The Girls Behind ‘White Girl’: A Conversation With Elizabeth Wood And Morgan Saylor
The director and star on white privilege, sex, and the making of the coming-of-age drama
As the title suggests, White Girl is a movie that doesn't shy away from controversy. A directorial feature debut from writer-director Elizabeth Wood, this Sundance sensation (that caused one very scathing review when it first came out) has been already labeled by many as a hybrid of Kids, Spring Breakers, and Thirteen.
Inspired by some of Wood's own experiences, the film, which finally hits New York theaters today, chronicles the story of a titular white girl, Leah (played by Homeland alum Morgan Saylor), who comes to New York from Oklahoma for college. After moving in with her best friend Katie (played by a Pre-Raphaelite-esque India Menuez) into a yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood in Ridgewood, Queens, occupied mostly by Puerto Rican drug dealers, Leah boldly solicits the softhearted leader Blue (played by newcomer Brian 'Sene' Marc) for some pot. Fast-forward a few scenes and the two are in a sexual relationship.
What follows is a coke-fueled whirlwind through New York's gritty apartments and streets, filled with violence, sexism, and institutional racism. When Blue gets arrested, Leah, who, for reasons known, goes unnoticed by the cop, ends up with thousands of dollars worth of cocaine. In an attempt to save him, she decides to sells the drugs herself—to pay for a seedy white lawyer (in an unexpected turn of events, played by Chris Noth) who is a little too eager to help her out. What follows involves topless nightclub dancing, snorting more coke than actually selling it, and waking up in club bathroom following a drug-induced threesome.
While similarities to coming-of-age movies of the independent film circuit's past are many, what sets White Girl apart from its predecessors is the film's authentic rawness. Leah's story feels like more than a cautionary tale; she is a real young woman, who is sexually liberated and, yeah, makes some bad decisions fueled by drugs, but whose biggest actual fault is that she is young and hungry for knowledge of the world and life experiences. There is no doubt that Leah is in control of herself as she makes the first move on Blue, charms him into recklessly abandoning his long-standing rule of not dealing drugs in Manhattan, and decides on her own to sell the drugs. Wide-eyed and equipped with a charming smile, an angelic head of curls, and a sense of bravado that's only known to the young, at first glance, Leah appears to be the picture-perfect image of suburban innocence. But while she may be young, she is not ignorant, something that becomes clear when she uses her gender, sexuality, and whiteness to her advantage.
Leah's whiteness helps her dodge the law that puts Blue in jail, but it does bring about a different set of predators: white men who are only too keen to prey on women who are comatose or in desperate need of help. While she may be seen as taken advantage of, she knowingly accepts the advances of her boss not because she can't decline him but because she doesn't want to. The proof of her awareness is when she swats away the cab driver who attempts to feel her up as she unconsciously lies in the back of the car. By making Leah's interactions with men openly sexual, Wood rejects the old-fashioned and, truth be told, sexist idea that a modern-day woman's experience of falling in love isn't sexual. And if anyone has doubts that Leah is an independent woman, look no further to one of the last scenes: When she's given the traditionally “happy ending," she has a suspicion that she doesn't want it.
Of course, Leah is still an embodiment of the "white girl" stereotype. She's getting a liberal arts degree, working as an unpaid intern at a magazine, and has little direction for her future aside from "maybe wanting to work in the media." Leah's white privilege is the most flinch-inducing when she goes to see Blue in jail following his arrest. As he reveals to her that is his third strike, meaning that there is a very slim chance that he will get out, she responds with a simple "I always figure it out" and a flash of her breasts. That unsurprisingly entails calling her parents and asking them for money and making cash off deep-pocketed white kids by selling them overpriced coke.
The real horror of white privilege is exemplified by the white men of the film, though: Noth's lawyer and Leah's equally salacious boss, who in another surprising turn of events is played by Justin Bartha. It's already hard not to think about cases like Brock Turner while Noth's character says, “A white kid can stab a person and get away with it with less than a black kid for a small possession of drugs." But what's more insidious in the movie's context is the different manner in which the two of them treat Leah in comparison to an overly romantic Blue. When Leah comes to her boss saying that the drug lord is coming after her, he suggests she move apartments; after the lawyer finds out that she has no money to pay him, he wine and dines her only to eventually take advantage of her without consent, in a scene that's not for the faint heart, justifying that's the least she owes him for his services.
The ending is not a new one, which Wood openly acknowledges. It's no news to anyone that white people continue to get away with a slap on the wrist for serious crimes (in this case, not even that), while boys like Blue get charged with years-long sentences for smaller crimes. And as much as Leah skirts the lines of race and gender throughout the film, there comes a realization, for both the viewers and herself, that she is only a visitor in the world where Blue lives and is marginalized; she will one day move out to a better neighborhood and life while he will remain there forever.
While Wood provides an uncomfortable close-up of what youth can look like, she dodges any questions that I ask her about what she wants viewers to take away from the film. “I really don't like giving other people a conclusion," she says. “I want people to tell me what they got from it." As for the critics who have taken the movie to be a surface-level tale about sex and drugs, Wood brushes them off. “I can't control what people are going to think, or how the movie does. I can only work on my next project," she says. “It's like Jay Z says, 'Treat every song like your first song.' Now, I gotta do it all over again."
We can't wait for that.
Read on for our interview with Wood and Saylor on making the movie after the break.
What drew you to the film?
Morgan Saylor: It felt like a uniquely honest story about young people. I usually play younger [characters] still—they like to cast me as like a 16-year-old—so most of the things that I read are high school comedies that are fun and sweet, but that don’t feel important or about people I know. I was also scared of the script. It was obviously a little out there, but it definitely felt like a challenge. It didn’t feel like I would be bored, it didn’t feel like it would be easy, so that was exciting to my actor brain.
Elizabeth Wood: When she first walked into the audition, it was a blizzard outside and she had on this huge puffy coat. Like, it was literally to the ground and duct-taped together. I was like, “This is weird.” She took off her coat and she had on the shortest shorts you've ever seen and, like, a bikini top. And she threw herself down on the ground in the corner and started doing the scene. I was like, “Oh, okay!” She just looked so young. I was like, "How old are you again? Like, are you old enough to take your top off?” [Laughs] She was 19—which still felt very, very, young—and so intelligent. So I was just like, “Wow, this just feels so real.” More than anything, she felt so real.
What was your relationship with each other like?
MS: It’s been two and a half years now that we have known each other. We started hanging out right away, which doesn’t always happen in film, but I happened to be doing a play in the city and she was, of course, prepping for the film. We started with just lunches and we slowly began to get to know one another, and then we started hanging out, and hanging out on the roof that the film takes place on, going to shows, and having family dinner with her baby, and it was fun.
EW: We were lucky enough to have a lot of time working together before we shot. We met weekly, for months. We did video exercises.
MS: She would give me assignments. She would say like, “Film a video of you dancing to this song,” or “Come over and let me show you how to twerk because I know you can’t,” and shit like that.
EW: We also had a lot of very personal conversations because I felt like we both really needed that trust. She needed to be able to trust that I was going to be able to handle the material appropriately and protect her. And I needed to trust that she was going to be confident enough to really go for it in the way that she required for the role.
Do you relate to Leah in any way?
MS: No, it feels like such a weird, different thing. I mean, there is the physical transformation that made it feel very different. Like, dyeing all that hair bleach blonde. When I got on the train later that day, it was like ten more catcalls… ugh. I mean, being comfortable in really short shorts and a tank top and the way you hold your body was all different feeling than me.
EW: I really think the transformation, the month leading up to [the filming], kind of allowed that exploration, and to figure out what felt right for her.
There are some dark scenes, most notably the one involving rape and Chris Noth, that get difficult to watch. How did you approach those takes?
EW: A lot of jokes helped with this really dark material. That being said, it was incredibly difficult, and I had this surreal moment where I asked Morgan, “Do you want to know the real story that this event came from? Or do you want to just do it from your character's point of view?” And she said, “No, I wanna know.” So I'm telling her these, like, crazy details I've never shared with anyone. And Chris Noth—who was like [Sex and the City’s] Mr. Big from my childhood—walks out, and he's like, “Hey, you told her the real story? Tell me.” And I'm like, Oh my god. So I sit down and I'm telling to Morgan and Mr. Big—he hates when I call him Mr. Big, but I can't help it—this dark, dark story and in the end, we all just started giggling. And we went upstairs and we did the scene and we had to film it a million different ways. And it was so hard to watch, but like they're both so incredibly professional and handled it so amazingly.
MS: Elizabeth was very open and super down to talk about any kind of relationship or sexual or drug or emotional thing, which was really, really helpful. But, to be honest, it feels like the scenes where I’m doing coke alone in the room were the most difficult because that’s really about getting into a weird mental mind space, and you don’t have anyone to play with and to break out afterward and be like, “Well, that was weird,” which even with the weirder sexual stuff, you do. The stuff alone is really hard because it is just you playing in your brain to create this little fucked-up kind of scene.
Would you say the movie provides an accurate representation of modern-day youth?MS: I mean, of some youths; there are a lot of different kinds of kids and a lot of different kind of young people in New York. It does feel accurate to some kinds of youth, I think, and friends of mine who have grown up in the city have praised it for that. In a way, that means something because they do know what we were trying to relate to. There is something about moving to New York when you are really young, and having this crazy city at your fingertips that's dangerous and tantalizing and exciting, and some people fall into it more than others and some people just are intrigued by it. It felt more real than a lot of films about young people, to me.
What do you think is at the center of this film?
MS: I think there is a lot of things at its core, including gender and race and privilege—understanding your privilege—and your power as a young, white female. I mean, the sexuality is a huge part of it, like the downside of being a sexual young person and the upside. She’s really figuring it out for the first time, and I think a lot of people do at that age. I didn’t in any way as extreme as her [laughs], but when you’re that age or any growing-up kind of age, there is obviously no book about how to be a sexual being and so you have to figure it out.
EW: I really like for people to decide what the film is about for them because I have found that people feel that it's really about different things depending on who they are. And yes, it's about being young and being a woman, and discovering your own privilege and figuring out your place in the world, and when you have power with those things I mentioned and when you don't. And, kind of a loss of innocence, really, of realizing the order of the world and how hard you're going to have to work if you actually want something to change. It's not as easy as a good intention.
During the screening, I picked up on the interplay between race, gender, and privilege. How did you establish that hierarchy in the movie?
EW: You know, it's interesting, you didn't actually really have to think about the themes because they're so inherent in the dynamics of the characters. You have the white boss; you have the white lawyer, who's older than the boss; you have Leah, a young white woman; you have the Puerto Rican guy friends; you have the white girlfriends, and just in putting these people in the world and seeing how it plays out and what the experience is, I think the dynamics of race, gender, and privilege are revealed. It was not something I had to add on as a layer; it just exists so tangibly in the world.
It was refreshing to see Leah portrayed as unapologetic and in charge of her own choices no matter the consequences. Was it a conscious decision to make her an empowered and sexually independent woman?
EW: I really want to tell stories about when women just get to do the same thing that men usually get to do. Sometimes when people react to like the sex or drugs in the movie, I'm like, would we be talking about this if it was a guy having sex and doing drugs? Would we be like, “What was wrong with him? Did he, like, come from a damaged household?” No! We'd be like, “He's just being young and crazy.” So, I think it's empowering to let women just tell the stories about what it's actually like to be a woman, which is, in fact, not so different than being a man.
This was Brian “Sene” Marc's first acting role. Why did you decide to cast him for the part of Blue?
EW: It was strangely hard to find Puerto Rican actors in New York. I went to L.A. and talked to a big agent, and they were suggesting, like, Lil' Romeo, and am like, “He's black.” They're like, “Does it matter?” I'm like, “Yeah.” Next, they were like, “Dave Franco.” I'm like, “He's white.” They're like, “Whatever.” I'm like, “No, this is a Puerto Rican character and this is the story about that.” It's a very New York story. And, this is a story about these white girls that move to a Puerto Rican neighborhood. So, if they weren't Puerto Rican then it's not fucking authentic. And the most important thing to me was to tell a story that felt authentic. If it didn't feel real to me, it's not going to feel real to anyone else. But, in New York, where there's so many talented Puerto Rican people, it's crazy that it's hard to find, but the ones we found are amazing and just incredibly talented.
MS: Brian had never acted before, but he had this very interesting approach. I mean, the things he thought about the scenes were really great and interesting. He was like, “I don’t think that would be said,” and we were like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” [Laughs]
Do you feel like there is enough good material out there for young women actors?
MS: It’s hard to put it into units, but I don’t find a lot of stuff that I’m totally excited by; a lot of roles are girlfriend roles. But the [exciting] roles there, and I think they really are becoming more and more [available] with more female directors and writers being able to make these films, which is so exciting. I think everyone talks about how hard it is to make independent films these days with the superhero movies and whatever. But there is definitely a lot happening, and I do think the roles are growing. It’s just hard to be patient when you want to pursue the things that mean something to you and do feel complex, like real female characters. But I’m trying! [Laughs.]
Since you brought up the female directors, did you feel a difference when you were working with Elizabeth?
MS: Yeah, completely. I mean, definitely with the sexual stuff. The movie is about Leah so it did feel like she was kind of owning a lot of the scenes, but Elizabeth tried to make me feel comfortable. Not just comfortable but also sexy, which I don’t know if a man would have been able to do in the same way, even if he was someone that I really trusted because he doesn’t understand that feeling of sexiness in a way, perhaps. And not even, like, what he can say or should say, but really an understanding of what makes a female feel sexy. This is the first time I’m saying this kind of thing aloud, but I think that’s true.
EW: We did have very intimate discussions. You know, I think that helped us form our own relationship and our trust. Like, I can tell her these like very, very intimate details of my life and she can do that to me. So I think it helped take away any shame of portraying this character's sexuality because it was something we were very upfront with. And, it became such a conversation, I think, sexuality on set, and all the men there were equally supportive and responsive to women's sexuality, women's bodies. It was also very important to me that we didn't try to make everything look sexy or perfect. Because to me, that's very much for a man's consumption. Maybe that sexist, because it could be for a woman's consumption. It was not about presenting her in a, like, pornographic way. Like, “This is to get you off.” No, this is not to get you off. This is not for you, is a nicer way to say it. This is, actually telling the story of what it's like to be a young woman and the things she goes through, and exploring that honestly.
I do get asked that a lot what's it like to be a woman in this industry. And, I think it's early for me to totally know. This film was unique in that I didn't have to answer to anyone. I was only speaking to people that were interested in the project. Sure there were a few assholes, but there are a few assholes anywhere you go, right? I know it's unique for me to have this opportunity. So, like, that's amazing. But I think going forward, I may discover the discrepancy more.
And, you just had a baby when you started filming. What was that like?
EW: In reality, I had more difficulties with breastfeeding than maybe with the film. [Laughs] Like, it helped me prepare, if anything, to stay grounded. Yeah, it was all a challenge. Every moment was so challenging, but like anything, you're so happy that you did it.
Has being a mother changed anything for you in terms of making the film?
EW: No, it hasn't. And, I think, I was really scared when I had a baby. That oh, will it, like, change me? Will it make me into a mother? And I realized there's no reason not to just continue being exactly who you are; if anything, that's what's most enriching for a child. It's a personal decision if someone wants to dedicate their life to being a mother, but I didn't. I didn't want this to get in the way of me pursuing my career and my dreams, and if anything, having a child made me try harder to achieve that. Because I knew it was kind of, like, I have to do this now, or I may lose this opportunity. Having a child has made me work harder.