'White Girl' Star Morgan Saylor Doesn't Care If Her Characters Are Likable
Although the new film White Girl takes place in the same dog days of summer as it's being released in, the movie already brought the heat this winter at the Sundance Film Festival with its provocative story of a young woman living hedonistically in New York City. Homeland's Morgan Saylor stars in White Girl as Leah, a bleach blonde 19-year-old who spends her time before sophomore year of college with no real regard to the consequences of her actions. As you watch Leah make poor decision after poor decision, it's hard to feel much sympathy for her — an experience that Saylor, who made waves for playing Homeland's much-disliked teen star, Dana, is all too familiar with.
"I do really like to make these characters and play them and push them far within their own bounds," Saylor, 21, tells Bustle. "I don't want to think about likability at all when I'm acting... I don't know if I'd like Leah."
Saylor's performance in White Girl is sure to affect you, not only because of the sensational scenarios the character puts herself in, but more importantly, because of how true to life she feels. Leah's confidence and self-awareness make her compelling and realistic, and in Saylor's hands, she's an instigator who pushes everyone's boundaries to their limits — including her own. "I do think the character is someone who thrives off of this attention and off of really pushing and wowing — or wowing herself — and it was really interesting to play with that," the actor says. Yet because Leah actively and continuously puts herself in high-risk situations (doing drugs, having casual sex, waking up in a cab or at a party with no idea how she ended up there), some viewers may struggle with feeling empathetic towards her plight, just like they did with Dana on Homeland.
Whether viewers didn't like Dana's dramatic storylines since they took away from the terrorist CIA plots of Carrie or Brody or because she was particularly harsh to her mom Jessica,, Dana was one of the most despised characters on TV during her tenure on Homeland. As The Daily Beast highlighted in 2013, Saylor, just a teenager during her time on the show, had to deal with the type of scrutiny similar to what the adult Anna Gunn had to deal with from her turn as Skyler White in Breaking Bad; both of the actors' female characters created impediments to the leading male antiheroes, and thus received unfair, sexist criticism from viewers.
Saylor is aware of how she was perceived on Homeland, but her involvement in White Girl proves that it hasn't influenced her decisions as an actor since then. Even though she might not agree with Leah's actions and understands the criticism they might receive, that didn't stop her from taking on the part or relating to the character regardless. "I feel very, very different from her. But I completely relate to this funny thing of being a young person, being 17 and living under your parents' roof, wherever you are — I grew up in Atlanta — and then suddenly being 18 and either being at school or being in New York City and having this new kind of universe at your hands and the ability to stay up all night and walk around or work really hard at a job or do a lot of drugs," Saylor says. "You're able to do what you want in a new way and participate in the world in a way that you've never been given the chance."
Portraying Leah's recklessness, which entailed nudity and graphic sex scenes, was intimidating in some ways to Saylor. "There were certain moments that I was scared of doing White Girl," she says. But, she adds, "it was a very exciting script the first time I read it. I felt like, 'I want to see this movie no matter what.'" Saylor's roles in her young career have been pretty courageous, from Homeland to the film Being Charlie to White Girl, but that didn't mean she still didn't need to figure out how far she was willing to go on-screen for her latest film, which features nudity. "There's no textbook — my agents didn't have any textbook for what's the right thing to do about sexuality," she says. "It was kind of up to me about what felt comfortable and what felt right."
Much of White Girl feels taken right out of reality, and this authenticity is in large part a credit to the writer and director, Elizabeth Wood. The movie is based on experiences Wood personally lived, although it's not strictly autobiographical. "It's based on some things of Elizabeth's life, but is in no way directly telling that story," Saylor says. "But definitely she understood that fearlessness that Leah has I think in a way that I — Morgan — didn't."
One of the ways Wood helped Saylor prepare for the film was to give the actor some homework to understand where Leah is coming from. "She would give me assignments like, 'Make a video of yourself dancing to this very explicit song,'" Saylor recalls, adding with a laugh, "So I would try that at home and see what that felt like and try to understand how I could feel sexy or how this character that was gonna come out of me could feel sexy in a way that I understood other young people to do... I'm not a total square, but I would go out and purposefully throw parties that were more exciting than my life and then come home and take notes about what people were up to."
Partying is central to White Girl, yet the film is also a thoughtful commentary on race, gender, and privilege. The film explores how your identity can affect how you're treated by others, as well as the consequences that ensue from your actions. As a privileged, young, white woman, Leah is both a villain and victim in White Girl — she thinks little about the outcomes of her actions, and acts with often reckless abandon, because she knows little can befall her. Yet the film's disturbing, truthful outcome will leave you thinking about the message of White Girl long after you've watched it.
Although Leah was a daunting role, Saylor knew it was a rare opportunity for a young female actor. "When I first read the script, it felt like this very honest portrayal of young people that I don’t typically read. Most young girls I read are like high school comedies or girlfriend-y kind of roles," she says. "It was discussing a lot of things I felt were relevant to the time and to my generation, which is really, really, really exciting."
And sadly, she adds, "It doesn't feel like there's a plethora of young, intelligent, kind female roles — if I'm being perfectly frank — that feel that honest. But I think that it's changing, as there are more female writers and directors coming about." Not only are more women writers and directors helping turn the tide of filmmaking, female actors like Saylor are helping the cause; Saylor can take some credit for being a catalyst for change, as she continues to take on roles that defy what's expected of young women — because whether you like Leah in White Girl or not, you can't deny that she is a full-fledged character whose story demands attention, just like Dana did in Homeland. It's commendable that Saylor is continuing her career in this challenging way — regardless of whether her characters are deemed "likable" or not.
Images: Kent Smith/SHOWTIME; FilmRise (2)