasha Lane, a 19-year-old student at Texas State University, took off with friends to Florida for spring break. This year, she’s one of the season’s most talked-about new stars with a lead role in the celebrated film American Honey (opening Friday in limited release), after having been approached out of the blue by the director in the midst of her partying in Panama City.

Many might have let their caution overwhelm curiosity, said “thanks but no thanks,” and gone back to her friends .

But Lane was intrigued even though she really knew nothing about British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, 2009) and had no big-screen dreams.

Lane, who had spent much of her life in Houston and more recently Frisco, was studying psychology and social work but wasn’t happy with where her life was going.

“I felt like something was missing,” she said by phone from a promotional stop in Austin, where American Honey was playing Fantastic Fest that night. “And that was a really hard thing to deal with.”

So when Arnold picked the dreadlocked and tatted Lane out of the beach-going throng, the young woman who had never acted was open to the possibility.

“I feel like fear is what holds us back the most and to be at such a point where you really have nothing left to lose, it’s kind of easier to hop in a stranger’s car and take a new opportunity,” she said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”

She had no idea what would happen next.

Not only would American Honey, the sprawling, nearly three-hour portrait of a hard-scrabble crew of misfit, dead-end kids who criss-cross the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, become a critical favorite — it won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Complex magazine dubbed it as an “Easy Rider for millennials” — but it would upend her entire life.

Lane, now 21, is being lauded as “the breakout star of the year.” She now lives in L.A., has been linked romantically with American Honey co-star Shia LaBeouf, and is the subject of Oscar buzz.

“It’s, like, mind-blowing,” she said with a laugh. “Every day, I’m like, ‘Is this happening?’ 

Straight outta Frisco

When she decided to go off with Arnold, it was a far cry from what she had been doing not too long before that: She was a student at Frisco’s Liberty High School, working as a waitress at On the Border, enjoying playing basketball, or hanging out with her older brother, Sergio.

But that was the whole point: to change the trajectory of her life.

After spring break in Panama City, some of her friends, as well as her father, were wary of her decision.

“Some of my friends were like [alarmed] at first because, obviously, it’s spring break and someone’s approaching you for a movie,” she said. “They were all looking [Arnold] up [online] the whole time and they definitely wouldn’t have left me alone with her if it didn’t feel right.

“I ended up having to stay a week longer in Florida. I called [my parents] and told them. My mom was down for it. My dad, and everyone else, were like ‘What are you doing?’ It was a little hard.”

The extra time was spent having Lane improvise with the other actors, many of whom were also non-professionals. As Lane was cast just three weeks before the start of filming, there wasn’t much time to get Arnold’s young charges to coalesce.

Lane’s role in American Honey is pivotal, as she’s not only a love interest for LaBeouf’s wild-boy character, but the audience sees this crazy, nomadic world in which she’s suddenly immersed through her eyes.

“I was pretty nervous, but the way she did it was pretty organic,” Lane recalled. “I just kind of met two of the girls and we just had conversations. We would get comfortable with each other and do these certain improv scenes. And it worked out well. It wasn’t super-scary like ‘Do this right now!’ It was more like we just felt each other out.”

Arnold also had the cast hang out like the characters in the film. They took to the road in a van, getting to know each other, and Arnold began filming. Also, the film was shot sequentially so the growing bonds between the characters and the actors playing them mirrored each other.

“I’m from Texas and I road-tripped to get to that spring break trip where I met Andrea, so that’s definitely something I’m used to,” Lane said. “And it can get a little hectic with that many people in a van. But the idea of just not knowing where you’re going and staying in these motels where no one bothers you because they’re random motels in random places, it’s cool and freeing.”

That some of the film was improvised also made it easier for Lane. “The improv part came more with the van scenes,” she explained. “[Arnold] would give us something to talk about and say ‘do what you would do’ and we’d just chill in the van and we’d just film as we go.”

The entire process bolstered Lane’s feeling that she had made the right decision. “It gave me the reassurance that sticking to who I was is a really good thing. It just made me feel good about the amount of work I can do,” she said. “If I’m passionate about something, I will put in my all. I let go of my fears and just went for it.”

Similarly, Arnold says she had no regrets about going with a total neophyte to anchor her would-be epic — a snapshot of American life in 2016.

“We would film, film, film, and then I would put the camera on Sasha and it would make sense of everything else,” Arnold told Entertainment Weekly. “The whole thing was quite chaotic, and I deliberately wanted that, but she gave us some grounding.”

“I stuck out, in a good way, which is nice for once,” Lane said about why Arnold chose her out of all the faces on the beach that fateful day. “That and the fact that I hopped in her car, the fact that I danced in a Wal-Mart parking lot with a stranger. Just who I was drew her to me.”

Life in L.A.

Lane has no plans at the moment to return to Texas to live. She is residing full-time in Los Angeles and is set to star in two more films — Shoplifters of the World (about a group of obsessive fans of the English band the Smiths) and the science-fiction Hunting Lila.

“L.A. is like its own other world. I’m still getting used to it,” she said. “But once you make your friends, it can be a beautiful spot.”

Now, she has to deal with something that she’s never had to confront before: the paparazzi. “Luckily, they’ve been pretty nice with me,” she said. “But, certain things, wow, it’s really personal and weird.”

Occasionally, she still gets back to North Texas. “Every time I kind of freak out and I just want that sense of comfort, I’ll dip out to Texas for a little bit,” she said.

But college is not in the cards for the moment. “I learn in so many different ways and schooling was never my thing,” she said. “ But it’s always there [if I want to go back].”

For now, acting is getting her full attention. “If I can keep doing it the way that feels good and I can do things for the right reasons,” she said. “I’m definitely down to keep at it.”

‘American Honey’ opens in Dallas and Collin County today and Tarrant County Oct. 28.

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar