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Elizabeth Wood’s feature directorial debut, the riveting and often shocking “White Girl,” doesn’t back down for even a minute. Loosely based on Wood’s own experiences attending college in New York City, the film follows Leah (Morgan Saylor), a privileged white girl who has never had to think too much about her place in the world, as she’s suddenly forced to do just that amidst unsettling circumstances. Initially fueled by the excitement of moving to a new neighborhood that comes complete with a sexy neighbor (Brian “Sene” Marc) who just so happens to also be a drug dealer, “White Girl” follows Leah as she gets in way (way) over her head when Marc’s character, the intriguing Blue, is arrested for his illegal activities.
What was once and exciting (and, yes, very sexy) new relationship soon becomes something very different, as Leah goes to extraordinary (and dangerous and crazy and stupid) lengths to get Blue out of prison. It’s a wild ride, and one that requires a leading lady who is willing to tap into some dark and untested places. Saylor, best known for her work on “Homeland,” sparked to the role immediately, and she and Wood worked together for months to bring their Leah to blistering, crazy life.
IndieWire recently sat down with Saylor to talk about the film, why she connects with Leah, how she got into the role and why she doesn’t have a problem with the film kicking up controversy.
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Most of the time, they cast someone a few years older for most roles of young people, which was always kind of frustrating. There’s something to be said about being able to be retrospective about a certain age, as opposed to just in it.
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This felt like an honest discussion about being a young person. It really did. I understood the feeling of being 17 and living with your parents somewhere, and then being 18 and living in New York and having a city at your disposal. That made it even more empowering to portray the character to such an extreme.
I did feel brave and I felt like I understood what we wanted to make a film about. I like pushing myself as an actor. Perhaps because I wasn’t so similar to Leah, I could look at it from an analytical standpoint. I have a lot of friends who like to party and who like to go out and are way more similar [to her] than myself.
There’s something so crazy about moving to New York as a young person. You can stay up all night. You can do all the drugs, if you want. You can work really hard at a job or work really hard at school. It’s crazy.
I think there’s something cleverly done with the film’s pace. You don’t really get to stop and think with her until the end, which happens in life. We go through this and then we stay up – and especially with the influence of drugs and drinking, and friends who like drugs and drinking – it can just keep going and going.
As soon as I came on, Elizabeth started sending these funny little assignments like, “Film yourself dancing to this song.” To try and get me out of my shell and excited about this. I took it as an acting assignment. I would do takes of it and understand what this felt like to me, and then also, on a screen.
We’d have a lot of lunches [we would] and each work on our respective notebooks and talk about scenes. As other people were cast, we would work with them and sit around a table and do actual rehearsal and discuss scenes and try and flirt with the characters and what they all felt like. Just a lot of time spent hanging out and shooting the shit.
I love to [use] timelines. I find that really, really helpful to understand the different highs and lows. The little highs and the climaxes and the rising. Also, just a calendar timeline. How many days have passed here? How many hours have passed between these scenes? What has she done between these scenes?
I make notebooks for characters and it kind of becomes a Bible. It’s full of images from some other films and images of friends and things I find online. Like a big collection of things. It has things about relationships and literal highs and lows, and, again, the timeline’s very important. When you’re shooting, everything’s all mixed up and it’s really helpful to refer to.
I would just pick Elizabeth’s brain. We would hang out all day, or work with one of our other actors, or walk around Bushwick. Then I would go home and read the script again and think on it and write down 20 questions, and then ask her about all of them the next day to just continue to build that little universe of the character’s brain, of the story that we were telling.
We know it was based on some of the things from her life, but she made it very clear from the beginning that we don’t have to try and recreate anything. This is a story that we’re telling and we’re going to tell it together.
A lot of the party scenes, a lot of the drunk or fucked up scenes, were more improvised. It was just like a bunch of people hanging out and [Elizabeth] would just let it go. Sometimes she would play music because that would really play into the way we all felt. All the party scenes are just these wild things. She would shout things and the DP would just search for us. It was really fun.
We knew it would be divisive and controversial. That was already expected, to be honest. We also knew that it was about a lot of bigger themes. You can view it in a lot of different ways, which is cool and weird and disappointing that some people don’t get more. It all makes for interesting conversation, to be honest, and starts good conversation.
When you talk to Elizabeth about the way she sees the world, you understand that it is really discussing how fucked up white privilege is. And how it’s this weird thing that exists and people don’t understand what they’re doing and aren’t participating or being aware or being conscious of that inequality of our society. That was all visible, really, from early on.
The thing that I think I wanted to do was to make her heart visible. I think that’s something I wrote down once before I really started all the work. Not “likable,” but make her, the good intentions that she has, they have to exist somewhere within her. That was more important than likable or not.
“White Girl” opens in theaters on Friday, September 2.