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How ‘American Honey’ Got Cast

A conversation with director Andrea Arnold and some of the film’s fresh-faced, extremely charming young actors

Elias Stein/Getty Images
Elias Stein/Getty Images

By the time American Honey opens in theaters this Friday, the story of how Sasha Lane, the film’s enigmatic lead, was discovered will have been told about 100 times. The short version: It was a week before shooting, and British director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) still hadn’t cast the role of Star, the wild-child runaway who anchors the movie. Arnold was back on the beach in Panama City, Florida, searching among the hordes of drunk kids who’d traveled down for spring break, when she saw Sasha — white bikini, dreadlocks — and knew instantly that Lane was her lead. Arnold chased down Lane, who didn’t know if the resulting offer was a joke, and (possibly apocryphally) replied, “If this is a porn or you try to kill me, I will kill you.” But Lane decided to get into Arnold’s car and was eventually cast opposite Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough in the sprawling, three-hour road-trip movie about a group of free-spirited, wild teens traveling the country as part of a crew selling overpriced magazines.

Lane’s story is good — but hers isn’t the only street-casting fairy tale that shapes the film. Over the course of a year, Arnold and casting directors Lucy Pardee and Jennifer Venditti scoured strip clubs, bars, county fairs, grocery outlets, dollar stores, parking lots, beaches, and parks to cast real kids for the film’s two-month cross-country road trip. “I’ve been to every strip club in Tulsa,” Pardee jokes. “Andrea and I scouted together quite a lot. One day, we sat in deck chairs outside of Walmart, with a fruit platter, next to a trash can. And people were coming up to us like, ‘What are you doing?’ And if they were young we’d say, ‘Wanna be in a movie?’ We went to the areas where a mag crew recruiter would go to find the sort of young people who are ready to go on an adventure. The kids with a deeply kind of adventurous spirit. They are ones who want to step out of their worlds.”

American Honey is inspired by the stories of real-life mag crews, and though the stories written in The New York Times and The Atlantic are far darker than what the film depicts, Arnold strived for a feeling of cinéma vérité. If there is truth in the movie, it is in large part provided by the kids whom Arnold and her casting directors found. Most were hustling to stay alive when they met Arnold: Many of them were stripping or panhandling — one or two were even in mag crews before. The mag crew has limited screen time, but its members provide the film’s electric spirit and energy — and also much of the clutch soundtrack.

On the day of the film’s New York premiere, I sat down with a few members of the ragtag mag crew fresh off a rowdy Cannes appearance. It didn’t take long for Ray Ray Coalson to show me why he’d been cast: He greeted me with a huge smile and a cheerful hand-job motion. He and the rest of the crew — Isaiah Stone, Chad Cox, McCaul Lombardi, Dakota Powers, and Arnold, their matriarch with Bettie Page bangs — talked to me about the casting process and their American Honey adventure.

You guys just got back from Cannes. Did you prefer traveling to promote the film or making the film itself?

Andrea Arnold: [Traveling] for the film.

Ray Ray Coalson: It was so much fun.

Dakota Powers: We just got to ride around and be us.

McCaul Lombardi
McCaul Lombardi

Coalson: It wasn’t as fancy. We could do what we wanted. Now we have to control ourselves a little bit and I’m still like, naaaaah.

[Laughter.]

Arnold: We were all at that Cannes screening together, and we were slightly misbehaving, weren’t we?

McCaul Lombardi: It was like any song that came on we were like, YEAAAH.

You guys chose the songs in the film?

Coalson: We chose our favorite songs that we listened to. But we all liked the same artists.

Lombardi: We had the aux cord, to say the least.

Arnold: We had a lot of battles about that, because I have to clear the music. I was trying to get all the things that they love, which I also love. But sometimes we wouldn’t have something cleared, like Big Sean. There was no Drake. A shame because everyone is a massive fan of Drake.

Coalson: I’m not.

Arnold: They were always hijacking the cord. I was always yelling at them.

What is it about these guys that made you say, “Yes, I have to cast them?”

Arnold: It’s not an easy thing to sum up. I just had a very instinctive reaction to all of them, which is how I cast. It’s usually about meeting someone — I get a very strong feeling about them. You [points to Dakota] were wearing a big pink sweatsuit, which is why I was attracted to you. [To Ray Ray] I met you when you came to that motel with Princess.

Coalson: I had my little teacup Chihuahua.

Powers: I met you at Sharky’s. And then they played the song “American Honey.” It was a sign.

Arnold: Oh yeah. Someone was doing it at karaoke. It was a sign. Maybe.

Coalson: I feel like I got cast because I’m the shit.

Arnold: Because you’re the what?

Coalson: I’m the shit!

Arnold: You’re not a shit!

Coalson: The shit. The shit.

[Laughter.]

Arnold: They are all the shit. They’ve all got spirit.

What were you all doing before you met Andrea?

Powers: I was coming back from spring break. I had just gotten done playing beer pong, and I was wobbling down the beach and they found me. I had just gave my sandals to somebody because they didn’t have shoes.

Arnold: That’s right, you had those great big shoes.

Powers: I had someone else’s Nike SBs, size 13.

Arnold: What size are you?

Powers: I’m like [a size] nine. I was rocking them, though! [Laughs.]

Arnold: You did rock ’em that’s for sure. What were you doing in Panama?

Powers: Looking for work. Partying, as well.

Coalson: I was looking for work. But mostly, I was trying to escape my abusive ex-boyfriend.

And did you?

Coalson: I did. The night before I left for Oklahoma to start filming, we got into the big fight. I got this scar here. [Holds out his arm.] He legit tried to kill me. He got a knife and stabbed me. The day before we flew out, I got Andrea calling me, “Are you OK? Are you OK?” Trying to get me flights out earlier and stuff. It was an intense and scary moment. It’s like, when I got out with this movie, I haven’t been back to my hometown since. I left everything behind, even my dog. I’m that scared to go back.

And you won’t go back?

Coalson: I haven’t been back in two years. People keep trying to get me to come visit. But I’m just gonna stay in Cali. There’s a lot of bad memories there. If I go back, I won’t get back out. I’m not going back.

Powers: Good job, man.

Lombardi: I was living in Los Angeles, working at Cheesecake Factory. Auditioning for things. Working. I was just kind of figuring out what exactly I wanted to do. As soon as this came through I said, “I got this.” I’m getting this. This gonna be it. There was no audition process, it was an interview.

Arnold: We just talked.

Lombardi: It was just questions. “Who are you?” “What are you about?” “What are you like?”

Isaiah Stone: I just got out of school and I was up in Poughkeepsie working on a farm. Somebody told me about it. I came down to the city and I actually didn’t meet Andrea till we started filming. The first time I met her, she rolled up on a bike.

Chad Cox: I was working at the time. One of my friends was like, “They are holding auditions at the park.”

Arnold: We did an improvisation where we got people to have an argument. And you, my god. You can. Chad is so mild. He’s easy-going but you can … when you need to pull it out. You were fantastic.

Coalson: Wait, you’ve seen him pull it out?

[Laughter.]

Arnold: She’s gonna get the wrong idea. In England that means fight. What would you call that?

Coalson: Fight.

When you were looking for people, what was the story you wanted to tell? What did you want us to think about when we looked at this group of kids?

Arnold: Well, before we even started casting, I did a lot of road trips by myself. I went around and met a lot of people, but I also hung out with the mag crew for a bit. I learned a lot from that experience. A lot of the people in the mag crews come from difficult places — we had to go to a homeless shelter in Austin and the man working there said to me that a lot of America views these people as the throwaways. And I wanted to bring people into the film who you could look at and see as real people and not see them in that way. Every single one of these people here has a huge spirit and energy and life. And when you talk about getting cast, I remember with all of you, actually, once we met you, it was like you were one of us. You were with us.

Powers: All the time.

Arnold: Once we made the connection, it just started. It didn’t stop. I think that’s quite interesting. Even before you were cast —

Coalson: I felt like I knew you forever.

It’s a risky way of casting, isn’t it? Were you worried it might not work?

Arnold: You never know. Especially when people haven’t done it before. Some people don’t want to get out of bed. You never know. I wanted to show real faces. So, that was more important to me than anything else.

With Sasha, what set her apart?

Arnold: When I spoke to her, she was open, but she was protective. She wasn’t going to just come along with us … we could have been anyone. She was right. She had self-preservation, but was open. She was going to take that next step. She had an adventurous spirit and [is] very self-possessed. Would you say that’s true?

Lombardi: She’s a special girl.

Coalson: She’s with us. We’re all a crew.

Lombardi: It’s on our skin. [Flashes a 718 tattoo.]

Did you all get those?

Lombardi: Yup.

Coalson: I didn’t.

Powers: I didn’t either.

Lombardi: OK, some of us did.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.