Love Lies Bleeding star Katy O’Brian: 'I'm often not trusted to do drama because of how I look'

Love Lies Bleeding star Katy O’Brian: 'I'm often not trusted to do drama because of how I look'

Katy O’Brian is about to go stratospheric following her breakout starring role in the brilliantly gory lesbian thriller Love Lies Bleeding. And it all came about from a post on social media.

The actor landed her first audition for the project by writing “I’m free”, underneath a post announcing that Kristen Stewart – who would go on to be her co-star – had landed the part of bored, small-town gym manager Lou in the film.

Several auditions later, O’Brian was offered the role of Lou’s charismatic but complicated love interest Jackie. She is magnetic and often masterfully understated in a film which is all about campy excess and magical realism, and it’s clear she has star quality.

And the character, who is a runaway bodybuilder and becomes increasingly ripped as the film progresses, has already earned her a new nickname. “Look, I love a good muscle mommy,” she laughs, pondering her latest title, bestowed upon her by the internet following the film’s release.

“But I’d emphasise, as I often do, that I do not walk around looking like that all year round,” the actor adds. “And I hope that people don't get it in their heads that that’s a safer, healthier way to look”

O’Brian grew up in Indianapolis and worked as a security guard and police officer until 2016; by the time she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, she was in her late 20s, and battled a fair amount of “imposter syndrome” since she was slightly older, and didn’t have “Juilliard training or whatever.”

She did, however, have a black belt in the Korean martial art hapkido, and had also dipped her toes into the world of bodybuilding; she quit after she became “discouraged” by her competitors using steroids.

 (Anna Kooris)
(Anna Kooris)

So far, she has made a name for herself in a steady stream of increasingly high-profile sci-fi and fantasy series, including superhero crime drama Black Lightning, Star Wars TV spin-off The Mandalorian, and Marvel’s superhero show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as a stand-out appearance as Jentorra, the leader of the Freedom Fighters, in Marvel blockbuster Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Despite that film’s chaotic overload of CGI effects and creepy pink blobs, O’Brian was a memorable and charismatic presence in an otherwise patchy film. Now, though, she’s hoping to branch out. “I'm really afraid of being stuck in that, because of the physicality,” she says.

Love Lies Bleeding, meanwhile, more than proves that O’Brian has the chops to get stuck into a messy tangle of drama. Jackie becomes increasingly fuelled by rage (and her steroid use), which gets her and Lou into exceedingly hot water when an impulsive act of revenge spirals out of control; yet the actor also brings a certain tenderness to the table.

Despite her strength, Jackie often seems incredibly vulnerable. Though director Rose Glass does not prod at her backstory, O’Brian lends her the air of a troubled soul on the run from something.

I think people are afraid of comedy now.

Katy O'Brian

And while starring opposite Kristen Stewart might feel like a daunting task for any newer name, O’Brian rises to the challenge effortlessly.

“I’m always anxious about who I’m going to be working with, because it can make or break your experience,” she says. “I’ve had some weird ones where it’s almost like, people don’t respect you as an artist or something; or they just kind of dominate, and it makes things uncomfortable,” she says, keeping things tactfully vague.

“So, I had no idea what to expect [from Stewart] – especially someone that's been in the limelight so long and has just been doing this forever. I imagined that potentially she could just be kind of like, over it all, you know?”

But the pair immediately hit it off in the waiting room ahead of their chemistry read, and tension sizzles between their characters Lou and Jackie on-screen. “She was so excited about the project, so excited about the character, so excited to work with Rose... it was refreshing,” O’Brian admits.

Just a few weeks later, the pair were thrown straight into filming all of the interior scenes that take place in Lou’s grotty bedsit: “so it was all of our intimate scenes, right away,” she says. “We just had to get used to each other really fast, I guess, and didn't have a lot of time to discuss it. That’s kind of how it happened.”

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart (Film Handout)
Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart (Film Handout)

Exceedingly gory, and filled with surreal touches that blur reality and fantasy, Love Lies Bleeding feels totally at odds with the distinct wave of lesbian period drama pieces that came before it; from the exceptional Portrait of a Lady on Fire to the far more depressing Ammonite, the currency of these films is yearning; fleeting touches lit by flickering candles, meaningful glances, and love that felt like a race against time as societal homophobia closed in.

“The Handmaiden is in that vein, too,” O’Brian says, referring to Park Chan-wook’s sensual and violent adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, “...but queerness isn’t the taboo here. Park Chan-wook does that really well, and he makes something else really wild”

And in Love Lies Bleeding Lou and Jackie are too busy wreaking unspeakably bloody revenge to worry too much about their own sexuality.  As O’Brian says, in something of an understatement, the dysfunctional couple are far from being “role models”. The fact they are both queer women is not a source of conflict or tension, either. “That’s just who we are,” she says.

“That's not strange to me, because that's how I live my life,” she continues. “Whereas if I were in a movie, where, the whole time, they're like: ‘Boo, you're gay’ and you’re having to fight back against somebody questioning your sexuality, or who you're with…I would have felt that on set, every day. So it was refreshing to… not” she laughs.

For the longest time, if you were out and queer, you couldn’t get roles.

Katy O'Brian

O’Brian adds that she enjoyed Bottoms ‒ Emma Seligman’s absurdist dark comedy in which a pair of misfit lesbians start a fight club in order to hook-up with the school’s cheerleaders ‒ for similar reasons. “I think people are afraid of comedy now,” she says, “and I think [Seligman and Rachel Sennott] really tackled that, and shoved it in the face of all the people that are trying to say that people can't be funny anymore.”

Where does she think those kinds of ideas around comedy stem from, exactly? O’Brian thinks that some people are too quick to blame a new generation for being too ‘sensitive’ to darker, edgier forms of comedy, but also don’t seem to understand the audiences they’re critical of. “People are always so antagonistic to whatever ‘woke’ is, but then they can't describe what that means,” she says.

“I think you just have to elevate comedy along with the generations. Like, you know, The Three Stooges isn't really funny anymore, right? Like, poking people in the eye…  comedy evolves, but I think people are falling behind. I think that Bottoms was really refreshing because it's like… okay, I think this is what this new generation is going to find funny. And I think it hit the nail on the head.”

Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart (Film handout)
Katy O'Brian and Kristen Stewart (Film handout)

In the past, she has experienced type-casting when auditioning for LGBTQ+ roles. She does not consider herself to be butch, but has found that others make that assumption, which is “very annoying... I would audition for a role that was gay, and I would not get it: when I would see who did, it was usually a very feminine straight woman, or maybe a very feminine queer woman.”

On the ethics of straight actors playing queer characters more generally, O’Brian believes that “whenever possible, casting authentically is ideal” as LGBTQ+ actors are able to draw on experiences that those outside of the community may not understand.

“For the longest time, if you were out and queer, you couldn’t get roles. I think it's important to allow opportunities for people who were disenfranchised for the longest time. And then if you have exhausted those resources, and you're not finding the right person still, and you find that with someone who is not queer, then okay, fine. But let's try to cast authentically first, I think.”

Besides being fronted by two queer leads, Love Lies Bleeding also draws on O’Brian’s own experiences in the bodybuilding world. Given her own knowledge of the sport, Jackie’s routine at a Las Vegas contest was one of O’Brian’s favourite scenes to shoot. Though it quickly tumbles from glory into grossness, it is initially a triumphant moment.

“It's what Jackie worked so hard for, but it was also what I worked so hard for; you put in so much work to get there,” she says, of her transformation during the film. “My wife was there, and she was just like, beaming the whole time. It kind of threw me back to my old bodybuilding days.”

 (Anna Kooris)
(Anna Kooris)

It was also surreal, she says, watching the final cut of the gory revenge scene which initially turns her and Lou’s lives upside down. Shooting it was a disjointed experience, involving lots of carefully choreographed angles, slow-motion takes, and smashing crash dummies against tables, months apart.

I tell O’Brian that the visceral final reveal, in which Jackie switches the light on to show the full, jaw-dropping extent of her brutal violence, made me and everyone else in the cinema scream. “I was like, woah! I had no idea it was going to look like that. I was just as surprised as the audience,” she laughs.

I'd love to do a rom-com, or a really beautiful unrequited love story.... but I'm often not trusted to do that

Katy O'Brian

After filming wrapped, the cast presented O’Brian with a bodybuilding trophy; it was “bittersweet,” she says, finishing up the project at 3am before immediately packing up her car to go and “do reshoots for Ant-Man”.

So, what’s next for the star? O’Brian says that she’s particularly keen to move away from high-octane action thrillers.

“My heart lies in projects like this,” she adds, of Love Lies Bleeding and other, more character-driven stories. Celine Song’s Past Lives, for example, was her favourite film last year.

“I'd love to do a rom-com, or a really beautiful unrequited love story. I love doing drama, but I'm often not either trusted to do that, or seen as that,” she says, “just because of how I look, I think.”

“That's where I want to change things and push the boundaries a little bit. I want to be inspiring. I don’t wanna show up every day and just be like: ‘Yeah, this is so predictable.’”

Love Lies Bleeding is out now