At 25, the actress has spent over half of her life in front of the camera, starring in coming-of-age TV dramas (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and an eclectic mix of film roles (Underworld: The Awakening, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty, the upcoming Altar Rock). But it’s TNT’s 1960s prestige noir drama, inspired by the real-life story of Fauna Hodel, that elevates Eisley to another level. Starring Chris Pine as a down-and-out hack reporter and war vet, Jay Singletary, and directed by Patty Jenkins, I Am the Night charts a young woman’s desperate search for the truth about her identity, only for her to discover that sometimes it’s more bone-chilling than one could ever fathom.
The project came to Eisley like any other job, but her childhood fascination with true crime immediately drew her to Hodel’s story and her family’s possible connection to the infamous Black Dahlia murder. “It’s one of those true stories that is nearly unbelievable,” she marvels to ET, “because her life just spidered out into so many different insane avenues that she was unknowingly a part of.”
Hodel died in September 2017, only weeks before filming on I Am the Night began, so Eisley — who broke through as Shailene Woodley‘s kid sister on Secret Life of the American Teenager and grew up on sets thanks to Hollywood parents — took it upon herself to digest anything and everything she could get her hands on about Hodel’s life. That included reading her autobiography, One Day She’ll Darken, and watching clips from a film that was never finished. “I wanted to make myself aware of every possible aspect of the entire project and her life,” she says.
The actress, who was battling the flu when she spoke with ET in early January, revealed why she connected to Fauna’s “unbelievable” journey, forming an immediate bond with Pine and Jenkins, and why she’s personally drawn to “creatively stimulating” projects that are a little off-center.
ET: How did I Am the Night come to you?
India Eisley: It was just an audition from my agent. A lot of the time with jobs that I’ve booked, immediately I’ll read the breakdown or I’ll read the script and I’m like, “Oh I’d love to do this but I’m completely wrong for it,” and they tend to be the jobs that I book. (Laughs.) This one was no different. I read the breakdown and I was like, “I can’t do that! They’re not going to want me to this! I don’t think I’m going to get it.” I think that freed me up for the audition.
How familiar were you with Fauna Hodel’s story and her family’s possible connection to the Black Dahlia murder?
I was aware of the Black Dahlia murder, of course, because it’s so iconic and also because I, from a very early age — it’s going to sound incredibly creepy — I was always very into watching crime shows, unsolved murders and stuff like that. I was a real weird kid. (Laughs.) So I was well aware of the Black Dahlia murder, but I really had no idea about Fauna until I got the audition. Then, I looked it up and I was completely in awe of the story. It’s one of those true stories that is nearly unbelievable because her life just spidered out into so many different insane avenues that she was unknowingly a part of. Immediately, I was taken by the whole story; it’s impossible not to be really.
What struck you about Fauna?
In the beginning, she has that naivete about her and she grows a lot and matures a lot in a very short period of time because she has to, which Fauna did. As far as what I related to her, from knowing her story, she was very resilient — to put it mildly — and the fact that she didn’t go completely bonkers after being put into the position she was put in is a testament to her and her spirit. That I really looked up to, but also something I wanted to have a crack at playing.
Especially in the first handful of episodes, you really see her wide-eyed and unsure as she’s trying to put the puzzle pieces together of who her biological parents are as she embarks on a quest to seek the truth about her identity. I can’t imagine what must have been going through her mind as she came across startling truths about her father, George Hodel.
It’s mad! Not only has she grown up with this complete misconception, the reality [is crazy]. It’s like, I constantly want to undo it and pretend like I didn’t want to know any of this. This is awful. That’s how I would be in that position. I would not be nearly as strong as she was.
How would describe your experience being directed by Patty Jenkins?
Patty is an absolute incredible, incredible person, just overall. I think that’s what makes her an incredible director is she really, really pays attention to people. She’s very interested in watching human interaction and what makes people tick, and at first, it’s very off-putting in a very good way because you can tell that the wheels are constantly turning when she’s looking at you. “What’s the best way into this person?” She’s very inquisitive and has this one-of-a-kind energy. And [her husband] Sam [Sheridan, who wrote the series,] is just absolutely wonderful to work with. When it’s a good director, you can feel when they trust you when they cast you. Poor directors, I think you constantly feel like you’re constantly auditioning for them and it doesn’t feel like a collaboration and it feels very stressed out, which is the polar opposite of Patty’s set. She casts exactly who she wants to cast, which then in turn creates a very relaxed energy on set.
Can you elaborate on what you meant when you said Patty put her trust in you?
You feel like she frees up the actors to try things and experiment, which is the best way. But if she feels like something’s going off, she’ll come in and tweak it and set you back on a good trajectory. It’s not completely a free for all, but she has her guidelines, she knows exactly what she wants and if she needs to tweak something, she tweaks it. But for the most part, you feel very free when you work with her.
You’re working opposite Chris Pine, which isn’t too shabby.
(Laughs.) Just a bit. He’s wonderful.
It takes some time for it to happen, but when your characters, Fauna and Jay, form an unlikely partnership, it becomes the beating heart of the show. How immediate was that bond with Chris?
On a creative level, working with Chris, it was very, very easy to have a chemistry with him because he’s just wonderful to work with. He’s a very giving actor. He’s just great. He’s a very special person and I think most people don’t see [that]. They see Chris Pine, movie star, that whole thing, but don’t really get a chance to get a feel for him as a person. There’s a lot more to him than people think.
He’s the most underrated of the Hollywood Chrises…
Yeah. There are many Chrises. (Laughs.)
You were in Fauna’s skin for six episodes on this show. What would you have said to her if you had the chance to meet her face to face?
Honestly, two things come to mind. You can never really know what you would say because I would possibly be embarrassingly complimentary to her. One of the main things I would say is… Because she passed away shortly after I was cast, it was an interesting experience. It was heavy because her daughters, Rasha and Yvette, who are just complete lights of human beings, were there [on set] throughout the shoot, and they were always very encouraging and very warm. I can’t even imagine the warmth their mom must have had. The main thing that comes to mind would be: I have such a respect for you, just as a human being for not only coming out of it a strong person and still remaining a positive force, but also bringing two very special souls into the world and raising them, and it sounds hokey, but gifting us with them because they’re special, special souls.
One of your very first jobs was The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which is a very different show from I Am the Night. Is this more in line with your sensibilities?
Oh yeah. I shouldn’t go into detail because I’ll probably say something a little nasty… (Laughs.) But it was a good foot-in-the-door experience. Film and creatively stimulating jobs are what I wanted to do getting into this profession, so I’m very pleased to have gotten that niche.
Because you’re a true crime junkie, what are your current obsessions?
It’s a tad embarrassing but there’s this show called The Dead Files on the Travel Channel, and I’m completely obsessed with it! It’s on all the time and I love it. I love it! It comes on in marathons, so I’m just doomed in the afternoons and evenings. It’s wonderful. It’s this woman, Amy Allan, who is a medium of sorts, but she’s really incredible.
I Am the Night premieres Monday, Jan. 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TNT.