Born in Chicago and raised in Georgia, Morgan Saylor is an actor who plays the lead of Leah in White Girl. Her past work includes the recurring role of Dana Brody in Homeland (2011-13), Rob Reiner’s Being Charlie (2015) and McFarland, USA (2015). Saylor will play a nun in the forthcoming Novitiate (2016) and currently attends the University of Chicago.
New York-based writer and director Elizabeth Wood premiered her debut feature film, White Girl, at Sundance 2016 and was nominated for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. White Girl is based on real-life events experienced by Wood when she moved to New York from Oklahoma for college. She has also directed short films and a documentary, Wade in the Water Children (2007), which collects footage taken by underprivileged school children in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
A 2016 film written and directed by Elizabeth Wood, White Girl stars Morgan Saylor as its central character, Leah, with rapper Brian ‘Sene’ Marc as her love interest Blue and India Menuez as her best friend. Based in Queens, the film follows 19-year-old Leah, a second-year college student and intern at a magazine, who parties recklessly while attempting to get Blue out of jail. The film also stars Justin Bartha, Chris Noth and Adrian Martinez, and was executive produced by Christine Vachon (Carol, Boys Don’t Cry). White Girl premiered at Sundance 2016 and garnered a nomination for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.
Writer-director Elizabeth Wood’s debut film White Girl is based in her own story of moving from Oklahoma to New York after high school: young, a bit innocent but brash and eager for new experiences. Played by Morgan Saylor, the film’s central character is bleach-blonde, chainsmoking Leah who moves to Queens with her best friend (artist India Menuez) before her second year of college and interns at a magazine in the city. When her hookup with a neighborhood Puerto Rican boy, Blue (rapper Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), ends with him in jail for selling drugs, she takes it upon herself to free him. The eponymous white girl becomes this double-entendre: Leah coming to terms with her whiteness and its inherent privilege while she parties, sees a lawyer, and does and sells copious amounts of cocaine.
Throughout the film, a hand-held camera focuses almost exclusively on Saylor, watching her reel through euphoric, private and terrible moments with the feeling of cinema verité. Her experience is incessantly anxiety-inducing but unquestionably devastating, especially in the hands of Wood, who deeply understands the character, her sexuality and flaws and doesn’t allow the audience to take advantage of or objectify her the way men in the movie otherwise do.
In life, Wood and Saylor are so close that they talk like siblings, and Saylor is not much like her character in White Girl. She is currently studying math at the University of Chicago, and is equally disciplined in her art—while shooting White Girl’s scenes out of order, she created a graph to track Leah’s shifting states of mind, from confident and naive, to manic and reckless, to low and confused. The two talk about making the film in Wood’s New York home.
Morgan Saylor: So we just tucked Elizabeth’s son into bed. It’s the end of August and the movie’s about to come out. It’s been almost two years since we shot it.
Elizabeth Wood: You’re right. We’ll be dead before we know it.
MS: This feels funny. We’re staring at one another over our phones, and we’ve had a million conversations but here we are recording. Elizabeth, tell me about when you started to write this?
EW: Well, I wrote the first page while the real-life event was happening in 2004.
MS: So it was the summer after your junior year [of college]?
EW: That is when the whole thing wrapped up. It was a year-long process. In the movie it’s a week-long process—you know how these things go… I talked and thought about it a lot, then wrote 15 more pages in 2009. I wrote a 200 page draft in 2010 and wrote a more coherent draft in 2012. In 2013, I edited. In 2014, we shot it. So in showtime, it was three years from crazy longest draft to tight, wet, little draft.
“My goal for your role was finding someone
who didn’t confuse me with what kind
of human they were. You were just such a real
person that I wanted to work with you.”
— Elizabeth Wood
MS: Did you always know that you wanted to make films?
EW: No, I always changed my mind. In high school, I was a theater major. I came to New York to study writing, then kind of switched.
MS: Did you always want to come to New York?
EW: I wanted to sell jewelry on the beach in Australia. Haven’t I told you this?
MS: There’s an ongoing joke that Elizabeth’s told me everything. Whenever we’re out for dinner with friends, she goes to tell me a story and more than half the time, she’s told it to me. I think it’s because we spend a lot of time together, and I’ve picked her brain a bit.
EW: It makes me feel like a grandma. So my parents tried to bait me, like, “If you stay in Oklahoma, you can have your mom’s Volkswagen and open a thrift store.”
MS: You drove your mom’s van in high school.
EW: I had the van and they bartered with the year 2000 silver bug. It had the little vase for the flower in it. They wanted me to go to Oklahoma Christian because I could go for free. I was like, “I’m not going to go to college.” And that’s when they were like, “Do you want to go to New York?” I had never been here. I had already applied to 17 colleges and just wanted to go anywhere—Australia, France, Santa Fe, Oregon and Washington. And then I accidentally confused two letters and threatened one with the other, and both of them told me they didn’t want me anymore.
MS: So you ended up in New York.
EW: How about you: Why didn’t you go to college immediately?
MS: I didn’t want to go to college. My brother didn’t go to college. My parents weren’t big college people. They went to community college in Florida, where they met. I didn’t want to apply to school because I was ready to travel and act. I thought I would move to LA, which would have sucked. But then during my senior year, I worked a little in New York and worked a little in LA and realized I hated LA; that New York is the center of the universe.