TORONTO — Taylor Russell feels like she’s living a double life these days.
The Vancouver-born actress is in Cape Town, South Africa, shooting a sequel to the psychological horror film “Escape Room,” far away from the Hollywood buzz surrounding her role in the intense feature “Waves.”
Her breakthrough performance as the soft-spoken teenage sister to a popular high-school wrestler has earned her the Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and nominations for a Film Independent Spirit Award and a Gotham Award.
But the family drama isn’t out in Cape Town and the 25-year-old says she can’t grasp the tide of fame and Oscar speculation currently cresting in North America.
“It feels a little crazy,” Russell said in a recent phone interview.
“Maybe because I’m across the world, it doesn’t necessarily feel real, because I’m not surrounded by it here. It’s just very different where I am. But I’m really humbled. I’m excited and still can’t really believe that it’s all happening.”
That feeling of living a secret life is also what connected Russell to her character in “Waves,” which hits theatres across Canada on Friday.
She plays Emily, a high school student who is quietly reeling from a traumatic event that rocks her Florida family. A social outcast, Emily turns to a new friend, played by Lucas Hedges, for support.
Much of story focuses on the trials of Emily’s high school wrestler brother, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who bears the weight of pressure from their taskmaster father, played by Sterling K. Brown.
Other cast members include Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays their compassionate stepmother, and Alexa Demie who plays the girlfriend of Harrison’s character.
“There’s a lot with this character that I related to, especially being 16, just remembering how I was at that time,” said Russell, describing her younger self as a day-dreamer who became a superfan of musician-poet Patti Smith.
“There was so much going on for me in my brain and I felt like I had a secretive life almost separate from my friends, that I maybe was protective over. I did feel like it was me against the world in certain ways.”
For Russell, that outlook came from being a middle child and the only girl between two brothers.
She also moved a lot with her family, as her actor-father booked projects in other locations. They lived in Vancouver until she was six, then moved to Toronto for three or four years, then back to Vancouver. Russell estimates they lived in about 16 different houses.
“My childhood was very unconventional in a lot of ways,” said Russell, whose other credits include a recurring role on the Netflix sci-fi series “Lost in Space.”
“I always had a chance to reinvent myself and try a bunch of different things and have different interests and meet new people. I became very outgoing because of that.”
Texas native Trey Edward Shults wrote and directed ”Waves” for boundary-pushing indie distributor A24. It’s his third feature, after the 2017 psychological horror ”It Comes at Night” and the 2015 drama ”Krisha.”
Russell said Shults worked on “Waves” for many years, basing the characters off of people in his own life. He’d previously worked with Harrison on “It Comes at Night,” and the actor was the first person he approached with the “Waves” script.
Shults let Harrison choose his “Waves” character. Harrison picked the wrestler, which is why the story is about an upper-middle class suburban African-American family, said Russell.
The fact that a white filmmaker is telling a story about an African-American family, and the way in which Shults has structured the narrative, has dominated headlines surrounding “Waves.”
Russell said she’s happy discussions are happening about “who’s behind telling the stories of people of colour, of under-represented people, of the other.”
But Shults didn’t have a racial agenda when writing “Waves,” Russell added, noting Harrison’s character choice guided the story and casting.
Shults also asked the cast members questions “every step of the way” and was “really gracious” with listening to their input and implementing it.
“If a white filmmaker is going to tell a story about a black family, then because they get all the opportunities that they get, it needs to be in a way that is respectful and fully ears open and listening and willing to change what they had thought, because our experiences are different,” Russell said.
“So it’s a very unique situation the way that this movie happened, obviously. And what I love about it is, we don’t get to see upper-middle class black families in the independent film world. It doesn’t happen that often with them being played in nuanced ways, in really complex ways.
“To see that onscreen I find really refreshing, to watch all of the other actors in the film play the roles the way that they did. It feels like it’s helping the conversation, to see black people in this light.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2019.