'white girl' stars morgan saylor and india menuez on the film's radical relatability
As Elizabeth Wood’s powder-keg directorial debut opens in New York theaters, we meet its fearless female leads.
When I interviewed Elizabeth Wood about her explosive debut feature White Girl in March, the director assured me that its star, Morgan Saylor, was nothing like her character. "[Leah] was so not her. She's a math major at the University of Chicago; she played a nun in her next film," Wood said of the 21-year-old Homeland standout. When I meet Saylor in SoHo five months later, I don't even recognize her. Her pale brown hair is pin-straight, shoulder-length, and pulled back neatly — the diametric opposite of her character's long, kinky, peroxide blonde mop, hair which shines in the late-summer Ridgewood sunlight and under the neon wash of warehouse rave lights.
There is much about Saylor and her White Girl co-star, artist and actress India Salvor Menuez, that is very different to Leah and Katie, the reckless college sophomores they play in Wood's semi-autobiographical film. But both Saylor and Menuez would much rather examine the things they have in common with their characters. These similarities are precisely what make Wood's daring portrait of no-holds-barred nihilism so powerful. "It's young people in New York. We are authentically that. Not in the same way our characters are, but there is a relatability, a familiarity, to those scenes," says Menuez.
The film has been called shocking, ferocious, graphic, and controversial, but ultimately, "it's realistic," says Menuez, "life is that crazy. Everything that happens [in this film] really happens — to you, your friends, someone you know."
What first attracted you both to this project?
Morgan Saylor: I read this script, and I was scared of it. I said, "I can't wait to see who makes this film, and when they do, I'll see it either way. I'll go in for it; I'll be there." This was in February, almost two and a half years ago. I came on properly later, in May, and Elizabeth and I started hanging out a lot. I was doing a play at the time, so we'd have a lot of goofy midtown lunches. We'd shoot the shit, started to get down about the script, and slowly, other people joined the project.
India Salvor Menuez: I was excited about it because it felt like a story that was hard to tell, but was told well. It hit a lot of different things right on the head in a really uncomfortable way.
MS: Most scripts that I read for young people are lame-ass high school stuff; this felt like people I knew, felt like it was discussing things that were present in my conversations with friends. It felt like a unique script about young people.
Your characters don't function as a unit, but their togetherness is an important part of the film. How did your relationship develop off screen to nail that dynamic?
MS: The first time we had a proper conversation was in the audition room—
ISM: And we realized we already knew a bunch of the same people—
MS: Had been in some of the same places, in the same rooms at parties.
ISM: And Elizabeth's undaunted openness as a person really encourages you to feel open. We all got to know each other in really authentic ways.
MS: India's character is my only confirmed ally throughout, also. I did feel that going in, and was really looking forward to having a young female be my partner. It's so nice to have each other on set!
ISM: I felt bad when I wasn't on set.
MS: It's true. You'd come in after I'd been doing something for three days and be like, "How was that?"
But honestly, how was it? All the drugs and sex scenes are fake, but psychologically, this must have been a challenging experience.
ISM: As far flung as it seemed, there's nothing in there that was unfamiliar in some regard. It was like, "We're fucking doing it," because we need to.
MS: Knowing that these things felt real, it made you want to act better, really make the scenes better. This girl thrives on going really crazy and loving it; you understand it as a real human emotion, and want to be able to portray it.
ISM: It's the tingle of being at your limits and having that experience be something that makes you feel alive in a way. It's a different feeling than living in your parents' house. And being someone from New York, I feel sometimes that when people move to New York, they actually think they're in a movie. The way these girls act — they think their life is this fantasy in which everything will work out.
These characters experience fascinating shifts in power; sexual exchanges that begin as consensual rarely ever end that way. But in so many instances, these shifts are unspoken and subtle. How did you navigate them?
ISM: I think these girls live in the fantasy of their reality being post-race. But through the experiences that they have, they realize that there is systemic racism all around them, systemic patriarchy all around them, and it's going to hurt them. As much as they feel free and alive and empowered by their sexuality, that power can also be taken away.
MS: One of the things about the film I think is done really well is the pacing. It's hedonistic and just goes goes goes; she grabs for coke, or a dick — all these stimuli. The first time it feels like she's present in her decisions is after all of that. I've been asked a few times what she thought at the end of the film, what she came away with. And one thing the film touches on that feels really important to me is being that age and learning to be conscious. Even if she hasn't come to all these conclusions about what she wants to do, she's starting to understand her privilege for the first time.
ISM: She's seeing the limit of that privilege — from feeling her privilege as a white person, then seeing that privilege hit a wall as a woman.
When I interviewed Elizabeth, there weren't very many reviews. One, by a male critic, suggested Leah "transformed" her rapist. Now that more people have seen and are engaging with the film, how have you handled their responses?
MS: At the Q&A we did earlier today following a screening, a man posed a question that, to us, seemed like a very fucked-up way to talk about the rape.
ISM: I think he used the word "inviting."
MS: He was an older, white male, and it felt like he didn't understand that if a woman is unconscious and a man has sex with her, that's rape.
ISM: It's just crazy how much people don't know how to define it. When both parties are intoxicated, it feels like such a grey area. And it can be, but at the same time, sometimes it's really clear. When you're watching it on the screen, you have that moment to be on the outside and say "this is clear." And when people watching don't feel that it's clear, it's so scary. But I think it's great that these perspectives come up, honestly. I feel really grateful for people being able to reveal their problematic reading of a scene like that, so we can have a conversation about it. I always hope that people leave theaters not feeling like something's been answered, but suddenly they have new questions. They've been shown a different perspective, or a perspective they've been waiting to see.
'White Girl' opens in New York City theaters today, more information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen