Taylor John Smith gives one of the breakout performances at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, playing a basketball prodigy whose on-court heroics paper over a messy personal life in “Wolves.”
Before the buzz even had a chance to build, the 20-year-old actor lined up his highest-profile project yet — the lead role in NBC’s sequel to the cult hit, “Cruel Intentions” alongside original star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Smith plays the son of Ryan Phillippe’s lecherous ladykiller. An update of “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” “Cruel Intentions” centers on members of the 1% as they use seduction and public shaming to settle scores across the Social Register. Smith promises that the amoral characters will be back pushing ethical boundaries when the pilot airs.
As for “Wolves,” Smith underwent an intensive physical regimen to prepare to play the basketball star, and had to steel himself mentally to act opposite Oscar nominee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”). He spoke with Variety about the gritty indie and his upcoming work on “Cruel Intentions.”
Are you a natural athlete?
I had to work on my basketball. I’m not very good. It took a lot of training just to be decent. I trained for two months, six hours a day.
This is your first starring role in a feature film. What was it like to share the screen with Michael Shannon?
People like him make you question how good you are and then they make you question how they got to where there are. It was like going to boot camp. Not just with him, but with the caliber of talent. There’s no way you’re not going to bring it in a scene. Michael steps on set or Carla [Gugino, who plays Smith’s mother] and you know you are with two professionals. They challenged me to be better every day.
In “Wolves,” Anthony is under pressure on the basketball court, in his relationship with his girlfriend, and in his home life, where his father’s gambling is threatening the family’s financial stability. That’s a lot to deal with.
I connected with Anthony. I was dealing with a lot at the time and Bart [Freundlich] was really looking for someone who had been through what he was going through.
What was going on with you personally?
I can’t get into specifics, but it was really an identity crisis. I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and where my value came from. Taking on this role allowed me to get closure in my personal life. To get the script at that time was a blessing. It was meant to be.
What did you learn from making the film?
I learned more about what it means to be a man. It showed me that sometimes you make the tough decisions and you’re still not happy with the outcome. Things don’t just turn out well just because you did the right thing.
You are starring in the “Cruel Intentions” pilot. What can you tell us about the project?
It just wrapped in San Francisco. It’s a super iconic role, and I felt gratefulness to be able to audition in the first place and to get a chance to work with the original writer and director [Roger Kumble]. It was cool to be in this world of prestige and power. I don’t really have a connection to that kind of flashy lifestyle.
How does the show relate to the movie?
The story is connected to the original. It’s a true sequel. It’s very much the same Kathryn Merteuil [Gellar’s character], except she’s even more stunning, more edgy, more power hungry, and more ruthless.
We really got to push the limits, even more than the original. I hope that NBC is willing to go there. It’s edgy and over-the-top type stuff. It’s a roller coaster.