Sometimes it only takes a few minutes to make a powerful impression. In the acclaimed new film Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck’s Lee drifts through his New England hometown after his brother’s death, unable to cope with his own painful past. As a contrast, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) deals with his own tragedy in the inexperienced and often humorous ways of a teenager, and, through his story, we’re introduced to Anna Baryshnikov, who adds a jolt of confidence and vigor to the dark film as Sandy, a girlfriend Patrick is desperately trying to sleep with. Appearing in an award-season contender with a rarefied cast (also including Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler) is a noteworthy feat for Baryshnikov in her first major film role, but it only signals the beginning for the young actress.
Baryshnikov, now twenty-four, grew up just outside of New York, but went to school in the city. As a child, she performed in an afterschool children’s Shakespeare theater, but Manhattan offered its own education into the art world. “Starting when I was fourteen, I was allowed to go in and see any movie I wanted or go to any show I wanted,” she recalls. “I think that connected me with a community of good, interesting people who were pursuing the arts, which you can definitely find elsewhere, but the level of work that you get to see in New York from such a young age is really mind-blowing. I think it definitely set the bar for me in terms of the kind of work I wanted to be doing.”
Her family helped shape her perspective on her calling as well. As the daughter of famed dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lisa Rinehart, Anna has been surrounded by artistic energy her whole life. “The company my parents kept when I was younger was definitely creative people,” she explains. “When you get to see an artistic process, outside of what’s a ‘successful’ movie, when you just get to see people who are going through the process of expressing themselves across many different mediums—I continue to have an open mind about the work I want to be doing because you realize the value in all different kinds of art.”
Over the last two years, Baryshnikov scored small roles in different television shows, but Manchester by the Sea offered her the best learning opportunity yet. In the film, most of her scenes are with Hedges, but director Kenneth Lonergan set up a two-week rehearsal in New York prior to shooting, during which she had the opportunity to observe Affleck, Chandler, and Williams at work. “I got to see them go through the entire script and ask questions and work on their dialogue, which, for someone who’s really working on their process and is new to the business, that was the biggest gift in the world,” she says. “I kind of can’t believe that I got to watch how Michelle Williams navigates how she does a scene.”
Spending time with them during festivals and press appearances also helped acclimate her to the industry, as well as avoid the trappings that other neophytes fall into. “Something that I was struck by and continue to notice throughout this process is that they really stay so focused on the work,” Baryshnikov explains. “It really feels like it’s not about the acclaim and it’s not about the amount of celebrities in the movie—it’s really about the story and the specificity of everyone’s work. I think the thing that I’ll take away is the kind of focus and quiet pride in actually working really hard on something.”
Playing Sandy, Baryshnikov had the opportunity to revisit her teen years, which felt appropriate as she navigated her own new stage of growth. “I think I had first-movie nerves anyway, so those kinds of awkward younger vibes felt accessible,” she says. Hedges’s aloof Patrick focuses on finally sleeping with Sandy, despite constant interruptions from her mother, and while she isn’t the only girl in Patrick’s life, her self-assuredness brings a different angle to typical on-screen teenage romance. “I feel like in most intimate scenes between teenagers, the girl is either being pressured into doing something she doesn’t want to or the guy is initiating, and I felt like if I was going to play a teenager I loved, I was playing one that knew what she wanted and was really in control of getting what she wanted,” Baryshnikov says. The role offered moments of laughter, something the film delicately balances with Lee’s desolation. “I think something that Kenny worked really hard to achieve was that tragedy and grief have so many colors, and for someone like Patrick, there are still going to be bright moments in his life.”
“Something that I appreciate about Manchester by the Sea is that it feels like drama and comedy are actually closer than we give them credit for sometimes,” adds Baryshnikov, drawing a connection to her next project, a CBS sitcom based on a Tracy Letts’s play Superior Donuts. At first glance, the relatively traditional network series might seem like a major departure from Manchester by the Sea, but Baryshnikov is excited about the different tests a comedy will present, as well as the opportunity to work with veterans like David Koechner, Katey Sagal, and Judd Hirsch, and burgeoning stand-up comedian Jermaine Fowler. “I think improv and standup are a really specific training that I haven’t delved into,” she says, “so I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from them.”
Baryshnikov recently moved to Los Angeles to work on Superior Donuts, the latest step in a sequence of new experiences that have broadened her capabilities. She wrote a play and hosted a reading in Tribeca last year, and plans to continue working on it. “Something that I really like about writing that you don’t get the chance to do with acting is take as long as you want to refine something,” she explains. But other than that, she’s content learning as much as possible from the talent she’s surrounded by and engaging in new challenges. “I think something that I have really—whether or not I wanted to—absorbed from my parents is I always want to be moving on to the next thing and stretching myself as much as possible,” Baryshnikov says. “I really look up to women who write for themselves for TV and film and direct as well. I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, but I definitely am enjoying trying everything and learning what I’m capable of.”
Manchester by the Sea is out now.
Styling by Britt Berger. Hair by Nate Rosenkranz at Honey Artists. Makeup by Jenny Kanavaros at Honey Artists using YSL. Photographer’s assistants: Richard Wade and Kyle Tunney. Retouching by Jamie Saunders.