Things have changed direction for Katy O’Brian. Before now she was fighting zombies as Katy in The Walking Dead, tackling similarly fantastical dangers in Westworld and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and played Galactic Empire officer Elia Kane in The Mandalorian as part of the world of Star Wars. These big-budget science-fiction roles might be the dream for many young actors, but for O’Brian something was missing. Much like Kristen Stewart, her co-star in her new film Love Lies Bleeding directed by Rose Glass, who brushed off her vampiric origins in the Twilight saga to embark on a career in European and independent cinema, O’Brian is thrilled to be embarking on a new frontier.

Love Lies Bleeding begins in a gym in 1989 where manager Lou, played by Stewart, spies an exceptionally ripped new customer across the sweat-soaked floor called Jackie, played by O’Brian. A sexual and then romantic relationship ignites quickly, before Lou discovers that Jackie is working at a local shooting range for her father, played by Ed Harris. As Jackie works towards entering a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas, tensions run high between the couple and the abusive husband of Lou’s sister, leading to violent and often bizarre consequences. 

As a keen bodybuilder herself, O’Brian knew straight away that she would not only be able to play Jackie, but to embody her. The film presents a different role and type for queer women in cinema, moving away from idealised femininity to something more traditionally macho in the history of cinema. Following a much-lauded premiere at Sundance and a successful US release, Love Lies Bleeding is about to open in the UK. Lillian Crawford sits down with O’Brian over coffee to reflect on what it feels like to have the film out in the world, and the process of bringing it and her character to life.

Read our five-star review of Love Lies Bleeding here.

Lillian Crawford: What has the response been like to the film?

Katy O’Brian: I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the reception so far because when I was reading the script and even filming it, I was like, “Who is this movie for except me, Kristen, and Rose?” Because it’s just such a wild ride. But I’m hearing amazing feedback. I hope that it encourages others to take interesting risks with their films and come up with unique, fun ideas to toss on to the big screen.

LC: Queer women seem to be responding to it in a very different way to others.

KOB: It’s the straight guys that go in that I’m like, “What are you here for?” I think that it’s for women. It’s a pretty empowering movie because it’s showing that even if you’re not physically strong like Kristen’s character, there’s still great strength in women like her. It’s fun to see this level of physicality on screen as well. I don’t know, I don’t really sit around and wonder what certain audiences are going to think. I think part of that comes from me having to just shut that off with Star Wars because that’s completely toxic.

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart in Love Lies Bleeding (Image credit: Anna Kooris)

KG: It must be such a contrast talking about a queer character in Love Lies Bleeding compared to Star Wars.

KOB: With Star Wars it’s like, “So what’s your character gonna do next?” And I have no idea. I don’t even know what my character did in the past. You get no information. So it’s fun to tell a complete story in its own self-contained world. Obviously this is on a much lower budget and indie kind of platform. They’re allowed to take bigger swings and bold risks and not have to worry about kids watching it or that it’s going to be banned in certain parts of the world.

LC: Was this more the sort of thing that you hoped to be doing as an actor? 

KOB: For sure. I feel like I did get very lucky early on by slipping into franchises. My first booking was The Walking Dead and from there I got into another zombie franchise and then Westworld and then Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. So it’s like I got stranded in this sci-fi realm, which is very marketable, but it’s also not my dream. Usually when stuff goes into space, I’m out. I’m not interested anymore. It’s been a fun world to play in and it’s definitely opened a lot of doors for me, but I’ve always wanted to do these really deep character studies. To grab on to someone who’s very  three-dimensional and maybe not perfect. Someone with a tangible, cathartic, and visceral story to tell. I loved indie films growing up and going to the theatre. Not being able to predict what I was going to see and I think that’s definitely the kind of thing that I’ve always wanted to do. It was just finding someone to trust me to get into something like this. 

LC: What was the process of getting this role?

KOB: I had a fan from the zombie show that I did hit me up and said, “Have you seen this open casting call for a queer bodybuilder from the Midwest?” You know, it’s A24 and Rose Glass, who did Saint Maud which was incredible. And then Kristen Stewart, who I feel like everybody in the world knows for one movie or another. It was also the first opportunity that I was given to play an openly queer character too, which I was really excited about because I feel like these often go to a very feminine or a straight person. So when I saw that casting notice I was like I have to get this part. I don’t know any other actor that has the credits that I have who is also a bodybuilder. The more that I learned about the part, the more I realised that I am this character. I can relate to this person. I don’t think anyone else is going to be able to do it like I can. 

Katy O’Brian in Love Lies Bleeding (Image credit: Anna Kooris)

LC: How important do you feel it is to have that sort of authenticity for playing a role? As you say this is a role that aligned itself a lot with your own identity, with the bodybuilding aspect as well. Was that particularly important for this role, or is it a general thing that you feel about acting?

KOB: I think the more authentic you can be, the more you’re going to be able to bring experiences and a visible authenticity to the role that you otherwise might not be able to. But at the end of the day, it is acting. I think that you can do your best to portray something for sure. I don’t want to sit here and say, “Oh, a straight actor couldn’t play gay.” But even if we’re just talking about the bodybuilding aspect of it, I come from that world. I’ve competed before, so I know what it takes to get on stage. I know how important the posing is, even though I’m still bad at it. There’s little fine details that members of whatever community it is can recognise and see that feels real to me, that someone that maybe is outside of certain communities wouldn’t quite grasp. 

People talk about how great the chemistry was. I don’t think that it would have been as great at chemistry if Kristen and I both weren’t queer. I don’t know for sure. But I think that all of those little things help to make the magic happen. 

LC: What was that process like working with Kristen in developing that relationship?

KOB: It’s so funny because I feel like people don’t realise that we don’t get to develop a relationship. I booked it two weeks before we started filming, Kristen drove out there, she brought both her dogs and all that, and I was hitting the gym right away because I was like, “Oh, I have two weeks to get in shape!” Once we started filming, the first week was all of our intimate scenes. We separately talked to an intimacy coordinator. Then we did blocking for the camera, but when you film it is the first time that any touching is happening. So it feels very spontaneous and authentic. We were just constantly checking in with each other. It’s such an interesting process because you really don’t have a lot of time to sit down and get to know each other. 

LC: Is that a specific experience to coordinating sex scenes between women?

KOB: I try not to focus too much on rewatching my performance so I put a lot of trust in Rose in terms of how the sex scenes were going to turn out. And one thing that I really loved about it and noticed was different was there wasn’t this big focus on our “O face” while we were doing any of the things. It’s just more about the vibes. Even in the bathroom when we were doing this masturbation scene, Rose used a wide shot from far out so it didn’t feel pornographic. I really loved that we actually have a scene asking how we like to be fucked. So often in films it is like we immediately know how to make each other come and it’s just not very realistic. I think that it delivers an expectation to some people because oftentimes movies are how we get our first introduction into either queer sex or sex in general. And when it’s displayed in a really aggressive or assertive way it gives you a weird expectation. I really loved how Rose brought that to life.

Katy O’Brian and Kristen Stewart in Love Lies Bleeding. (Image credit: Anna Kooris)

LC: What is Rose like to work with as a director?

KOB: She’s very intuitive. With an indie film you don’t have a lot of time so you have to be decisive in what you want. She’ll look at the scene and play through it, and it’s more her trying to describe a feeling of what she wants out of it than a specific direction. Of how Kristen is making this character feel right now, or how you’re making her character feel right now. You have a lot more freedom to come up with that in yourself. She likes to do some experimental stuff and with some things we were just like that feels weird or silly, and she goes, “No, trust me, it’ll work.” And then you watch it and it does.

LC: How did you feel about the fantastical elements in the film?

KOB: I loved it because what Jackie is experiencing is so intense that you have to have a break from reality. The bodybuilding competition is one of my favourite moments of the film. She’s going through having her moment and then having this dramatic breakdown, and Kristen literally purging out of this character. I loved the muscle rippling to emphasise the power of love as a drug in such an interesting way. By the end of the script when I read what happens I thought, “Oh, of course that happens.” It was really cool and creative.

LC: Were there any films you watched to prepare?

KOB: Rose had us watch Showgirls as a film about following the American dream blindly. And also just to get a little bit of campiness. She had us watch Saturday Night Fever, and I didn’t know that that movie was so violent. I was watching it and then suddenly there’s this big twist and I’m like, “Holy fuck!” Then Paris, Texas was an interesting one. It was to get the cinematography and the feeling of the world that she wanted to capture. I didn’t get to see Cronenberg’s Crash because I couldn’t find it, and unfortunately it seems like that might have been one of the movies that would have best informed the character. Independently I watched Pumping Iron II which was really informative of the politics of bodybuilding at the time and where Jackie is in that world. We took a lot of wardrobe inspiration from that. 

There was a scene that got cut that I spent a lot of time watching movies to prepare for. It was so good. It’s before Lou and Jackie’s big fight. I’m at her father’s gun range, and I have this snap moment and I start doing a bunch of cocaine and drinking and then I go home and fight her. I’ve never done cocaine before, so I decided to watch a bunch of movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and Blow and any movie that I could find about cocaine. Then it got cut out of the movie!

Main image: Katy O’Brian in Love Lies Bleeding. (Image credit: Anna Kooris)