This Friday, Monster Trucks will open in theaters across the country. It’s a buddy comedy about a boy and a monster that likes to spend its time curled around the engine of his pickup truck. The pair form an unlikely bond, and the human (Lucas Till) must eventually protect the kindly creature from being hunted down by those shady secret-government types who always seem to show up on screen with flack jackets and flashlights.
The movie’s expected to flop, which is not great news for its female lead, Jane Levy, an actress you might not recognize unless you watch scary movies, or are part of the wise niche audience who fell for her on Suburgatory back in 2011. That ABC sitcom only ran for two-and-a-half seasons, all of which were built on the charm and adept comedic timing of its star. As the wry, endearingly misanthropic Tessa Altman — a Manhattan-bred high schooler whose father uproots her to the suburbs for better schools and cleaner air — Levy avoided the trap of becoming a one-note bitchy teen by imbuing her character with a natural, unselfconscious charm. She shared an easy chemistry with onscreen dad Jeremy Sisto, giving the series a strong core relationship, and with a supporting cast that included comic standouts like Cheryl Hines, Alan Tudyk, and Ana Gasteyer, it seemed like the show should have been a core component of ABC’s family-friendly slate. Alas, it was loved by too few, and went off the air after a shortened third season in 2014.
Following Levy’s career outside Suburgatory has been at turns frustrating and exhilarating. As the original incarnation of Mandy Milkovich in Shameless, Levy played the oversexed, under-loved teen with the same magnetism she brought to Tessa Altman, but with a colder, coarser edge. While putting in work for ABC, Levy picked up a few movie roles: There was the endearing Nickelodeon effort Fun Size, in which she pulled best-friend duty behind Victoria Justice, and an appearance (measurable in seconds) in the indie drama Nobody Walks, both of which came out in 2012. The next year, she landed the role that would give her a whole new fan base, in Fede Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead.
By the time she climbed into the skin of Mia, the heroin addict at the center of Evil Dead, anyone who’d been tracking Levy knew she could deliver with darker material. But in Alvarez, Levy found her match. The director gave her the space to put on a master class horror performance: Levy’s wide blue eyes, pale complexion, and expressive mouth painted terror across her face in broad strokes, and made her transformation into a heinous satanic vessel all the more grotesque. The role required two distinct performances: As Mia, she was a self-effacing, traumatized addict desperate to get back to recovery. As the demon, Levy spit and screamed and hissed virtuoso levels of profanity as she crawled through mud and blood to rain down evil and hellfire on everyone else in the movie. The movie may have had its critics, but Levy was sensational.
After that, the actress seemed poised for a moment. Levy had showcased her talent across a wide variety of projects; surely she’d get snatched up by directors looking for the next big thing. But that never happened. Over the next few years Levy would take just a few minor roles in muted indie ensembles like About Alex and Frank and Cindy. There was also the 2014 sci-fi fantasy musical Bang Bang Baby, an endearing misfire that at least had the good sense to put Levy in the lead instead of relegating her to the side. Her ability to flourish in unconventional projects remained second to none.
It wasn’t until Alvarez came calling again that Levy got another suitable showcase, and her biggest role to date. His twisted home-invasion horror Don’t Breathe was a surprise smash at the box office, and one of the best horror films of 2016. Levy was at the center, pushing through a pure white-knuckle performance. The movie was an exercise in tension, and Levy’s manga-sized features dialed the movie’s anxiety up to maximum levels. On a $10 million budget, Don’t Breathe has raked in more than $150 million worldwide; after going two for two with Alvarez, Levy has cemented her place as one of the best horror heroines in the business today.
Despite the inauspicious signs for Monster Trucks, this year finally looks to bring Levy a measure of exposure equal to her talents. Since debuting in Shameless six years ago, the actress has only amassed 14 screen credits, with a handful of those coming from short film work and one-off TV appearances. But in 2017, she has five projects that are listed as either in production, in development, or have already come out. Two of those are genre-bending projects of the sort Levy specializes in: Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival and the upcoming Sundance entry I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore. If any lesson has emerged so far, it’s that Levy thrives when rising to a challenge; the more character you feed her, the more screen she’ll chew up in return. She’s not afraid to get messy or weird, and at a time when demand for complex, nuanced female roles is louder than ever, we need suitably complex, nuanced actresses to fill them. Jane Levy is a leading woman, and it’s past time for filmmakers to start paying attention.