Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s new Netflix series, The OA, isn’t your typical TV show. It was released online without notice, plays like an eight-hour movie, and is filled with unreliable story lines about real-life angels and heavens. So it isn’t exactly surprising that the show’s creators took an unconventional route in casting Rachel, a young singer living in captivity with a group of human test subjects who’ve all had near-death experiences. The two chose singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, whose gorgeous rock music, spanning four records, often details heartbreakingly personal stories about love and loss.
The OA makes great narrative use of music, with a score by Zal’s brother, Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend); song appearances by bands like Majical Cloudz and Beach House; and a plot that focuses thematically on the healing power of music. So while Van Etten had no prior acting experience, her appearance is fitting on the show. She called MTV News to chat about how she landed the role and whether more acting is in her future.
How did you land this guest spot on The OA?
Sharon Van Etten: In the summer of 2015, I had decided to take a break from touring. I just needed to be home and focus on my life outside of music. I was trying to have a real existence for a while. I had gotten into Brooklyn College to try to finish college, because I had never gotten my undergrad [degree]. I was two weeks into school and my manager sent me an email to audition for this mysterious Netflix series.
I was skeptical at first, because I was afraid I wasn’t being very true to myself. Going from being in a band, to college, to now I’m going to be an actress? [I thought], This seems pretty ridiculous. But I read the part I was going to read for the audition, and it was eerily close to my own life. I grew up in the choir, left home to pursue music, and I had some pretty intense things happen to me while I was there. There was something in this that made me think I had to do it, I had to take a chance. I saw one acting coach before the audition. Then they called me the next day to tell me I got it, and we were shooting a week after. I had to withdraw from school after much, much deliberation. I talked to my mom, my sister, my best friends, and decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Before this, were you interested in pursuing acting?
Van Etten: I was in musicals and I was in the choir when I was younger. Before I started writing my own songs I thought I wanted to be on Broadway, but it was nothing I ever really pursued. So this was pretty out of the blue.
Were Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij fans of your work before they reached out to you?
Van Etten: I don’t think anyone knew my music much until they knew I was going to be a part of it. The casting agent saw me and my drummer on tour supporting Nick Cave in 2013. For some reason, when the casting agent heard the description of my character, I came to his mind. [laughs] It’s funny … “dark, brooding, awkward,” I don’t know what adjectives he used to find my name in his mental rolodex. It was actually kind of a relief that [my music] wasn’t why I was a part of it.
You sing your song “I Wish I Knew” in a very emotional moment in the show, and I’m curious as to why that song was chosen in particular.
Van Etten: That was actually the song I sang in my audition. I initially didn’t know if they wanted a cover or one of my songs or what they were looking for. Then when they told me they wanted one of my own songs, I thought of this song. It has a really beautiful melody that changes and develops from chorus to verse, it doesn’t ever repeat itself, and I thought that would be interesting. It’s also not one of my “typical Sharon, sad breakup” songs. Lyrically it talks more about not being sure of yourself, and not specifically about love necessarily — it’s more about feeling insecure and not knowing yourself, but being honest about it.
What were you thinking when you got a bigger picture of the show and read the script?
Van Etten: They were very secretive throughout. I didn’t see the show until it came out. I was only on that one set, so I knew what was going on there, and I would get bits and pieces of what was going on outside of that, other sets and characters. I got to read works in progress, but I had the feeling they were allowing things to change that they shot. It was all very in flux. I would get a script the night before for what we were shooting the next day, and then I would show up and it would be edited.
It made it exciting, because you didn’t really know what was happening. But at the same time, the energy of the show is very heavy! I was in a cell the whole time for my side of the show. That’s where it got really daunting. Also everyone has done this before so they’re all laughing about it, but it’s still a pretty mentally challenging place to be. But I learned a lot from how the characters dealt with the cells. There was a kinship between all of us.
That’s such a weird first-time acting experience.
Van Etten: [laughs] It’s definitely not an easy, breezy, rom-com situation!
So much of the show is about the spiritual powers of art, whether that’s dance or how characters come back from death with stronger musical abilities. How would you say music has healing properties in the real world?
Van Etten: When I first started making music, it was where I went when I couldn’t express myself, when I wasn’t able to connect with other people, when I couldn’t talk about what I was going through. The act of singing is so cathartic. I felt like I was letting something go outside of my body, even before I knew how to write very well. But then music became even more empowering when I shared it with people like my friends and it brought emotions out in them. It would propel them to talk to me about things. Even now I’m starting to understand what that kind of power is. It has been healing for me, and very therapeutic even today. It’s one of the reasons why I went back to school to study psychology and mental health, was to understand why that is.
In recent years you’ve gotten more into scoring, working on projects like Strange Weather and a documentary about Tig Notaro. What do you like about making music for film and TV?
Van Etten: That’s the sort of thing I’m just learning how to do, but the collaborations have helped me grow a lot as an artist. It is sort of like a blind date. You meet someone you might not have anything in common with, and you’re pouring your heart out creatively with, usually, a stranger. But I’ve been very lucky doing that work, and I would love to do it again, especially to make something that’s not just a song. I want to help create a moment that’s maybe a 15-second-long, intense emotional flow. Those challenges are fun to try on. It’s the opposite of how I write a song — I don’t have to write a melody that builds up to this big, dramatic chorus.
It’s been reported that you’re in the cast of the new Twin Peaks reboot. Do you see yourself doing more work on-screen in the future beyond that?
Van Etten: I don’t know if it’s my calling. [laughs] I still think music is my focus. I will entertain things that are entertaining and sound interesting and challenge me. But acting just doesn’t come second-nature to me. Seeing other people do it, playing another character so intensely for that long, is really admirable. The way they can turn it off and go home. I feel like I’m just learning how to be myself in situations, but learning how to be someone else? That’s hard.