Neon Lights, which is currently available digitally and on demand, is a psychological thriller deeply focused on mental health issues. In particular, the mental health of its protagonist Clay Amani (played by Dana Abraham, who also wrote the script). Plagued by years of family trauma, Clay visits a therapist named Layla (played by Brenna Coates) to find healing and closure.
Directed by Ruzbeh Heidari, who co-created the story with Abraham, “Neon Lights” takes viewers straight to the scene of the healing attempt, when Clay brings together his estranged siblings to talk about their past. It starts to go wrong very quickly, but the audience is also kept in suspense about what exactly is going on at all. Other actors include Brit McRae, Erica Swayze, Rene Escobar Jr., Stephen Tracy, Lauren Howe and Kim Coates (“Sons of Anarchy”)—and each character plays a vital role in Clay’s recovery.
Screen Rant talked to Coates about what drew her to the Neon Lights story, how the collaboration between the creative team made the 15-day shoot light and easy, and what it was like to share the screen with her father Kim Coates for the first time.
Screen Rant: What was your first impression of Neon Lights and why did you want to be a part of the project?
Brenna Coates: I heard about it from my father. They wanted Kim Coates. How could they not? And this is a Canadian film that prides itself on taking over the world completely. That was my role, and when I read the script, it was phenomenal. I was really attracted to his themes of mental health and healing, and I was so happy to be involved.
It was the first movie I was in with my dad, so that gave it an extra special touch. But it was beautiful.
I know he only filmed the first couple of days, but I guess you’ll have to stay longer. He set the tone for you, and how did you get away from him?
Brenna Coates: Good question. They took it and it was like Kim Coates Week or something. He always sets the tone and is such a leader because he takes his work very seriously and respects others. But he’s also just funny and just a dude who makes people laugh.
The cool thing about it was that I was myself. Rosebeh and Dana treated me as if I was my own actor and, of course, playing my part in this film; as I am, of course, my own person, and I couldn’t love it more. I felt very respected the whole time I was on set.
Your character, Layla, is both the most down-to-earth element, but also the one whose presence warns us of the unreality we are experiencing. How does it feel to be imbued with such thinking and separate your scenes from the resort?
Brenna Coates: Yeah, I’ve always been so jealous of [actors playing] family because they were in my age group and they all had their scenes together. They were all hanging out and taking photos on Instagram, and I was like, “Damn, I’m just in the therapist’s office all the time.”
But it was fun because they wrote the script exactly as you just said. There is some confusion with every character in this movie, including the down-to-earth therapist. It just gave you freedom in how you wanted to play. There were no wrong answers, which allows for incredible nuances — and this is an actor’s dream.
In your scenes, almost everything is just you and Dana one-on-one. Even if some have Kim in them, you’re focused on Clay. What was this intimate filming experience like for you?
Brenna Coates: A dream! It was like an excerpt from a theatrical production or something like that. You’re absolutely right; the word intimate was what it looked like. Even the way Ruzbe directed me. It wasn’t like he was giving directions; instead, he was just talking to me.
I was so close to Dana, physically and figuratively. I just love him. We had our own common room, and all I had to do was just listen to him in the scenes and take care of him. Then everything else was on him, and he did a phenomenal job.
You mentioned the mental health aspect, and now I’m wondering if your character will be a therapist. Because this process seems intense.
Brenna Coates: It’s so funny! Oh my God. I don’t know. I bet Layla is worth a lot of money. I bet there’s a huge price to pay for Dr. Layla. I do not know if even she would have taken me. It’s probably just for Glue.
“Neon Lights” is a great name, and we see its literal reflection in the lighting when you watch the movie. But when you first read the script, what did the title tell you?
Brenna Coates: Just recently at the premiere we were asking questions and answers, and I just found out what [the tile] was supposed to be. But if I say it, I’ll just stab it.
For me, every room in this house and in this movie has its own color, and I just think it’s a separation. It’s different parts of the brain that light up.