If you haven’t heard of White Girl yet, you’re about to. The indie drama with the incendiary name has slowly been gathering buzz since before it premiered at Sundance in January, and with its wide release today, it’s about to make its mark. The film, directed by Elizabeth Wood, follows a college-aged, middle-class white girl, Leah (Morgan Saylor), who moves to Ridgewood, Queens, and falls for her neighbor, a young, sweet, handsome Puerto Rican drug dealer named Blue (Brian "Sene" Marc). As their stories become entangled, Leah finds herself preyed upon by older white men as she unintentionally draws Blue into danger — showing that her world, and her privilege, is not his.
Tackling issues of power, race, and gender — and with scenes showing drug use, sex, and rape — it’s no surprise that White Girl is controversial. Some reviewers have compared it, favorably, to Kids, or praised the nuanced way it tackles gentrification and race. Other reviewers (mostly older, white men, of course) take another — disturbing — view.
And Morgan Saylor is noticing. “One review, I think it was in Variety, there’s one line that was so terrible to me — I think it went, 'she transforms a lawyer into a rapist.’ Transforms was the word, and in the scene, she is passed out on the couch, so how could she transform a man into a rapist? There’s something so, so messed up about that sentence,” Morgan tells me from across the table at Grey Dog coffeeshop in the West Village, where we’re sipping iced teas.
I point out another review, which suggested that Morgan's character Leah’s short shorts and miniskirts meant that she was “asking for it.”
“It’s cool to be able to call out people for saying that,” Morgan says. She also has a theory about why the responses are so divisive — besides the sex and drugs, of course. “This is about, in a lot of ways, a young, white girl having power,” she says.
If you knew of Morgan before now, you probably knew her as Dana Brody on Homeland, a role she began filming when she was just 16. Now 21, she’s still often cast as a high schooler. “Most scripts I get, they usually want to cast me younger — I’m still in that sixteen-year-old range, which is annoying, but fine,” she says. “It’s mostly high school comedies or sweet girlfriend roles or sweet daughter roles.”
Morgan was the same age as her character when she shot White Girl over four weeks in October 2014 — ”there was lots of fake sweat!” she says, as the film takes place entirely in the summer — she was 19 when filming began, and turned 20 on set. “Because I look young it’s still hard to be cast in a role that feels like a woman,” Morgan says. “And this really is a young woman, as much as it gets. It’s really cool that [director] Elizabeth [Wood] wanted someone who was the actual age.”
Morgan was intimidated by the script when she got it, but also intrigued. “I realized that I want to see this movie, no matter who’s in it,” she says. After meeting with Elizabeth — on whose life the film is partially based — she felt more connected to the film.
Once cast, Morgan completely dove into the role. She had been in a play before filming White Girl, and it completely transformed how she prepared for the role. White Girl “was the smallest budget of anything I’ve worked on and the longest rehearsal period,” she says. She and Elizabeth “were both in the city for the six months leading up to it, and I was doing a play for a lot of that, and we slowly started hanging out more and working on scenes. She would take me out to the neighborhood it’s about and we would, like, hang out on the roof. I just really began to understand that world.”
The physical transformation helped, too — Morgan bleached her hair for the role and began dressing like her character before filming. When we meet, her own outfit — an oversized striped shirt and denim shorts — is much more casual than her character’s.
“The day I dyed my hair I got ten times more catcalls,” she says. “And the way you dress, people treat you differently, and you feel differently, of course. I started playing like that and understanding how those things felt before we started, which was really, really big and helpful."
Morgan moved to Bed-Stuy at 18 herself — though she now lives in Chicago — and she says she definitely connected with the film on a personal level as well. “Not that she’s me at all, but living in New York as a young person, she reminded me a lot of people I hung out with,” she says.
She also appreciates the film's nuanced view of gentrification and says that there's no easy answer: "I don’t think we’re taking a particular moral grounds with it in the film, but it’s definitely something that’s happening with our generation. I don’t think Leah’s way is perhaps the way to do it — but then again, her roommate is scared and thinks that she doesn’t need to communicate with anyone in the neighborhood and if she stays in her locked apartment, everything will be fine, and that’s not the way to do it either. It’s a weird line.”
Everyone is talking about the film’s sex scenes. Morgan had never done such explicit sex scenes before — “I’ve had a few hooking up scenes, and I gave a blowjob in another movie,” she says — but this film seemed like the one to take that plunge for. She says, "I like sexuality in films when it’s done well. And I’m always impressed when actresses are brave in doing something like that. That said, I knew that if I wanted to do something like that it would have to be for something I felt it was appropriate for.”
And it turns out that actually filming the sex scenes wasn’t nearly as titillating as certain reviewers think they are: “Sex scenes really aren’t that weird at the end of the day because you know the crew and everyone is like, ‘Today’s the day!’ Besides the kissing, there’s no actual physicality to it — and then you have to do it over and over again,” she says.
The hardest part of the film to watch — for me, at least — is the aforementioned scene where Leah is raped while unconscious. “To be honest, it was one of the least involved scenes,” Morgan says. “Because I was fully clothed, I had shorts on, and he’s fully clothed, so it was okay. We were all kind of freaked out to do it on the day. But that’s painful to watch. And if I watch it with a friend...I’ve maybe seen it five times now, and half of those times are with a friend next to me, and you can really feel their body language really not enjoy that. But I think that it’s well handled to make you feel really uncomfortable. Because it should, it’s a really fucked up thing!” Something that quite a few of the reviewers aren’t getting — but that audiences hopefully will.
Next up for Morgan is something very different: She‘s part of the cast of Novitiate, an ensemble coming-of-age drama about a group of nuns during Vatican II. “I shot it when we went to Sundance, so I was wearing a habit all week and then went for White Girl!” Morgan says. “Melissa Leo is the Reverend Mother, she’s such a badass and amazing, and I got to work with a bunch of cool young ladies.”
Her performance in White Girl will likely (and definitely should) open new doors for Morgan, but she’s currently balancing acting with her studies at the University of Chicago, where she’s majoring in mathematics.
“I see math everywhere I go,” she says. “Stories are all about arts, but I believe in derivatives and that they can be found in any method. The way you go into a character can be evaluated in a similar way to mathematics.”
She’s also working in her campus movie theater as an apprentice projectionist — a job where she’s surrounded by “people are even more into movies than I am, so you just shoot the shit over films all day long.” Most of her fellow students don’t give a second thought to her career, but a few do. “Sometimes people do bring it up, but I was much more timid about it before I got there," she says. "Really, everyone is doing their own cool thing, to be honest, and it just so happens that I act.”
Images: White Girl
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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.