Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter with no significant acting experience, is pretty much the last person you’d expect to see in a major TV show. Then again, the standard rules don’t apply for The OA, which premiered on Netflix in December with less than a week’s notice, and comes suffused with heady tales of angels, near-death experiences, and high-school drama. As viewers untangle the mysteries of The OA, they might not notice Van Etten, who plays Rachel, a young woman who has imprisoned alongside the rest of the cast — at least until she starts singing. Vulture caught up with Van Etten to talk about auditioning for The OA creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the lessons she learned on set, and the experience of shooting her appearance in the upcoming revival of Twin Peaks.
You’re known as a singer pretty much exclusively. What led you to take this role?
The timing was not ideal. In the summer of 2015, I had made this very emotional announcement to my band that I needed to be home for a while, going back to school and trying to focus on that. I was literally two weeks into school and I got asked to audition for this Netflix series. It all came very quickly and it didn’t come without a lot of deliberation.
What were you studying in school?
I only went for a year and a half of college back in the day, so I was starting from scratch. But I think after this semester, I am a sophomore. I’m going for psychology.
So you went back to college after shooting the show?
I dropped out, deferred my enrollment, and went back this fall. Even then, it was after talking to my mom and my siblings and my peers and even people who I work with, like, “Am I total fraud for saying I am going to go back to school and now I’m gonna become a fucking actor?” But the show was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The last time I even attempted anything theatrical was in high school when I was in the musical. But somehow the casting agent that got in touch with my manager had seen me open up for Nick Cave when I was on tour with my drummer Zeke Hutchins. That was in 2013, so I don’t know what people told him to look for, but he reached out for me to audition.
When I read the part, it was for the scene where I sing. That was the audition. [Rachel] was such part of my biography. I grew up in the choir and I moved to Tennessee to pursue music. I could draw from that time naturally, so it almost felt like something I was supposed to do.
When you came into read, how much of the character was set?
They didn’t give me any information other than one reading that took me maybe five minutes to do. It’s very strange going to those auditions. You’re sitting in a nondescript waiting room, it’s all white, and you walk in the room and there’s a chair. They don’t give you any direction or anything; they just tell you to read. I just drew from my personal experience without knowing any of the story.
Did you have to sing at the audition as well?
At first I didn’t sing. I just stopped before I was supposed to sing, and was like, “Did you want me to sing now? Because it just says ‘sing.’” They were, like, “Yeah, we’d like you to sing this right now.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I just sang one of my songs because I felt like I’d be able to perform it the most naturally.
So it worked, I guess.
I guess so, but it was funny because my boyfriend met me there afterwards and we went out for a drink. I did not think in a million years I was gonna get it. They called my manager the next day and they were shooting in two weeks. I had two days to decide.
What made you decide to do the show?
It felt like the character was so close to who I was. I felt like I had to trust the universe that it came my way.
What lessons did you learn on set from more experiences actors?
I was wearing my heart on my sleeve as soon as I met everyone, and just let them know that I’ve never done anything like this before. I know you guys have worked really hard to be where you are today and I don’t wanna pretend like that’s not on my mind. Everybody was very welcoming. Even though I was in a cell, I felt very much at home. I think I’m one of the only characters that doesn’t really get to leave the cell. That was shot in a studio in New York, but they all got to leave and see other places.
Even if you’re not at the center of the scene, you have to project despair in the background.
There was one time where I was in bed, and you can’t hear in the cell really well, and people were having conversations. They were shooting for hours on end and I would fall asleep in my bed on set. And there was one time where they actually called it and they had to come and get me. I was half asleep and I also couldn’t hear. They were like, “You can stay here if you want.” And I was like “No, it’s okay! I think I’m gonna leave right now.”
Were you familiar with the arc of the show as you were filming?
I hadn’t gotten to read the whole script before I agreed to do the show. I had talked to the director and one of the producers and I got to talk to Brit. We had Facetimed before, because obviously I was like, “Are you sure you want me?” Part of what was so compelling was that they were open to changing things as they went along, if they felt it in the moment. I would get a script emailed to me the night before, but sometimes I would come to my dressing room and there would be an edited script waiting for me. They’re constantly redefining things, and I think that’s part of the mystery of the show. I think that’s a good thing. The actors don’t all know what’s going on all the time and it really is fresh every day.
In the scene where Rachel sings, you use one of your own songs, “I Wish I Knew.” Was that the song from your audition?
That was the one I auditioned with. I wasn’t sure if that would change, but they wanted me to sing that song. I thought it was an emotional song, a heartbreak love song. That was a pretty early song that I wrote, very stripped down. The melody sort of stands alone. It’s more vague, so it’s more about just being unsure. Thinking about that song makes me anxious. I thought it would help me get the character.
When I first shot the scene, I was hyperprepared, and I went through the scene and I nailed it, got really emotional, and cried. Then someone came over to me and said, “Honey, you’re gonna do this like 50 times today. You might not wanna blow your load. They’re probably just getting lighting right.” I was such a freshman.
Do you know which take they used?
I have no idea. It’s really hard to watch yourself. It’s hard enough to watch myself when I’m being myself, let alone when I’m somebody else.
It feels like Rachel is writing the song in that moment. Do you think it is a Sharon Van Etten song in the OA universe, or is it Rachel’s own creation?
In that world, it’s Rachel’s, definitely. She’s feeling it in that moment. She definitely wants to be sharing something that she’s creating with the people around her, to help them feel beyond the confines of their cells.
You also had the master the Movements. Was it a challenge to learn those very specific motions?
It was intense, yeah. The choreographer [Ryan Heffington] was really amazing. I would meet almost every day and we’d work for an hour, because they’re very specific about where I had held my hands, how high your elbows were, how spread apart your fingers were. There’s a lot more I didn’t get to learn. I only got to learn like half of it. I don’t know if I’ll be using them in the future or not.
I felt bad for Rachel. While the characters were trying to figure out the fifth Movement, it seemed like Rachel would be the one to discover it, but she doesn’t.
I’m just letting everybody down, every day, man! I’m just this sad character, lying in the corner with dead plants on my arm. I’m singing the really sad songs.
There are all sorts of fan theories about Rachel, too, including an off-the-wall idea that she’s an FBI plant and that’s why she doesn’t get a Movement.
My sister just sent me that text last night! She’s like, “Are you an FBI agent?” I was like, “I don’t know, I have no idea!” That’s what’s so exciting. I don’t know who I am.
So you don’t know what could happen next?
They’re very secretive, and they’ve let everything remain a mystery. I have no idea if we’ll do a second season. I have no idea if this backstory continues. I’m enjoying getting all these theories from people. People I haven’t talked to much or worked with in years message me on Facebook: “I have to stop reading Reddit and all these theories, like, can you tell me what happens?” I’m like, “No, I really have no idea, but I’m so glad that you’re interested in this!”
Have you thought about continuing to work as an actress?
If they did a second season of the show, I’d be intrigued. But I don’t know if it’s my calling. Music is still my main thing, but I will explore anything that’s interesting and challenging. I wanna grow and develop as an artist and I feel like different kinds of collaborations can only help me in that way.
I know you can’t reveal very much about this, but you’re also set to appear in the Twin Peaks revival. Was that a decision that you made before The OA?
Well, it was something I was asked to do before I got asked to do The OA. And then when I had to go out to L.A. to do that, that coincided with the show. I finished work on a Friday for The OA, had to fly out for Saturday, then took the red eye back Sunday and came in Monday for a continuing shoot again. That trip to L.A. was really surreal.
Especially since it’s a David Lynch project. That schedule’s like something out of his movies.
I know. He’d probably prefer it this way.
I’m excited to see whatever comes of it.
Yeah, me too. He’s a mystery as well. I only work with people that are mysteries.
Have you seen the finale of The OA? Do you have any thoughts about how that mystery unfolds?
Honestly, I’m just as curious as everyone else. I’m fielding all these questions from my friends and family and I’m still pondering. But, you know, Brit as a person is not too far off from the character. She’s capable of anything, so I can’t wait to find out what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.