‘The Heart Machine’ Talks Tech, Film, and Online Dating

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by meredith alloway

Kate Lyn Sheil and John Gallagher Jr. have been ruling the indie scene lately. Sheil was in fest favorites Sun Don’t Shine and Listen Up Phillip, as well as the last season of House of Cards. Gallagher Jr., who nabbed a Tony for Spring Awakening, starred in Short Term 12 and is currently on The Newsroom. They’re pretty much everywhere. 

So it only makes sense that the two would come together for The Heart Machine, Zachary Wigon's directorial debut. A warped love story and unlikely psychological thriller, the film centers on Cody (Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Sheil) who develop an online relationship. When Cody starts to suspect that Virginia may not be who she seems, he sets out on a journey to define her identity.

NYLON had a chance to chat with Sheil and Gallagher Jr. last week in New York. The two actors revealed what drew them to the script, their process in crafting a character and how technology entwines with fear and insecurity. Although the film feels modern in its exploration of Skype and the Internet, Gallagher Jr. stresses, ‘the things it deals with on a human level are ages old.’

Zach has said this story was birthed from his experiences with a long-distance relationships and an ex-girlfriend. When you first read the script, did you connect with it in that way too?

Sheil: I sort of had a slightly long-distance thing that was very brief. But that wasn’t my main attraction to the movie. I was attracted to the fact that it seemed like two people did have a genuine connection and messed it up. It was very sad to me.

What about you, John? I know you do some heavy online dating.

Gallagher Jr.: Big in the online dating scene. Very committed. [Laughs] No, I had never done any online dating but I did go into some chatrooms when I got AOL when I was 14; meet some ladies. Met someone that claimed they were Rose McGowan. I was really excited because I was obsessed with Scream. Because there’s so many charades on the Internet, what you’re willing to believe interests me. There’s some of that in the movie a little bit. The thing I really related to was the idea that my character’s inability to communicate and show himself is his own undoing in a lot of ways. What propels the movie is this great fall of this character but it’s what keeps the action of the film escalating. I had never really seen anything done that way. I totally related to it.

Wasn’t your first Skype with Zach?

Gallagher Jr.: I had done the Facetime thing once before with like a director who was in LA. I remember my agent calling like, ‘You need to get Skype!” I downloaded Skype to talk to Zach Wigon!

You both always challenge yourself with the roles you pick. With this film, when you started constructing the character, how did you build the backstory and did you throw it away when you started shooting?

Sheil: That’s generally what I try to do with any project; get to know the character and have very specific ideas and then let that go; just respond to what is actually happening. When John is your scene partner that’s very easy to do because he’s very good. Whenever I read someone or a character is supposed to be hard to understand but I immediately feel empathetic towards her, I always want to do that thing. It was mostly just figuring out how I could potentially find myself in these particular circumstances. Why would I do that? I could think of reasons why.

Gallagher Jr.: Likewise, very similar.

That’s a testament to the script, too. Was it tempting for you guys, given these characters don’t know each other, to not meet till you were on set?

Gallagher Jr.: I had that thought! When I got cast I was like I think I’m going to ask them to structure the shooting schedule…and then like a week later I went to a party and Kate was there! I was like, ‘Hey I think we’re going to make this movie together!’ I think I much prefer the way we did it, which was to get to know each other and we had about four days of rehearsal.

What did rehearsal look like?

Gallagher Jr.: We got together with Zach and read through all the scenes. Zach would have us do improv versions of the scene.

Sheil: What if this scene went differently, what if he really did decide to break up with her in this particular Skype scene, see how that felt, just try things on for size.

Gallagher Jr.: As a result I think we were actually able to develop a real shorthand, a rapport with each other that I think really benefitted the way we shot the Skype scenes because we were able to feel lived in and familiar. I’m sure there would have been all kinds of great spontaneous things if I was like who’s this person, never met her, wow that came out of navigating that energy, which had been my initial genius idea to be really method, but I like the way we did it.

Your rapport has to be communicated otherwise there’s no story.

Sheil: So much of the film hinges on you believing that these two characters could be in a relationship and really have something special. If you don’t, you’re just like, ‘Yea, get over it. Walk away!’

I thought of Eyes Wide Shut when I watched the film and then read Zach has referenced it as well. Was that something Zach said to you all as far as tone? Did it affect the way you approached your character? 

Gallagher Jr.: The only two movies Zach referenced to me were Eyes Wide Shut and The Conversation and I had seen neither at that time. While we were shooting Eyes Wide Shut becomeavailable on instant Netflix.

Did you watch it every night?

Gallagher Jr.: I did! No, that’s kind of weird what’s wrong with me. I did see the similarity, the idea that it’s an odyssey that is born out of insecurity. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing he’s just putting one front in front of another and stumbling into these places and chance encounters with people. It’s a little more planned out with my character because he has the bulletin board thing. But the idea of letting your insecurity and fear, desire eat away at you to the point to where it starts becoming the motor that keeps his character going.

What is it about technology that exacerbates obsessiveness?

Sheil: I think because it’s anonymous for one thing. The majority of their world is inaccessible to you but this small tiny version, a clue, is available to you. It’s interesting.

Gallagher Jr.: I was reading something the other day about why some things in the Internet become so addictive. I’ll paraphrase but it’s this instant gratification for your brain, the click on the same thing, to fall into a loophole. Anyone that’s ever done some snooping recognizes it makes your heart beat a mile a minute. That’s addictive. Once you felt that you want to keep feeling that.

I kept thinking of self-worth. That applies to both your characters. Self worth and technology are starting to go hand in hand. Do you relate that to your characters?

Sheil: I mean I think I thought about the fact that Virginia is a very deeply insecure person and perhaps not ready to share herself with Cody in person in a very real way because she’s afraid he won’t like what he sees. 

Gallagher Jr.: They’re suffering from the same ailment the whole movie. If only they could be like, ‘Hey, I’m terrified, you’re terrified, let’s be terrified together.’

This is what’s happening. Everyone is so terrified to be in a relationship! What is this epidemic about? Tell me!

Gallagher Jr.: Can we roll the projector? We have some slides here…

Sheil: You’ll see in the upper left hand corner…

Gallagher Jr.: I don’t know. I think the thing about technology and relationships; I don’t necessarily know it’s anything new. What’s so great about the movie is it’s built on this device about technology but I think in a lot of ways the things it deals with on a human level are ages old. I do think that there’s more stuff now and I do think it’s really hard to navigate. That’s why I think it’s a pretty relatable story to people because it’s a sign of the times.

The Heart Machine hits theaters and Video On Demand platforms today.