Taylor Russell is the first person you see in Trey Edward Shults’ devastating family drama, “Waves,” as her character, Emily, glides across the hot pavement of a quiet stretch of suburban Florida road on her trusty bike. You’ll be forgiven if you forget that part soon enough, as Shults pushes outward to introduce Emily’s vibrant big brother Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his pals as they careen along a sun-drenched highway, music blaring and camera spinning. As the pulse-pounding first half of the film unfolds, it’s Tyler that consumes most of it, cast as a high school wrestler undone by familial pressures, a lingering injury, and a future very much in flux.
And yet Emily is always there, too, drifting in and out of scenes at home and high school. Eventually, Tyler’s dramas overtake the rest of the family, including father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and mother Catharine (Renee Elise Goldberry). But after a tragic event flips the film at its midpoint, it’s Emily — and a revelatory Russell — who is forced into focus, turning “Waves” into a showcase for a powerful performance.
It’s only fitting that Russell, best known for her starring roles in Netflix’s “Lost in Space” revamp and surprise horror hit “Escape Room,” was recently nominated for the Gothams’ Breakthrough Actor award. While “Waves” is filled with excellent performances from its stacked cast, it’s Russell that makes off with its most spectacular turn.
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Shults has always had a knack for casting — from using his own family in his debut “Krisha” to pairing Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott as adversaries in apocalyptic followup “It Comes at Night” — but his real talent is casting surprise MVPs who manage to shine even in the most crowded of features. In “Krisha,” it was his real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild, playing a version of herself in the dizzying Thanksgiving-set drama. For “It Comes at Night,” that honor went to Harrison, gifting the breakout star a fraught role as a kid at the literal end of the world. Thank Harrison for sharing the love.
Russell was working on another project with a mutual pal of Harrison’s, and when she happened to peek into a FaceTime chat between the pair, Harrison instantly suggested she try out for “Waves,” the next project he was working on with Shults. Turns out, her agents were already pushing her for secretive film, and just hours later, Russell received an email with audition material. “Oh, maybe that’s a sign,” said she remembered thinking to herself.
Russell’s two audition scenes come later in the film, when she’s just setting out on a tentative relationship with the gentle Luke (Lucas Hedges) after family tragedy. For the actress, the connection to Emily came quickly. “I immediately connected to it,” she told IndieWire during a recent interview. “I just knew what her voice was and it felt in line with mine, just super synchronized. It felt good.” She put her scenes on tape and “sent them out into the ether.”
“It’s such a vulnerable thing to tape yourself in your bedroom or with a friend and then you don’t know who’s watching it,” she said. “A lot of the time I’m like, ‘Do I really want to send this out? Are people going to make fun of me?’ Or the opposite of that is, ‘Is somebody even watching it? Are all these tapes just going into like this one pocket of oblivion and nobody’s picking them out?'”
She waited. And waited. Then, another FaceTime, this time with Shults himself, who eschewed the usual “formal Skype at 4 p.m.” that Russell has gotten used to during the audition game. One major topic of discussion during those early chats was why Shults, a white filmmaker from Texas, was equipped to tell a story about a black family in Florida, one whose fortunes ultimately hinge on experiences that are often specific to their race.
“We talked about that before I even got the part,” she said. “He wanted to work with Kelvin as an actor regardless of race, and because of his want for that, he shifted his personal family story around Kelvin.” By now, she has developed a cogent argument in favor of the decision: “White filmmakers get so many opportunities to create stories, and how better could you use your voice than to take people of color and infuse them in your story and ask questions and stand outside of yourself and take that opportunity to learn about people that you wouldn’t necessarily learn about in your everyday life?”
Part of Luke’s story that became a major part of his relationship with Emily was taken from Shults’ own experience with his family. “If white filmmakers are going to tell a story about a black family, [it should be] the way that Trey did,” Russell said. “It was really graceful and beautiful because he cared so much about what we thought. He wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t feel like it was true to an African-American story. It’s also a story that everybody can relate to. A lot of people who come up to Trey have said, ‘Oh, this could happen to my family.'”
She added, “Obviously I would love to see black filmmakers telling stories about black families, and I think that that’s happening and will continue to happen more. I hope.”
Russell admitted that tapping into her character during the first half of the film, when she has such little time on-screen, provided a tough challenge. “I just wanted to make sure that every time that I was seen, even if I was in the background, I was doing things subtly that alluded to where I was going or who I was as a person,” she said.
With time, Russell felt like she was becoming her character during production. “The feeling that Emily has of being alone or being like the lost child archetype was how I felt on set,” Russell said. “When I was with the family, I did feel a little bit like the outsider and a little awkward. I spent a lot of that time dreaming about what our lives would be like together as a family and what we would do and what that looked like and then yearning for that and not being able to experience it at all in a real way.”
While the second half of the film mostly hinges on Emily’s relationship with Luke after a long period of isolation, it builds to a key scene that she shares with Brown. Forced to finally talk to her father about the horrible event that has torn their family apart, “Waves” offers a dramatic catharsis it has so far denied both its audience and characters. It’s a stunning showcase for all of the work Russell and Brown have built into their roles.
By that point in production, Russell said that Brown was filming “This Is Us” simultaneously, so he wasn’t on set most days. That helped her get into the mindset of a young woman feeling separated from her parent during an emotional time in her life, just as Emily does. “I was having nightmares during the entire filming process, like every single day I would wake up like screaming or crying,” Russell said. “It was one of those experiences where it felt it was really impacting my subconscious. I had this really intense nightmare where something really bad happened, I did something really bad and I had a lot of shame in it and I woke up and I couldn’t shake that feeling.”
Russell turned to her journaling, recording her thoughts — both as herself and her character — as she prepared for the scene. Then Brown came to set. “Sterling looks like he’s somebody in my actual family, like he looks like he could be my dad’s brother,” she said. “When I see him, I get this jumpy feeling in my stomach. I had that when I saw him that day. We didn’t talk before the scene. We just did it and it didn’t feel that big, but it felt like a release. It felt like, ‘Oh, we’re finally talking, but we’re finally talking as people, as characters, in many different arenas.'” It was one of Russell’s last days on set.
Emily is the last person you see in “Waves,” back on her bike, gliding again against that big Florida sky. Russell says she still thinks about Emily, what choices she made after the film’s final credits, where it all went next. There’s plenty left to consider, but any concerns Russell has about putting in some last minute perfect piece of acting are unfounded. It’s all there already.
“What’s frustrating is that you never really feel like you have it until you’re finished shooting,” Russell said. “You don’t have anything left to shoot, and you’re like, ‘I have so much! I have so much right now that I wish I could change, I could go back on, or things that I realized in the script or as a person, this is what she’s like and this is what she would do.’ But you can’t change it.”
A24 will release “Waves” in theaters on Friday, November 15.