The richness of the human mind lies in people being able to access the infinite emotions that lie within it, and overcoming the buried traumas that are associated with them. That’s certainly the case for the characters in the new contemporary psychological thriller, ‘Neon Lights,’ which leaves them – and the audience – questioning not only themselves and their purpose, but also reality.

‘Neon Lights’ is currently streaming On Demand and Digital, courtesy of Momentum Pictures. The horror film was directed by Rouzbeh Heydari (‘Together Again’) and written by Dana Abraham (‘Prisoner of Fear’), who also play the protagonist.

In ‘Neon Lights,’ 30-year-old tech tycoon, Clay Amani (Abraham), is contending with his company, Tempest Tech, being on the verge of a hostile takeover while he also attempts to overcome mental health disorders and childhood traumas. Upon the advice of his therapist, Dr. Laila Mori (Brenna Coates), Clay retreats to an off-the-grid location for a family reunion with his misfit siblings, in order to face his traumas.

During the reunion, family secrets are revealed, which cause stress in the already strained relationships between Clay and his family. In hopes of turning this tragic encounter around, Denver Kane (Brenna’s father, Kim Coates), Clay’s trusted advisor, attempts to help Clay navigate and come to terms with what’s truly required of him to get back on track, and focus on what’s truly important – to retake control of his company. But things go very awry, and Clay is left fighting for more than just his company, when guests begin disappearing.

Brenna Coates generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Neon Lights’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the actress discussed that she was in part drawn to play Laila because Abraham wrote the character to be one of the few well-meaning and principled characters in the drama. She also mentioned that she cherished the opportunity be be able to collaborate with Heydari as the helmer, Abraham as the scribe and her co-star and her father as another castmate on the set.

ShockYa (SY): You play Laila in the new psychological thriller, ‘Neon Lights.’ What was it about the character, as well as the overall script, that convinced you to take on the role?

Brenna Coates (BC): The came to my dad, and then there was a part for me. It was incredible. I think my dad and I have an angel-demon dynamic; I’m playing a pretty good person, and I hope people think so. (Coates laughs.) My dad, meanwhile, plays more devious roles.

When I read the script (for ‘Neon Lights’), I was blown away. Dana Abraham is a genius. I met him and Rouzbeh, the director, over Zoom. Rouzbeh’s also a genius. So everything fell into place, and I was super lucky.

SY: Speaking of Rouzbeh, what was the collaboration like with him while you were developing your character of Laila?

BC: It was a true collaboration. I don’t think the word hierarchy exists in Rouzbeh’s vocabulary. I have worked with a lot of good directors, but Rouzbeh’s at the top. He respects every single person on his set. No one can come close to his style, expect for maybe Dana Abraham. But Rouzbeh’s just the coolest guy ever.

He also really liked my character. There was this beautiful, meditative, philosophical quality to Rouzbeh that I think made him really interested in my character, which, in turn, made me really excited about my character.

SY: Was there any kind of preparation or research that you did to help you better understand and connect with Laila?

BC: I was lucky that we we had some Zoom rehearsals with Rouzbeh and Dana. I also had four years of therapy before playing Dr. Laila, so I guess I did do some personal research, whether I knew it or not. (Coates laughs.)

I’m fascinated by trauma and what it does to the brain, and I read books on it. So I was lucky that I also went in with some level of intrigue and knowledge. My talks with Rouzbeh also blew it wide open.

SY: Besides working with Rouzbeh, what was your experience like of also working with Dana, as the film’s writer and lead actor?

BC: It was the best! Dana and I clicked right away. He’s this ball of energy and will make you laugh. He just transformed so easily into Clay Amani, and it’s like, where did Dana even go? That’s the mark of a true, incredible method actor.

I loved working with him, and we still text and FaceTime all the time. I’m so honored that I was able to be even a small part of his movie, and I want to work with him again.

SY: With the story focusing on Clay’s relationships with his family, were you able to talk to Dana about those connections in particular, especially since you played the protagonist’s therapist?

BC: I certainly had to understand the script because Laila’s kind of separate from the rest of the characters; there’s a Laila storyline, and then another central storyline. So I certainly had to be aware of the bigger picture.

As far as personal questions and depth, we focused more on the fictional characters. It was later on, when we finished the movie and were talking on FaceTime, that Dana and I started talking about personal things that led him to write this movie. But during the production, we kept things focused on the script.

SY: Your scenes in ‘Neon Lights’ all take place in Laila’s medical office. As an actress, do you enjoy shooting your projects in fewer locations?

BC: It actually made things easy. At first, I was intimidated by the idea because it was so small, as I thought, our scenes are just going to be full-on close-ups of Dana and me. I also thought, there can’t be a single false note.

But then having that be my space actually made things easier because I knew what to expect on set everyday. It became more real, and like I was really going to the office.

SY: As an actress, do you enjoy shooting your projects on location, instead on only in a studio?

BC: It was so fun, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be an actor. I want to travel and see new places for my job, and I feel so lucky to be able to do that. Going to this massive house on a beautiful, picturesque property with a massive green lawn that overlooked this beautiful view of the sunset was the best.

SY: Like you mentioned earlier, your father, Kim, also stars in the drama. What was the experience like of working with him on the movie?

BC: It was hilarious! There was one time when we were in our costumes and had our make-up on, but weren’t being called yet. My dad was like, “I’m on set with my daughter!”

I laugh at everything he does, but my mom and sister are like, “Brenna, don’t encourage him!” But he’s so funny sometimes.

I remember he was making me laugh that day. I thought, this is pretty cool. I’m on set, getting paid to do this movie, and I also get to hang out with my dad. It was a tough time in the world – it was November 2020 – but it was also special.

SY: Speaking of being able to laugh on set, how did you balance the ‘Neon Lights’s humorous and dramatic elements while you were filming on set?

BC: I didn’t interact with a few of the cast members on set that much, but Dana certainly kept things energetic, lively, warm and unpretentious. That was beautiful because the movie’s so intense, and should be taken seriously. But Dana created this environment where he told everyone, “Don’t take yourself so seriously on set.” It was so my vibe, and I loved that.

SY: ‘Neon Lights’ is now streaming On Demand and Digital. Do you think the dual distribution is beneficial for this type of film??

BC: Yes – I’m so excited for people to see the film any way they can! I’m telling everyone to see it because I’m so proud of it. I’m also excited for people to let me know what they think, and ask questions, about it, because we certainly don’t spoon feed audience members information about the movie.

Brenna Coates as Dr. Laila Mori in the horror thriller ‘Neon Lights,’ a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.
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Brenna Coates
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Actress in the horror thriller, 'Neon Lights'

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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