Sasha Lane, the breakout star of the year, was born on September 29, 1995. Last summer she was a college freshman, one of the thousands that make the annual pilgrimage to Florida to party their way through spring break forever—only last summer, after pulling an all-nighter with her friends, she was hanging on a beach when a strawberry blonde lady with a British accent asked her if she wanted to be in a movie and changed her life.
“It was kind of like, really? Really?” said Lane, 20, over breakfast in Austin, where the Texas native was preparing to premiere her breakout first film American Honey to a Fantastic Fest audience. Also driving into town for Lane’s stunning film debut, the tale of a curious runaway teen who joins a band of roving magazine subscription hustlers on a road trip across America: Her parents, siblings, family, and the friends who were right there with her in Panama City, Florida, when she decided to take the plunge and lend her ear to a most unusual offer from Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank).
Lane, who turns 21 this week, was a college freshman intent on majoring in psychology with a minor in social work when Arnold cast her in American Honey opposite Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, and a cast of mostly first-time or non-actors plucked from humble corners of the country. They all met last summer in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where the journey began: Three months of filming, living, and sharing a cramped van to craft a tale of undeniable force, a millennial saga of wild, searching youth chasing a new American Dream.
The twentysomething is still interested in how people work, but since devoting herself to acting after American Honey she’s found a new outlet for it. “I’m so interested in people’s minds,” she said. “I’m obsessed with people and I think there’s a lot about social work that people don’t know that they could incorporate psychology into.”
Warm and poised with her hair swept up, Lane waxed ecstatic over bacon and egg tacos and one perfect queso at Torchy’s. “There’s just extra love in these breakfast tacos,” she beamed, lamenting the lack of great breakfast tacos in Los Angeles, where she moved last year after the whirlwind film shoot. Settling into downtown Los Angeles was as daunting as it is for any dreamer making their way to Tinseltown for the first time, an experience made even stranger by the fact that, until the film was unveiled to great acclaim at Cannes in May, she’s had no idea how to explain it or her career status to anyone who asked.
“People go, ‘What do you do?’ I would just be like, ‘I’m out here chilling,’ because I didn’t know how to comprehend—and I still don’t know,” she said. “Still, I’m not like, ‘I ACT.’ I’m like, ‘I’m kinda floating, I kinda did this movie, it was kinda like going to camp, and I don’t really know what any of this means!’”
She smiled. “It’s been a really interesting ride.”
In American Honey Lane plays Star, a teenager who flees Oklahoma for the great unknown when she meets the charismatic leader of a magazine crew (LaBeouf). He sweeps her up into a world of friendly hustlers, they fall in forbidden love, and she comes of age learning to grow into her own independence, desires, and agency for the first time.
She describes a deep connection to the castmates recruited from all over the country, from lives much like those lived by the roving youngsters, runaways, and fortune seekers they play in the film.
“We all had our own looks, our own personalities, and we’re very much good with who we are,” said Lane. “But living in a society where you have to look a certain way and act a certain way, there aren’t opportunities for us. Growing up in LA seems like you’d feel like the sky’s the limit, full of ambition—but when you come from places like where I’m from or where these kids are from, it’s kind of like the top of the trees is the limit, you know? You can dream big but you still have the sense of, this might be my life.”
After Lane finished American Honey she moved to LA and spent a year feeling out an acting career as Arnold edited the film. “I was in LA by myself. It was a lot of waiting and a lot of me literally saying, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ I would wake up like, what am I doing, what am I doing, because I hadn’t seen a thing, I had no confidence. It’s like Andrea opened up my box to life and hope, which is really amazing, but it’s scary. I know my box! I know that back home even though it’s not my box, I was comfortable there.”
Cannes and Toronto turned Lane into the Next Big Thing, and soon all the dreams Lane had dared to start forming began coming to fruition. The Houston-born athlete had played basketball in high school, and, according to the hometown sources suddenly being queried by reporters and gossip rags, never gave anyone even the slightest indication that she wanted to be an actor.
“It’s already really bizarre, and you’re constantly being judged when I’m used to being judged,” she said. “But I feel like the way that we’ve gone about it, I can be that person that can say, ‘Look, we don’t all have to be like that. We don’t all have to look like that.’ Either you can take that or leave that, and I’m not going to change that for anyone.”
Recently on Instagram, Lane, the mixed-race daughter of a New Zealander mom and an African-American dad, posted a photo of a joyous sun-kissed moment, her long dreadlocks caught midair. “I love my locs, these are my locs,” she wrote.
“People would say, they’re dirty, or this or that,” she explained. “There were things like with Kendall Jenner and Marc Jacobs. It’s like, they get to be beautiful but mine have to be dirty? And then someone said I was appropriating this, as if this wasn’t my culture.”
“I’ve gotten so much for being mixed—I’m never black enough, I’m never this enough—so it really just got me. One, you don’t know who I am. This is my culture, and I’m not appropriating anything; this is me and this is beautiful, and I don’t just smell like oils and weed all day.”
She laughed. “Although honestly, they probably do smell like weed sometimes. But mostly they smell like flowers. And I’m not going to let anyone make me feel bad for being who I am ever again. I’m not embarrassed that I’m mixed. I’m not ashamed that I’m mixed. I very much embraced both sides.”
“My mom was a single mom, and she has two mixed kids. I’d go to white salons and they’d be like, ‘What the fuck is this mess?’ or I’d go to the salons in Houston and they’d be like, ‘No one’s doing your hair right.’ It’s been a really hard and confusing thing for me, but I want people to know more. I’m not embarrassed. I shouldn’t be shunned from my own family.”
Lane also sees the greater beauty in the people of American Honey, a world others might find disorienting or dark. “People don’t understand that just because we don’t live a certain life or we don’t live in certain places that we can’t be happy with who we are. And every single one of us—and more so them than me—are like, ‘I don’t care that I live like this, I’m good.’ And I’m happy it’s shown it doesn’t matter, we’re living life as best we know how.”
Like Star, Lane’s protectiveness for her own younger siblings made it hard to leave home when opportunity called. “Even the youngest one, it’s like, I raised her—I won’t eat until she eats, things like that. I connected a lot with that. It was hard to leave, but you’ve got to live your life and make a good example.”
“Even my dad was like, I know you’re not asking me, you’re telling me. Now they’re like, Okay—they know it’s real.”
Meanwhile: New fame has arrived with its own annoyances for Lane, who found herself in tabloids breathlessly reporting that she was dating LaBeouf.
“It’s like, what are you trying to do? They’re so intrusive, it’s ridiculous,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s like, why do you fucking care? You know I don’t know any other life, right? This is what you spend your day doing? There are probably other things in the world you should be focused on but that’s fine, I’m going to get my gas now.”
She signed on for Shoplifters of the World, Stephen Kijak's 1987-set film about the day a distraught teenager took over a radio station at gunpoint and forced a DJ to play The Smiths. And after jumping into the fire with Arnold and finding her purpose, she’s ready for more structured traditional productions. “I like it. The Smiths were really cool, and it’s really wild. Even though I was wild in American Honey and there were other things that I had to worry about and I was naïve, but this is like, nah. Let’s just do it.”
Lane is so ready to jump into the skins of characters unlike herself, she says she’s game for anything. “I was scared that I couldn’t do anything else so it’s nice that I’m being put into the situation of playing someone else, not just me. It’s funny: I feel like when I get auditions and callbacks it’s a range of, ‘Let’s have her play this little fairy thing,’ or this 15-year-old hardcore heroin addict,” she laughed.
“And I mean, I’m down with that, too! My mom’s like, ‘Really, Sasha?’ And I’m just like, ‘Yeah—I get to rob a bank, murder somebody, and shoot up heroin. This is great, mom.”