Bustle Exclusive

Katy O’Brian Got Down & Dirty For Love Lies Bleeding

The actor and onetime bodybuilder stars alongside Kristen Stewart in the debauched new film.

Katy O'Brian attends the 27th annual SAGindie Actors Only Brunch at Sundance at Cafe Terigo on Janua...
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In a cinematic landscape replete with overmuscled, undersexed, military-complex-adjacent superheroes, Love Lies Bleeding provides a much-needed counterpoint: an oiled-up, unabashedly sexy movie that indicts “strength for strength’s sake,” in the words of director Rose Glass.

Glass, whose debut feature Saint Maud (2019) was widely acclaimed, dreamt up an ’80s steroid-fueled fever dream about Lou (Kristen Stewart), a lonely gym manager, and Jackie (Katy O’Brain), an amateur bodybuilder who washes into town. The two quickly begin a torrid love affair as Jackie works tirelessly to prepare for her first bodybuilding competition — but all too soon, Lou’s family history catches up with them, knocking their love story off the tracks and driving them toward something darker, stranger, and messier.

O’Brian, an actor with credits on The Mandalorian and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, jumped at the chance to tap into her own history with bodybuilding. (Well, maybe she didn’t literally jump, but she did make a Powerpoint presentation about her qualifications for the role.) “I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to do acting were it not for the confidence that bodybuilding gave me,” she tells Bustle. “And then this movie came along, and I was like, ‘It’s fate.’”

The production process was grueling at times, as O’Brian was simultaneously training her body and putting in 12-hour days on set, but it was worth it — even when it got a little messy.

Love Lies Bleeding is not for the faint-hearted, as the members of the test audience who had a “visceral,” headline-making response to it will tell you. But the final cut, while still filled with vomit and gore, doesn’t include every gross-out scene. “There’s at least one more fight that Jackie gets into, and the fight that I had with Lou was a lot more violent originally,” O’Brian says. “So whatever you’re seeing is definitely a toned-down version of what we filmed.” (Here’s hoping for an extended DVD edition.)

Below, O’Brian discusses her experience with bodybuilding, working with an intimacy coordinator, and her first impression of Stewart.

Courtesy of A24

I’d love to start with your own history of bodybuilding. I understand you participated in a few amateur competitions when you were younger?

Yeah, I did a couple, and it was eye-opening. The first one I did with a trainer at LA Fitness, and he was great, but close to my first competition he was like, “By the way, you need a posing coach.” And I was like, “How hard could that be?” It turns out it’s actually the hardest part, especially for me, not being a graceful human being. And then I was in with a posing coach, and they were like, “When are you going to start cutting for the competition?” And I was like, “Am I not lean enough?”

So the first competition was a wash. You get judged for your hair, makeup, and for your posing suit. My suit didn’t fit well, so I got docked points for that.

The next year I went with Ben Barkes, who is Mr. Indiana. The training process was a lot more directed, and I wound up buying the super expensive suit, and I did the whole hair and makeup thing, and I got better at my posing. We decided to go into a nondrug-tested competition, and I got smashed. I can’t sustain that much muscle and cut that much weight and compete with amazing genetics or unnatural competitors. So I just got over it and stopped, but I still admire the art and respect people who do it. It just wasn’t for me.

Why do you think people still scoff at women with large muscles?

Challenging the status quo is always something people scoff at. People get comfortable in normalcy. When you branch out of that, people tend to be like, “Why would you want to look like that?” But I think beauty is very personal and subjective. Growing up, I was always really thin, but I felt beautiful when I put muscle on.

I had a lot of clients from other countries who were men who didn’t want to put on muscle, because where they’re from, that’s not attractive. It’s just so subjective.

At the same time, a lot of body builders are fetishized too. You have both ends of the spectrum: People either think you’re crazy and gross, or they’ll fetishize you. It’s weird that we put so much focus on bodies.

Courtesy of A24

The film definitely seems interested in thinking about that.


What do you think it’s saying about bodies?

That they break? They’re just flesh that we walk around in. You start seeing Jackie become super big, like this 35-foot-tall woman. That’s not reality; it’s how she perceives herself. So body is your perception, but then there’s also the [scene where] I’m picking up [Dave Franco’s character] and snapping him in half. That’s it. His little vessel is destroyed.

There’s a lot of fluid in this movie, literally. What was it like on set? Was there a lot of fake stuff flying around?

I just had the vomit... Oh, where I threw up Lou. So that was just mushed up bananas, and it was delicious but gross. But then Kristen was covered in, I don’t even know, some slippery goo. That was kind of scary because they had my stunt double hold her and drop her multiple times. I guess they were worried I was going to really drop her.

The blood that explodes everywhere was super sticky and gooey. It was very Tarantino. And then, look, it was 112 degrees. We were in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was sweating the whole time. It’s really hard to feel sexy when you’re soaking in your own sweat.

Yeah, there’s a lot of sex in this movie, which is fun. I’m glad we’re finally seeing sex on screen again. Did you and Kristen talk beforehand about how to approach those scenes?

We all worked together. You work with the intimacy coordinator first and express what you’re comfortable with. We were all generally like, “Yeah, we love this scene. It’s beautiful. Let’s not change anything unless camera angles [require] it.” Then we’d discuss the scene with Rose and go over it with words. So the first time you’re actually touching each other is when you’re recording, and that’s the only time you’re actually touching each other.

My one boundary is like “Don’t lick my ear because I won’t be able to finish the scene because I’ll be laughing.” It’s so gross. I hate it. And I was adamant to make sure that Kristen was comfortable, too. I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable in any way.

In the first bedroom scene, they had so many layers on me, and the last layer was this thick, cut-up yoga mat to cover my bottom half. But it was 112 degrees. Anytime Kristen would pull the pants off, everything would rip off because I was too sweaty. At some point I was like, “Can I just wear underwear?”

They definitely go above and beyond to make you feel protected, so that both parties are like “OK, we’re good.” Even when [I put] my foot in her mouth, they gave me mint spray to put on my foot. There were a lot of really sweet things to make it less of a disgusting and weird situation.

Courtesy of A24

What was the most challenging scene to film?

The bodybuilding competition was pretty hard, because I was on a dehydration day, so that week I’d lost 8 or 10 pounds of water weight and wasn’t drinking water.

More generally, what did you expect Kristen would be like to work with?

I always have a little fear, [like] “I hope this person makes the set as easy and comfortable as possible.” But even in the chemistry read, I could tell that was going to be the case. Before I even went in to read with Kristen, she was just sitting in the hall, and I was like, “I’ll just go chat with her real quick.” She was super chill, laid-back, and seemed like a down-to-earth, totally normal person. That’s all I could’ve hope for, someone who was just as excited as I was to do this.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.