‘Love Lies Bleeding’ Star Katy O’Brian Talks Kristen Stewart’s Jumping Jacks

As a professional actor since 2012 with credits like The Mandalorian and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. under her belt, Katy O’Brian was perfectly familiar with all the usual steps for landing roles: read the script sent by your agent, prep for an audition, and wait patiently as you hope that the filmmakers choose you out of thousands of other candidates. But when, in early 2022, she saw on Twitter that the team behind the upcoming A24 movie Love Lies Bleeding was looking for its leading actor, O’Brian decided to forgo the rules and take matters into her own hands, by tweeting a photo herself along with the words, “I’m free” in response. It was a bold move—but it paid off, with O’Brian landing the part of Jackie, an ’80s-era bodybuilder who falls for Kristen Stewart’s gym manager Lou.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple; although her tweet caught substantial attention, O’Brian still had to actually audition for the film and impress both Stewart and director Rose Glass. (To help her case, the 35-year-old actress put together a PowerPoint outlining the reasons she was right for the part, including the convenient fact that she’s an experienced bodybuilder herself who’s competed in multiple competitions). All these elements obviously made a difference. But without that initial tweet, O’Brian knows she possibly could have never been in the running for the role at all.

“I think to be successful in this career, you have to have a little sense of delusion,” she said with a laugh on a recent phone call with W. “It kind of felt ridiculous, but it worked.”

On March 8, audiences will get to see the fruits of O’Brian’s efforts when Love Lies Bleeding hits theaters. The film, which earned rave reviews after its Sundance premiere (particularly for the toxic romance between O’Brian and Stewart’s characters), is a violent, frenzied, and always-entertaining action thriller that’s both a singular oddity and a total crowd-pleaser. “When I read the script originally, I was like, ‘Okay, who is this movie for besides me, Rose, and Kristen?” O’Brian, who next stars in July’s Twisters sequel, recalls. “But everybody seems to enjoy it.”

I think it’s safe to say you really wanted this role. What made Love Lies Bleeding so appealing to you?

Every little thing that I learned about the movie made me want to do it even more. I’m a big A24 fan and Rose Glass was the director—her film Saint Maud was phenomenal—so already I was like, check, check. Plus, it’s a queer movie and Kristen Stewart was already attached to it; I never thought in a million years that I would meet her. And when I was told that it was set in the ’80s, it was game over. Eighties bodybuilding was the time for bodybuilding. It was so freakish and unheard of for a woman to do that then.

Jackie dreams of winning a Vegas bodybuilding competition, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get there. As someone who’s built careers as both an actor and a bodybuilder, did you see any of yourself in her?

I totally felt Jackie, 100 percent. When I was growing up, there was always this feeling of, “You can’t do these things.” It was nothing that my parents instilled in me, I just always felt limited by the intangibility of it all. But with bodybuilding, I finally started to feel like I could actually pursue things and knock things out. You go through this transformation when you do your first competition: you’re like, “Holy shit, I did something really hard.” When I started bodybuilding, I began acting classes at the same time, so as I was feeling more confident in myself, I started to improve as an actor. Then I got this crazy notion that I could pursue my dreams.

Jackie is a demanding role, not only physically but mentally; she goes to some dark places. How did you prepare yourself?

The filmmakers took care of the physical stuff for me. They hired Steve Zim, who trained Adam Rippon for the Olympics and trains actors. He knew which muscles would pop most on camera. I also had a nutritionist who made my meals, so all of that stuff was easy.

Mentally, I felt this immediate connection to Jackie; where she was at any given moment, I kind of knew [how she felt]. But there’s a campiness to this movie, and there are certain moments that are a little extraordinary or maybe feel out of place. Larry [Moss, an acting coach] helped me to understand those moments. Rose, too, was great at being like, “In this scene, we want it to be big—like, really big,” because Kristen and I tend to be understated.

Speaking of Kristen, your characters have a deep, complicated connection. How did the two of you work to establish that?

Kristen, Rose, and I would do table reads and go beat by beat to discuss a scene. But when it came down to performing it, we just really relied on responding off of each other. Like, there’s a scene where we’re pushing a car off the cliff, and Lou throws a Molotov cocktail down there. It actually exploded—there was a big boom, flames roaring up from the cliff. We were like, “Holy shit.” I looked over and Kristen’s laughing, while I’m in this state of horror. It was genuinely cool to see her reaction, which I wouldn’t have expected.

Jena Malone, Katy O’Brian, Kristen Stewart, and Anna Baryshnikov at the Love Lies Bleeding Los Angeles premiere on March 5, 2024.

Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images

What else about working with Kristen surprised you?

She brings a big physicality to the role. Lou is very jumpy and edgy and shaking all the time, so if it was a really anxious scene, Kristen was doing jumping jacks to get her heart rate up. There was a self-consciousness to it, because when you’re screaming, jumping, whatever to get into the moment, you’re very aware that everyone is watching you do that [laughs]. But Kristen knew that’s what had to be done for her to get there, so she was unabashedly doing that.

It was just cool to see the parts of her process and how she’d try to find things to play around with. At one point, she had a tab from a Coke can in her mouth, just fiddling around with it… it just added little personality glitches to the character.

Love Lies Bleeding is the rare action movie to feature a lesbian romance. As a queer actor yourself, why would you say this is significant?

I tend to get reactions just by being on screen, because I guess I’m physically queer-coded or something. Especially with Star Wars; I get a lot of backlash: “How dare you bring a gay character to Star Wars,” etc., when I literally have not done anything gay. To be honest, I don’t even think about that kind of thing, because people are just gonna feel the way they feel. But what I hope is, in terms of the queer community, somebody feels seen and represented on screen. Not in a violent, toxic way—so that they can see a movie that’s about other things, not just being gay. [The characters’ queerness] is in your face, but that’s how I live my life every single day. So I just think of it as two people living their lives.

I do know there’s also a bigger impact that I guess I choose to be oblivious to. I think Kristen even recently said something like, that mentality belongs in the rearview mirror. [Editor’s note: at a February press conference for the film, Stewart said, “We can’t keep doing that thing where we pat each other on the back and receive brownie points for providing space for marginalized voices, only in the capacity that they are allowed to speak about that alone. We’ve all been here the whole time. I think the era of queer films being so pointedly only that is done, it’s over.”] So it is very behind me. But I’m hoping that this movie helps push us forward.

Love Lies Bleeding will be in theaters on March 8.

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