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Taylor Russell on Her ‘Waves’ Role and How Dreams Influenced Her Performance

Canadian actor Taylor Russell started out in TV roles on The CW and Lifetime, advancing to the big screen in movies like “Before I Fall” with Zoey Deutch, “Down a Dark Hall” with Uma Thurman and “Hot Air” with Steve Coogan and Neve Campbell. In A24’s “Waves,” now in theaters, Russell plays Emily, a shy teenager in a family dealing with loss; her parents lavish most of their attention on her older brother (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The actor uses dreams to influence her performance: When she was offered the role of Emily, she texted writer-director Trey Edward Shults with lines of poetry that came to her while she was sleeping. 

What was the audition process for “Waves” like?

I was filming a movie, and Kelvin was friends with one of the people in it. I was on FaceTime with him, and Kelvin was like, “Hey, you could play my sister in this movie I’m doing called ‘Waves.’” I didn’t think much of it. I went home that night, and I had an email in my inbox for “Waves” completely unrelated to Kelvin, and I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting — kind of divine in a way.” I sent in a self-tape for it. After that, Trey FaceTimed me, and we started texting. I went to L.A. with Kelvin and hung out, and that’s when I got the part. 

When did you read the script for “Waves”? 

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Kelvin had sent it to me secretly and said, “You cannot tell anybody I sent this to you. You won’t get the job if you tell anybody.” My agents were like, “Did you get it?” And I didn’t even tell them. I’m a very good secret keeper. It was one or two weeks before I got the part; I don’t think they knew that I had read it. I don’t know if they know that right now, so this will be funny if they read it. 

What was your initial reaction?

I was blown away. It felt epic. The music was embedded into the script, so you would press play and read a scene, and you would press pause and go on to the next scene, and press play again for a new music cue.

 Did Shults give you direction for Emily? 

He’s really hands-off; he hires people, and then he lets you run with it. I was sending him a lot of source material or poetry that I wrote and liked. He would respond, but he wasn’t trying to lead me in any direction. I really appreciated that because I haven’t had that experience before on set with a director.

What do you hope audiences take away from “Waves”?

There’s this profound message of healing and forgiveness. Can we love somebody and not like them and their actions? The opportunity to forgive somebody when it’s really difficult and when it’s the hardest is something that everybody can learn from. It’s something I can learn from in my life. 

Was your poetry based on what you were reading in the script? 

I was having a lot of dreams that I was infusing into the character. I would have a dream and I would wake up in the morning and write, and then things would come to me throughout the day, or I would write a poem when I woke up and I would send it to Trey. Whenever it would happen, I would think about something that could work for Emily, felt true to the script or true to the certain emotion that she’s having. I would send that to him and see if he resonated with it. 

Things You Didn’t Know About Taylor Russell

Age: 25 Birthplace: Vancouver Favorite Movies: “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Persona,” “Paris, Texas,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Harold and Maude” Favorite causes: Chicks in Crisis, Black Mothers United On Her Nightstand: “Year of the Monkey,” by Patti Smith Dream Role: Playing Eartha Kitt Favorite Actor: Amy Adams 

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