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For Abbey Lee, Playing a Troubled Model in 'The Neon Demon' Was 'One Hundred Percent True to Life'

"I think that's probably why it was an honest performance, because it was very real for me."
Abbey Lee as Sarah in "The Neon Demon." Photo: Gunther Campine/The Neon Demon

Abbey Lee as Sarah in "The Neon Demon." Photo: Gunther Campine/The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film, "The Neon Demon," is absolutely brutal. There's violence, blood and gore, yes, but some of the hardest scenes to watch on an emotional level are those that portray the dark side of the modeling industry.  

Much of that comes down to the influence and input of Abbey Lee, who plays Sarah, a model in the twilight of her career who becomes increasingly desperate when rising star Jesse (Elle Fanning) is introduced. Jesse may be the superstar in the making, but it's Sarah — and Lee — who demands our attention in every scene. Watching Sarah realize how invisible she's become during a particularly difficult runway casting is devastating; it's not hard to imagine a scenario just like that playing out with a group of models during New York Fashion Week. In the end, Sarah's desire to remain on top drives her to do some sadistic things, and Lee plays all of them to spectacular effect, expressing everything from deep horror to triumph with just her piercing blue eyes. 

If it's difficult to watch, it was even more so for Lee — who has been a part of the industry since making her own modeling debut 2007 — to act out on set every day. "It was hard!" Lee says. "It was not easy; it had a lot of personal scenes, and really personal aspects." And those scenes weren't an accident; Refn asked for her expert advice on scenes involving fashion. Lee coached Fanning on a proper runway walk, and helped costume designer Erin Benach nail model-off-duty style.

But for Lee, the role of Sarah was about so much more than playing a model on screen. We hopped on the phone with her to get her take on those brutally real modeling scenes, the danger of beauty, and why this role might be her best acting experience to date.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Abbey Lee as Sarah in "The Neon Demon." Photo: Gunther Campine/The Neon Demon

Abbey Lee as Sarah in "The Neon Demon." Photo: Gunther Campine/The Neon Demon

What attracted you to this role?

I think it had a lot to do with the director. For me to take on a role like this, having come from the fashion industry and really wanting to branch out into acting and take it seriously, it could be seen as a risky role for me to take. But Nick really had the most influence on that, I love his work and have a lot of respect for him.

It's such a hard film to watch; what was the experience of filming the movie like for you?

Nick, to get what he wants, has a really challenging way of working — which I have a crazy amount of respect for. I love the process, but at the time it was really tough. There was nothing really set in stone; he would change the script daily, and he would offer up suggestions, and if you didn't have a good reason for or against it he would make sure it happened. It was like you were constantly having to fight for your character without being selfish. You had to keep in mind what he wanted and what he was going for. It was a real challenge, and it was a beautiful challenge, one that I hope I have again.

Some of the most brutal scenes were the ones related to the fashion industry, like the model casting scene, and I'm curious how true to life those experiences felt for you.

They're a hundred percent true to life. Nick really wanted to make sure that he portrayed the industry correctly, and there were a lot of things within the film that he would ask advice on. I had a lot of influence on those things, the way that they were set up and styled — he really made sure to listen to what I had to say. The reason that it feels like that to watch it is because it's real, that is what it feels like. You know, you've got eight women in a room in their underwear with no makeup and their hair slicked back, and you feel incredibly exposed, and the way those girls are looking at each other and the way they are around each other, that's what happens. That's really what it's like to be in a room like that, you know?

What was it like to have that kind of input on the film?

It was really incredible. Being a part of the movie industry is easy in that I love it so much, it's so perfect for me and it's so collaborative and wonderful. I've become so passionate about acting recently, and then to also be given a voice and be listened to and be heard and asked for help and really being able to offer up those types of services that went beyond acting was very fulfilling for me. To watch the film, and see all these things I had a hand in was pretty amazing. I was super proud, I felt really proud of myself.

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So much of what you convey about Sarah is in your face and your expressions. How much of your modeling experience was behind that?

Oh, everything. With every character, there has to be an element of yourself in that character, and that's generally why a director is able to see you being able to play that. I think that Nick was clever enough in his casting to see a lot of me in Sarah, and I think that's probably why it was an honest performance, because it was very real for me. It was a very real experience.

What was your reaction to reading that final scene?

I didn't read the final scene because it wasn't in the script! That was one hundred percent made up a week before we started filming. I thought it was incredible, I was not afraid of that scene at all, I was really excited to see where it would go.

The theme of the movie generally seemed to be that beauty, and the pursuit of beauty, are dangerous. Do you agree with that?

I think it would be stupid to deny that it's a really big problem. It's just terrible, and it seems to be getting worse. When I was a kid, it was about being thin, and then it became being thin and muscly, and then thin and eating only organic and being muscly, and now you also have to have a six pack but you also have to have a big butt. I think it's just insane where it's gone to, it's unrealistic and it's everywhere. It's being elevated through social media; there's a complete saturation of it everywhere.

The movie centers around Jesse, but by the end of the movie, I felt like it was really about Sarah. Where do you think Sarah ends up?

The thing is, the visual that you get of the girl walking through the desert when the credits roll up, a lot of people think that's [Jesse] because it's just her back, but it's actually Sarah. In my mind, there's a transcendence that happens. I think the second Sarah eats the eyeball and transcends into like, a golden goddess walking through the desert, in my mind it's Nick saying that beauty does win — that beauty always wins. Sarah gets what she wants and it works. In the end, that's what the film is saying: that [beauty] is a powerful tool and that it does often work. He's exposing the truth about beauty, but not denying that that stuff is real.

Did you have a favorite scene to shoot?

[The scene] where I eat the eyeball. I spent the first half of that day sitting left of camera as an eye line for Gigi while she kills herself — and Bella [Heathcote] did an incredibly terrific job, she works damn hard. We did 40 resets of that, an hour where she was strapped up to these blood machines and pretending to choke and die while I'm staring at her; it's intense. And then after she did that, she had to vomit up an eyeball that I had to pick up and eat, you know? [laughs] Those couple of days were intense. But actually, the funnest thing, there's a scene where I'm driving a red convertible, and that was actually the last scene that Bella and I shot. It was the wrap scene of the whole movie, and me and Bella on the PCH driving a red convertible was pretty awesome.

That eyeball — what was it made out of?

It's made of candy stuff, it's pretty gross. It's covered in jam and marshmallows and corn shit, it's horrible. 

Between this and "Mad Max," you seem drawn to these brutal but visually beautiful films. How do you pick roles that you're interested in?

For me, I'm acting because it feels like a creative expression for me. It's an art form that I want to explore and that I really enjoy exploring, so I'm not really interested in anything normal or mediocre, because it just doesn't challenge me. I'm also lucky that I'm financially stable thanks to modeling, so I don't have to take those mediocre roles. I just wait until something pops out and hits me in the face. I would rather be challenged than just get by. 

Where do you see your career going? 

I just want to keep making movies right now. I'm learning so much so quickly, and it's really wild how much there is to learn about this industry and how much I'm learning about how I work as an actress and what I want to get out of it. For now, I'm just trying to get more roles. A lot of actors seem to be getting into producing and directing and other things, but I just love acting so much that I just want to focus on that. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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