For the last decade, the reigning champion of the single-camera sitcom has been ABC’s Modern Family, and Sarah Hyland has stood out for her exceptional work as the thoughtfully shallow Haley Dunphy.
In between network television and films like Vampire Academy, Hyland has taken on the role of producer and star for the homecoming dramedy See You in Valhalla by brothers Brent and Jarret Tarnol. Involved in the project from its inception, Hyland plays the role of Johana Burwood, a young woman who is forced to go back to the town where she grew up when her brother is killed in a drug murder.
“Two years ago, Brent asked to write something for me—something that I hadn’t done before,” Hyland told The Daily Beast. “We worked on it together and it took about eight months to write the script.”
Valhalla is a departure from the sunny network comedy, although the production was not much longer than that of the average sitcom. The film was shot in only 13 days. Most of the movie takes place inside the family’s home. Jarret directed, making efficient use of the limited space. Meanwhile, Hyland carries the film, appearing in almost every scene and imbuing her character with the myriad complexities of an authentic human being—instead of an actor merely playing at authenticity.
The Tarnol Brothers have compared the film to such homecoming and dysfunctional family fare as Little Miss Sunshine and The Big Chill. The result is a movie that is entirely unique even as it treads familiar territory. There’s the erstwhile father (Conor O’Farell) under whose watch the family fell apart; the eldest, most conservative son, Don (Michael Weston); Johana’s openly gay brother, Dr. Barry Burwood (Bret Harrison), with whom she shares a close bond; and Shameless’s Steve Howey steals every scene he’s in as Barry’s partner—the pot-smoking, psychedelic mushroom-eating, archery enthusiast Markiwi.
“It’s about a family who has been torn apart by things that have happened to them. And they have to come together and work through all the bullshit,” Hyland says.
The missing brother is Magnus, a Germanophile who espoused a purely Viking ideology and was killed seeking vengeance against the drug dealer who sold his lover a deadly dose of meth. Family members spend the film struggling to deal with their own issues while processing the loss.
It’s not just family that has Johana ready to leave and never look back; she is also haunted by the ghost of boyfriends’ past. Johana still has a conflicted emotional attachment to the hometown hunk turned bartender because of an accidental pregnancy that earned her family’s disapproval. “Especially for young women, it can be a controversial topic,” Hyland says. “A lot of people would not agree with what [the character] did. But it’s something that happens a lot.”
As the lone surviving adult Burwood woman, Hyland’s Johana struggles to maintain her own identity. And, despite starring on a hit network sitcom, the 24-year-old actress has found it difficult to land leading lady parts because of a dearth of options. “There aren’t enough movies with female leads,” Hyland says. “Woody Allen did an amazing job doing that, but women should have more lead roles.”
Hyland, meanwhile, has never had a conventional life and a large part of her success is in overcoming the challenges she’s faced. From a kidney transplant in 2012, to being assaulted at a press event in Australia last winter, and going through a breakup with her emotionally turbulent and allegedly abusive former partner—and Valhalla co-producer—Matt Prokop, it’s taken a great deal of determination on her part to fight through it, to say the least.
Prokop and Hyland appeared together in a number of projects, including the Tarnol Brothers’ last film, April Apocalypse. Following a seven-year relationship with the fellow actor, Hyland left Prokop with the help of Modern Family co-star Julie Bowen. Hyland filed for a temporary restraining order on advice from the director of a rehabilitation facility Prokop attended last summer. Claiming four years of physical and verbal abuse, followed by continued harassment and stalking via telephone, text, and social media (including threats to her dog), the order was extended for three years in October 2014.
After the split, Hyland received an overwhelming show of support from other women in the entertainment world, some of whom shared their own stories of surviving domestic abuse.
When Hyland appeared on Meredith Viera’s show, the TV host spoke of enduring a similar situation at a young age. Julie Bowen has praised Hyland, telling US Weekly, “I personally made a million dating mistakes when I was young… Sarah is not even 25, and she’s already way ahead of where I ever was.” Even Vanessa Hudgens reached out, saying, “All you need is a couple of girls who are always there by your side.”
As recently as last month, Prokop was still making passive aggressive comments on Twitter about Hyland and her new partner, her Vampire Academy co-star Dominic Sherwood, as well as creepy Instagram posts that he has since removed. He has been absent from the promotional effort behind the film.But Hyland is soldiering forward. In addition to See You in Valhalla, she’s in the midst of the sixth season of Modern Family, which will presumably be renewed for a seventh season, and is actively searching for more complex characters like Johana.
“I think that we are starting to make a difference,” Hyland says of film roles for women. “The gap between the genders in the industry is an unfair advantage, but we are raising our voices and beating our chests. We are demanding to be heard and seen. And the more strong women in media the better.”