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9 Apr

Taylor Russell: the blossoming of film’s most charming cannibal

For our latest issue, the Bones And All actor discusses what it’s prefer to be Hollywood’s hottest latest star

Taken from the winter 2022 issue of Dazed. You’ll be able to buy a duplicate of our latest issue here

I realise barely too late that the lightning bolt tattooed on Taylor Russell’s inner wrist, peeking out from beneath the cuff of her black Prada turtleneck, is similar thin lightning bolt tattooed on Patti Smith’s left knee, immortalised in so lots of Robert Mapplethorpe’s edgy grayscale photographs—probably one of the vital famous single knees on this planet. “Her words are so deeply ingrained within the map of my body,” the 28-year-old actress tells me over the phone, just a number of days after we meet one warm fall afternoon in Central Park. (Actually, we rendezvous within the old-fashioned lobby at Park Lane Recent York across the road, but Russell, a native to Vancouver’s rocky beaches and snow-capped mountains, prefers nature’s “divine magical presence” to the stuffy insulation of an upscale hotel room.) “I discovered her writing after I first moved here, and I felt akin to her in so many various ways,” she says, “ways in which have revealed themselves to me more with time and reflection.”

Such devotion comes easily to fans of Smith’s polymathic genius. Her bracingly personal oeuvre, which spans poetry, music, visual art and memoir, feels alive to the world in a way that at times approaches the magical, as if she’s been on earth far longer than what the corporal form allows and due to this fact possesses a sort of ancient wisdom. “An artist is any individual who enters into competition with God,” she once told a reporter. Just Kids, a favorite of Russell’s, is one in all those beloved books that creative types endorse almost rapturously, sometimes following up intermittently afterwards to see whether you’ve read it since they last advised you to. It’s a poetic elegy to Mapplethorpe, sure, a gleaming altar to the pair’s spiritual twinship, but mostly it’s an affecting portrait of two young artists grasping at self-discovery, a fable of becoming: the right literary companion for a young artist newly released into Recent York City’s frenetic energy. Russell, who’s five-foot-four and pixie-like, estimates she’s read it no less than ten times since she first found it three years ago, those coruscating phrases imprinting themselves on her like…well…tattoos. “There’s a line I’ll always remember,” she says, “and I feel it captures how I actually feel: ‘Nobody expected me. Every thing awaited me.’”

Before she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actor on the 2022 Venice Film Festival, for her performance as a loping, heartbroken flesheater in Luca Guadagnino’s romance/horror/road movie Bones and All, Russell was a curious teenager busying herself with what every Canadian artist seems to do best: determining how you can leave Canada. “I remember being six, sitting awake in the course of the night, and saying to myself, ‘This isn’t my life; my life is something else,’” she says. Near the steep outcrop she’s chosen for us to stretch out on, a gaggle of individuals in robes unfurl their bodies into martial arts poses, bathed in a large patch of golden sunlight. She pauses for several seconds, disappearing into memory. “It’s not because things were necessarily good or bad,” she continues. “It was just that I felt this constant sense of displacement, this sense that I wasn’t where I used to be meant to be.”

At first, Russell was sure she could be a ballet dancer. She projected into the long run a crystalline image of herself twirling on polished plywood, taking one in all those ever-romanticized, ever-competitive classes at Juilliard. Then, she dreamed of life as a painter. (Her parents, she says, are each artists in their very own right, though her mother would never discover that way.) Shuttling between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, Russell moved sixteen times before her eighteenth birthday. And that constant forward motion meant she was all the time within the midst of reinventing herself — deciding, every couple of months, whether she would keep her name at the following school, how she could change her sort of dress, who she is likely to be in that next fleeting scene of life. Her mother and father took life on a rolling basis, she says, not for lack of attempting to plan, but because bohemianism was native to the family’s character. “I feel it’s just a part of their souls indirectly,” she says. “And it manifests in me, too.” 

At eighteen, Russell took an acting class that mainly sealed the deal. She’d all the time been obsessive about movies, and as a baby would get up hours before the college day began to observe The Mummy on VHS, thrilled and warmed by the adventures of Brendan Fraser. Finally on the precipice of maturity, she found her fixation solidifying into actionable desire. She bought a Toyota Yaris with the cash she’d earned from five years of labor – at 13, she padded her age on a resume to work as a hostess at a Szechuan restaurant called Sammy J’s – and started a routine. She would drive the Interstate to Los Angeles, spend all the cash she’d made during the last nonetheless many months, after which return home to start out saving again. Her day jobs were a blur of butcher shops, jewellery stores, Indian restaurants, outfitters, Amazon warehouses. She auditioned. And auditioned more. “It was 4 years before anything happened,” she says. 

And when it did occur – when she flipped the small settlement from a minor automobile crash to take one last drive down the Interstate to California, where she landed her first major TV role—it was as if the entire winding course of her life made sense. Suddenly, that constant must migrate, and the shame that attached itself to her fundamental restlessness, revealed itself not as some inarticulate expression of escaping home, but as an instinctual movement towards something that awaited her.

There’s a moment on the midway point of Waves (2019), Trey Edward Shults’s fractured portrait of a middle-class black American family, when the movie’s agonizing, high-octane key resolves to a fragile, tender consonance. It’s as if someone cracked open a window. Like being compensated, after hours spent in traffic, with an unobstructed stretch of beach: hard pavement dissolving into sand dimples. After an hour-and-a-half of spinning cameras, oxycodone snorting, testosterone-fuelled motion and police automobile lights, the movie’s gravitational centre shifts to Russell, not a lot playing an indrawn teen as channeling her. Fishing on the water’s edge, Emily [Russell], her older brother recently incarcerated, confesses to her father a regret: she blames herself for not intercepting the violent outburst, for not rescuing her brother from himself. Why did she freeze when she detected something stormy beneath his movements on the party that night? 

“I don’t know why I did that,” she laments, and Russell pleats her voice with self-torment. Her face is open, dexterous, and achingly youthful. It registers doubt, heartbreak, after which, , a miasmic fury. “I hate him a lot,” she says, this misguided anger a momentary refuge. “What he did was evil, Dad. He’s evil. He’s a monster.”

“There was something transformative about her” – Luca Guadagnino

The scene arrives like a revelation. She plays it with subtle precision, quietly attuned to those minor chords of feeling—what John Cassavetes, the daddy of American independent cinema, called an actor’s “secrets.” Arpeggios of emotional acuity. “There was a lot in my life that I could draw from at that time,” Russell tells me, eyes wide beneath a black beret. We’ve just moved from laying on one stretch of bedrock within the park to a special stretch of bedrock, in a collective effort to remain within the sun’s path. Small birds, as if charmed, keep leaping from the branches above to face near her outstretched legs. When she was shooting Waves, Russell continues, she would get up each morning crying and screaming from nightmares. She journalled her feelings feverishly, and sent poetry she wrote to Shults. On set, she requested baby photos from her costars, to wring intimacy from a good shooting schedule.

“There was something transformative about her,” the Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino recently told the dressmaker Jonathan Anderson of Russell’s performance, for which she won, amongst a litany of other accolades, a Gotham Independent Award. (In November, Anderson named her Loewe’s latest global ambassador.) Guadagnino admired her “transparent, apparent fragility,” and the sensitivity with which she captured the inner turmoil of a sixteen-year-old girl. Russell is a veteran of stripling experience. She excels where locker-framed marches towards self-realization don’t necessarily end cleanly, but no less than end in a change that makes life more bearable to navigate. 

Behind the camera, too, Russell draws from a font of compassion. She made her directorial debut in 2020 with The Heart Still Hums, an intimate, 28-minute documentary she co-wrote, directed and produced along with her friend Savanah Leaf. The black-and-white film anatomizes the struggles of 5 Sacramento moms fighting for his or her children amid the cycles of addiction, homelessness, limited resources, and impending decisions about adoption. The 12 months of its release, it won the Best Short Documentary award at Palm Springs International ShortFest, in addition to on the Nashville and BlackStar Film Festivals.

In real life, Russell has the nice and cozy, inviting disposition of an old friend, and a habit of chewing on her bottom lip when considering the reply to a matter that resonates. On screen she seems to gravitate towards the outcasts, the introverts, the young adults pricked with the abiding sense that something fundamental of their biology makes them incompatible with their surroundings—cosmic typos resisting autocorrect. “I actually have a limited understanding of it,” she says. “I actually have this esoteric sense that the roles are selecting me in a way that I don’t fully comprehend.” Her characters, like people who are likely to appear in Guadagnino’s worlds, are wallflowers with worlds behind their eyes. They’re unseen or misunderstood, apart from when those mean the identical thing.

“I felt like there was a cord between our hearts,” she says of their first conversation. In the identical way Guadagnino had been impressed by Russell, she had felt captivated by his languorous studies of desire, and had resolved to write down him an effusive letter cataloguing her love for We Are Who We Are, the director’s coming-of-age miniseries that unfurls on a US military base. She’d never written to a director before. It turned out he, in thrall with Waves, was already arranging a gathering through her agent. Once they FaceTimed, she says, Guadagnino’s expressions filled the iPhone screen at that charming, up-close angle favoured by parents who’ve misplaced their glasses. He explained in short that he had a partial script for a movie, about lovesick cannibals drifting through the flat American Midwest on a bloody cross-country odyssey. “Would you read it?” he asked.

She was, it seems, the one person Guadagnino even considered for the role of Maren Yearly. It was a natural fit. Her and Timothée Chalamet, her costar in Bones and All, had been circling projects for years seeking something to work on, and here was one which felt right. (“We made sure that the priority on set was that the safest place could be with one another,” she says.) And he or she saw fragments of herself in Maren, a mutual understanding of what it means to be displaced. “I loved how seemingly misunderstood she was, and that she represented this type of isolation I feel acutely for whatever reason in my life,” Russell tells me. “I’m not as peculiar as Maren and her wants. However the role did ease something in me.”

Cravings emerge and confound, take root and stay put. Some long-dead psychoanalysts used to say that in our youth we lunge headlong, instinctively, to instantly satiate our desires; that maturity is the stage which involves acquaintance with the disorienting pain of lack and the knowledge that some cravings can’t be immediately satisfied. A friend of mine, a filmmaker, recently tweeted about how “the one thing that conquers a desire is one other, deeper desire”—put one other way, that sometimes longing is incurable.

That tension, each dramatic and sexual, begins early on in Bones, amid the humid, mischievous atmosphere of an unauthorized highschool slumber party. Maren, desirous to exit the social margins, sneaks out of her bedroom window one night (her father, played by André Holland, keeps a lock on her door) and follows the ability lines as much as her friend’s house up on the hill. The ladies are painting one another’s nails when she gets inside. She treads a bit awkwardly at first, but eventually settles in on the ground next to the friend who invited her. “So where’d you progress here from, anyway?” that friend asks. They chat. Every thing’s superb, even good. She’s socializing! After which the moment comes when something shifts within the air between them, when the tight space beneath the table, which frames their faces with a bunch of girlish items, kindles with something like urgency. Maren inhales deeply, draws nearer and, spellbound, takes the girl’s index finger into her mouth…and bites it off clean.

If we didn’t already know the premise of the film, if it hadn’t defined the uneasy mood of the primary trailer, we’d initially read this moment to be erotic, and one could reasonably argue that it still is. “Horror is the closest thing to like,” Guadagnino said recently, “since it’s visceral.” Possibly. The director, who moonlights as an interior designer, is commonly praised for the lushness of his landscapes, his adoring eye for texture and lightweight and fabric—the critic Doreen St. Félix once referred to his sumptuous “location fetishism.” Even the damp, paint-chipped rooms in Bones glow with morbid romanticism. What’s mentioned with far less frequency is how food and desire in Guadagnino’s movies are sometimes coterminous elements: a prawn dish arouses Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), who’s fed a warm, mouthwatering spoonful of fresh ricotta in A Larger Splash, and Chalamet, quite famously, finishes right into a peach in Call Me By Your Name. (Like Chekhov’s gun principle contends, in case you introduce a dripping, swollen peach, someone has to eat it.)

Regardless of the allegory is likely to be, that hysterical surge in Maren’s body doesn’t come as quite the shock to her father. He procedurally evacuates their home immediately and, the morning of her 18th birthday, abandons her in a squalid room with nothing but a wad of money and a tape recorder narrating the rationale for the rejection: Maren has compulsively eaten flesh since she was a baby, and it doesn’t appear to be a mutable or repressible trait. So she sets off on a journey to search out her mother, and on the way in which finds Lee (Chalamet), a sculpted boy with a mop of dyed-red curls, himself a young “eater” moping across the midwest. “They’re like mirrors of one another,” says Russell, “like twins.” Which is a method to say they fall in love. They share a guarded, unsure skittishness, all nerve endings and teenage intensity. They move with the slump of those aware of what it means to be denied. When the pair get their meet-cute, at a roadside convenience store where Maren is shoplifting tampons and Lee is driving out a person who’s been harassing patrons, they appear to register those qualities almost immediately, and never simply because eaters can smell one another. There’s a silent recognition within the look they exchange. Once they begin to make room for it, the intimacy between them is thick, and fiercely protective. It dispels the loneliness they’ve each accepted as birthright. But it may’t completely excise the guilt they each feel for the cravings that haunt them. “The world of affection wants no monsters in it,” someone says.

This might be the movie’s thesis, if we are able to take a moment to theorize one. Bones unfolds in dirty rooms nobody would describe as beautiful, set intentionally against the backdrop of a conservative America during which the Reagan administration was laughing in press conferences in regards to the rising death toll of a “gay plague.” Guadagnino’s eaters are rendered as people deemed monstrous for his or her desires, traits they’ve inherited and can’t, regardless of how hard they struggle, discard. “I don’t wish to hurt anybody,” says Maren, to which Lee replies: “Famous last words.” And haven’t our monsters all the time been queer? Haven’t they all the time been diseased, tainted, possessed, lusty? Haven’t they cross-dressed, been effeminate men and butch women, been sublimated by the Hays Code into a bunch of conservative celluloid anxieties? The monster has often been a litmus test for the existence of “unconditional” love, and Bones revels in winking on the symbolism of the cannibal (as when someone tosses an anti-gay slur at Chalamet’s Lee). 

Guadagnino gave Russell a “film Bible” to arrange for the role, which included Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. (He also gave her the perimeter haircut of a minor character in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.) “What’s interesting about all those movies, what ties them together, is that each one the characters are very much of their bodies, in a way that feels sort of jolted—like there’s a bird trapped inside them, or something, and so that they’re barely offbeat indirectly,” says Russell. In her preparation, she also read Mabel Elsworth Todd’s The Considering Body, a 1937 study of human physiology that was a favorite of Marilyn Monroe’s and plenty of modern dance schools.

You could have to maintain it real, because in case you depend on things that can fade, all the things’s going to shatter really quickly. And I never wish to be that fragile.” – Taylor Russell

Horror is just sometimes about “coming of age,” but coming of age is most all the time a horror story. Russell and I agree, only half-jokingly, that no person emerges from the wreckage of adolescence untraumatized. (Greater than a decade after its release, critics are finally admitting that Jennifer’s Body was way ahead of its time.) An inventory of descriptors we culled together: sticky, disgusting, isolating (Russell’s); messy, painful, apocalyptic (mine). “Coming of age movies are like perfect recipes for messiness,” she explains, “because all the things’s happening for the primary time in your body, in your brain, and it’s the right storm. You’re reflecting on how you’re feeling in regards to the world—your loved ones, your mates, and yourself, mostly, since all of us take into consideration ourselves greater than anyone else as teenagers. And you’ve these intense swings between pleasure and pain, ecstasy and fear, and it’s euphoric. You’re feeling untouchable. Don’t you?” 

Russell has long since grown out of that delusion of invincibility. She likes for her life to have a slow, measured pace, and says she never feels rushed. She’ll wait for the roles that feel right to her, and didn’t comply with work again for a 12 months and three months after Bones, when she began filming a movie with “the legendary Ellen Burstyn,” whose “wild, innocent, childlike vulnerability” she reveres. Every thing feels more precious to her now, dusted with a latest layer of meaning. “I feel very in tune with what I care about,” she says. She doesn’t feel disillusioned about who her friends are, and spends a number of time tending to them, curing their minor headaches with holistic home remedies that always begin with crushing pearl powder. She also, despite the evidence, doesn’t “feel famous.” Fame is a funny thing that belongs to other people. For the sake of self-preservation, she keeps a healthy amount of separation between her private life and what she shares on social media. She prefers boredom (“it’s essential for creation”) to Twitter.

Someone told Russell some time ago that she should start lying about her age, because she might get more opportunities if people had the prospect to be impressed by her youth—as if she isn’t only 28. Youth, she says, like beauty, is sweet to have in your side, nevertheless it’s not the one thing value cultivating, and it’s not a sustainable resource. “I’m looking forward to the day that I’m 60, after I can have some real gusto behind the things that I’m saying,” she says. “I’m working with actors right away who’re loads older than me, and all the things they are saying is so meaningful. Because they’ve said it in an entire host of the way of their real lives already, one-thousand times over. And my insecurity is all the time that I don’t have enough soul behind me for the words to essentially hit. I just wish to keep gathering that, and the one method to do it’s by being around individuals who keep shit real. You could have to maintain it real, because in case you depend on things that can fade, all the things’s going to shatter really quickly. And I never wish to be that fragile.”


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