India Eisley grew up on sets because her mother was an actress, and she booked her first role when she was only 10 years old. Her 15-year career has thus far consisted of quite a few films (“Underworld Awakening,” “The Curse of Sleeping Beauty”) in addition to television (“The Secret Life of the American Teenager”). Now, Eisley portrays the real-life Fauna Hodel, a woman who grew up believing she was mixed race, only to learn some dark truths about her origin story much later in life, in TNT’s limited series “I Am The Night.”
You have other actors in your family. How did growing up around the business impact your interest in entering it?
You’re not going into it blindly thinking that it’s all going to be great. You have the reality of it — the grounded mentality that you need — because when you’re a kid you see things go wrong; you see a family member not get a job; and you see the after effects, so you come at it with a more realistic view, I think.
What made you want to start acting, then?
Watching different performances cemented I wanted to do it. I was also coming from a very childlike place of just, “God, that looks fun!” When I saw Sally Field play Sybil — I was seven and found an old VHS of it and I watched it and I was disturbed beyond belief, but I was fascinated, too. It was, “That looks so fun. That s—s on playing with Barbie; I’d rather play Sybil.”
How did the early roles you auditioned for stack up compared to such goals?
I remember when I booked the show that I was on [“The Secret Life of the American Teenager”], it was a teen show, and I was grateful for it being a first job and getting my foot in the door but ultimately when the breakdown came in and it was for an American teen, a 13-year-old Avril Lavigne little sister, I was busy watching “Pulp Fiction” and “Deliverance,” but everyone was saying, “India, you’re too young to play a crackhead. You need to go up for this.”
Where does “I Am The Night” fall in?
It was a completely unique, one-off experience. I don’t think anything will touch it because it was such a long shoot [and] working with Patty and working with Chris — just the entire team of people — it became very familial. And also familial because Fauna, who I played, her daughters were on set for a lot of the time, and they had just lost their mum; she passed a few weeks before.
What kind of extra weight did that add to your work?
It’s a big responsibility, I think, when you play somebody who has existed but also somebody who has just recently passed away. It’s a bit of a heavy thing. But Rasha and Yvette, her daughters, were just so encouraging and so supportive and just lovely.
Fauna was adopted by an African-American woman, but she was actually Caucasian, so she was torn between two worlds in many ways and experienced different degrees of racism. How timely do you feel her story is for today’s world?
She’s a very transient person, and Rasha and Yvette told me throughout her entire life that never left her. … And I relate to that aspect, so I kind of grabbed onto that because that was a very truthful place for me. You have one foot in one place and one in another, and it was a very gray area she lived in. … Things in the world really haven’t progressed nearly as much as people thought, and I think there’s only one way to progress — to basically strip down to the foundation to see what’s wrong.
The limited series doesn’t focus on Fauna’s younger years the way the book version (“One Day She’ll Darken”) of her story does. Did you use any of those truths as motivations for your performance anyway?
As far as just the emotional side of it, the book really did coincide with the scripts. Sam Sheridan, I think he did a wonderful job. Even though he omitted a lot of storyline, we still got the emotion from it. Even though I had read the book so that could have affected me anyway, it was pretty much [in line] with where she was at.
Fauna was raised in the South. What work went into finding and evolving her accent?
We had a really fantastic dialect coach named Samara Bay — I’m like a walking billboard for Samara, she was wonderful to work with. We didn’t want the accents to basically become their own character. When I first auditioned for it, I read it as “non-rhotic Southern accent,” and I got really excited because non-rhotic is like “Gone with the Wind.” So I walked in, and I was like, “I’m going to talk like this,” and [they were] like, “No, you’re not.” … They had me try it with the accent we settled on but also a regular American accent, and that just didn’t work. As it goes on, like the scenes with Connie [Nielsen], it lessens as the series goes on. For a lot of people, and I’m one of them, where you are and who you’re spending your time with greatly impacts your accent. And then it’s also just adapting. It can be a survival mechanism, really. [She] has to amp it up because she’s with these people now.
Much of the show is centered on Fauna’s relationship with a reporter (Chris Pine) who is also looking for information on her birth mother. What did you need to do to understand why she would trust him so quickly?
What are her options? It’s him or the creepy guy in the black car who follows her everywhere! [But] it’s pretty easy to have chemistry with Chris. He’s just really a sweet person, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. It was easy, working with him. It felt very equal; it never felt like older person-younger person. It was just two individuals finding some kind of comfort and knowing they’re not alone. It was like a perfect time for them to meet. … [And] it’s a very human story. It’s not just female, it’s not just male. They’re both in very gray areas in their lives that are completely different but they’re able to find middle ground.
Other than acting, what do you find yourself most passionate about these days?
There is a foundation called Animal Hope and Wellness, and it’s strictly working against the Yulin dog festival in China, and so I think that would be probably my primary concern. And then even though I’m not involved with anything yet, I think something needs to be done about the homeless situation, so that’s another thing. … On a slightly lighter note, I love ballet and dancing. If I hadn’t become an actress, I would be a dancer.