Already called the year’s “most controversial film” and compared endlessly to Larry Clark’s 1995 Kids, White Girl, the directorial debut from actress and writer Elizabeth Wood, has been making waves since its premiere at Sundance in January. Set in Ridgewood, Queens, the film follows Leah, played by Morgan Saylor, a naive NYU student who falls for a local drug dealer. She and best friend Katie (India Menuez) are suddenly entangled in an undercover sting, and their lives spiral out of control.
Aged twenty-one, Saylor, who is best known for playing petulant teenager Dana Brody in Homeland, wholeheartedly embodies Leah, and has received widespread praise for her gritty, honest performance. Co-star Menuez, an artist and actress who founded the Luck You collective in New York aged fifteen, invited Saylor around to her New York apartment to chat about White Girl, her career so far, and why she wants to be mysterious.
It’s India Menuez and Morgan Saylor reporting to you live from my living room floor.
The window is open, and the New York air is coming in. It’s a hot day.
Two things I’m curious about are how you feel about the work you did in ‘White Girl’, and what the film says now, re-contextualised with the ever-changing political climate in terms of race and sexism in the film industry.
Well, the past five projects I’ve done have been with female directors, ranging from a Disney studio movie to a few independent films and a play in the city. I mean, coincidence? I don’t know.
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Do you feel like you’re actively seeking it out?
I don’t know. I mean, sure. Maybe when I sit down and talk to a female and talk about a film, we’re more on the same page. And maybe that could go both ways.
What do you mean?
Like when I sit down with a male, maybe they don’t hear what I have to say in the same way a female does, or vice versa.
I think that’s what makes this film important right now – it talks about all those things.
My relationship to the film has really evolved as well over the past two and a half years. I was very scared of the script when I first read it.
I was like, no one talks about these things. This is scary – the idea of playing a character like that – but also scary to make a film that said something because the themes and the discussion are there. I want to tell stories that talk about things like this, and I think there’s a reason I don’t make superhero films. But when it was confirmed that I was going to make this film, I kind of had to put the discussions and the themes that are present in the film on the back-burner, and really focus on the excitement of Leah’s viewpoint, which we can say is kind of naïve.
And also to trust that [writer/director] Elizabeth was going to stick with the important messages.
Yeah. Elizabeth is a character, and we love her, but she’s a complex woman in a great way, with really strong beliefs, but also is really goofy. I have notebooks for my characters and shit like that and letters to myself that are like, ‘You’re about to lose your-self, remember that you’re trying to make something honest, that you’re trying to go the furthest you ever have with a character, that you’re trying to tell an important story.’ These are things Elizabeth encouraged. When it came out at Sundance I started to look back through those to try and kind of think about what I had to say about the film, and I even looked back through Elizabeth’s and my early emails. When you begin any film, the director says, ‘What is your process?’ And I remember saying, ‘I don’t really know. I don’t know if I’ve done this enough.’ I had just come off my first play in the city.
So we all sat down and talked about the story, and figured out what it was about, what the characters were about, and where it was going. So I approached White Girl in a more informed way. I was kind of able to approach it mathematically. And here’s my big thing: I do think about character arcs and stories mathematically. The way you evaluate functions in math feels very relevant to storytelling to me. I have this funny kind of hangover from the film, and from Leah, that my friends and loved ones are very aware of. It took me a while to feel like me again.
You did the play, but then you did ‘White Girl’, and then you did a movie where you were a character going through rehab, and then a movie where your character was a nun, and that felt like such a serendipitous arc in itself. How do you navigate these characters as ghosts within your life?
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It’s really fucking weird. I think being an actor is so weird. Do you remember I broke down after the premiere at Sundance? It happened publicly so I’ve been trying to like figure out, what did I do to myself? Why did I do that? I’m really proud of it, but is that healthy?
So how old were you when you started acting and why?
My hands get excited when I act, and that’s something they do for math, and that’s something simple that I understand. I started when I was a kid. I grew up in rural Georgia until I was ten, and then we moved to Atlanta. I started in summer camp and I’d come home and pace around my house memorising monologues. I started to fall with movies – The Wizard of Oz was literally epic for me. When we moved to Atlanta I liked it and wanted to continue. I also grew up rock climbing and that was my other thing, like very intensely competitively. I had a very strict Romanian coach.
The three sides of Morgan – math, acting, and rock climbing.
I wish I still climbed.
So what was your first ever role, and how old were you?
I was about eleven or twelve, and I’m very proud of this credit – a small role in The Sopranos.
Yeah. It’s when Tony gets shot, and he’s hallucinating, and his young daughter is like, ‘Daddy, don’t leave us’ or some shit.
Oh my god, that’s amazing!
And then I played Kevin Spacey’s daughter in this bad movie, and there were a few things in Atlanta. It was an exciting thing within my life, and even within my friend group [the fact] that I acted seemed exciting. I thought I was doing big things, and I was in some way because I was making a little money, which was a funny thing to do as a teenager. I always liked work – my parents didn’t have a lot of money and they went bankrupt when I was thirteen. I started working when I was fourteen. As soon as I could get my work permit, I started working forty hours a week in the rock-climbing gym because I just wanted to get a car, and wanted to be independent. I thought I was really doing things, and then Homeland started. It was a very magical little experience because I was still in high school, and it’s shot in North Carolina, and I could go back and forth, and stay in public high school.
That’s so crazy, that you didn’t have to drop out.
Crazy! I didn’t have to go to fucking LA at age sixteen and have my brain washed. I shot half the year; I worked with many different directors as you do in TV; I got to spend thirty-six hours playing the same character with smart women and adults around me who taught me a lot, and I shot that from aged fifteen to eighteen.
I remember an older actor who was like, ‘Don’t do TV until you need to settle down,’ because the recognition that comes with that can be a burden. How have you felt able to navigate that, in terms of being able to still get diverse roles?
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I walked into [Homeland] not really knowing, in my opinion, how to act. I didn’t have a process at all. I would just walk on set and say the lines. My friends would be like, ‘You’re just playing yourself,’ especially because I was like a pot-smoking hooligan on the show. When you’ve been on a show for a long time, you understand the character in a way that the director, who comes in for one episode, doesn’t.
So how do you navigate that, being a young actor?
TV’s such a fascinating thing right now, and we are in the golden age of television. I think when I watched The Sopranos, I was like, wow, how did they do that? That’s about characters, and brilliantly written. I really do think about arcs a lot; I think about the beauty of that function, and how a story is somewhere in there. So if you know the arc you’re reaching for, and you believe in it, as long as you get there, you can approach it a lot of different ways.
I always like a timeline. I literally will write out every scene number, and a few points from a scene, and then I sit back with four pages of a timeline I’ve just drawn out. This felt really important for Leah. And writing stuff down. I mean everyone knows this, but writing is a great way to declare your thoughts.
Well, you think differently while you write, right?
Yeah. In a way that you can then go back to, and build off. And for White Girl, I would go into weird, deep, dark holes in the notebook and there are pages about her highs and her lows, ranging from quotes I would hear someone say at a party about how fucked up and happy they were, or things of really deep depression. I also print little pictures from books, or the internet, or films even.
So it’s like a little character bible, kind of.
Bible, yeah, that’s exactly the word, and for The Nun, it felt really fun to have a bible.
A bible for your nun! Okay, I was going to ask something about when we were at Sundance together. It was great, but there’s also this feeling when you’re in the press pit that makes it feel like torture. I don’t know how you balance the work with the need to promote the work. I don’t know whether that’s an interesting conversation, and it’s kind of meta within the context of an interview…
Yeah, but this is a cool interview! It’s something I struggle with. It’s something I have anxiety about because it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel like why I’m there, and that, I guess, is the important thing to remember when I’m doing those things. I like acting, and I want to be an actor and not a celebrity, and when I was younger I didn’t really know the difference. I think I was fortunate that Homeland was kind of a big thing and I went to the Golden Globes and the Emmys for a few years, and just started doing a lot of press when I was really young. I thought about it less then, and would just talk. I feel like if that had just begun more recently, I would have been more anxious about it.
You think it feels unnatural?
Yeah, and it doesn’t feel like what it’s about. A lot of young actors do it, which I think is great, but I want to be mysterious as an actor. I don’t want to be known for being me, which is even something I struggle with, especially recently with all the political things happening. I don’t really want my own views to be known, which is a terrible feeling because I do want to be vocal.
That’s the thing about being an actor who has to maintain a public presence. There’s kind of no way for that public presence to not be a performance in itself.
It’s a weird thing because it feels important as a young person, as a citizen, to talk about the things I feel passionately about, but then I just happen to be an actor too. And if I talk too loudly, will this hurt my career?
I think it’s hard.
Yeah. I wish I could be three people, isolated from each other.
Who would these three people be?
A mathematician student, an activist and a young person, and then an artist, an actor.
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Make Up Katie Mellinger using Tromborg.
Photography Assistant Alexandra Schaede.
Special thanks to The Color House.