While You Were Watching Taylor Russell, She Was Watching You

The Words on Bathroom Walls star opens up about studying strangers, destigmatizing mental illness, and the power of witnessing a “drastic change in humanity.”
By Isabel Jones
Aug 24, 2020 @ 12:30 pm

Taylor Russell is back. Yes, she’s still playing high school. And yes, she’s still taking on the kind of challenging material that has the power to heal its viewers. 

In Words on Bathroom Walls, adapted from Julia Walton’s Young Adult novel of the same name, Adam (Charlie Plummer) navigates his schizophrenia against the most unforgiving backdrop: high school. Russell sharpens her indie chops as Maya, an endearingly blunt fellow student with whom Adam forms a relationship. 

It’s rare to see a film that balances the seriousness of a schizophrenia diagnosis with the humanity of a person who is in fact more than the pills he is prescribed, but Words does just that. Adam is just a boy with an illness. And Maya, like Russell, is just a girl with some research to do. “I didn't know a lot about schizophrenia at all,” the actress tells me over Zoom. She says she relates, though, to feeling misunderstood — "[it’s] kind of the worst thing.”

“Misunderstood” could describe any number of characters Russell, 26, has inhabited: There was Emily in Waves, desperate to reclaim her joy after a tragedy irrevocably changes her family dynamic, and even “sole survivor” Zoey in Escape Room, quietly sitting with her own trauma while her peers make their judgments. 

In person (well, sort of), Russell is thoughtful and seemingly unrehearsed, careful to communicate the full extent of her ideas. That precision extends to the aesthetic as well. She’s not itching to have her image curated for her. Russell chose to wear her own clothes and makeup for our photoshoot, save for some Chanel jewelry we sent her way (she is an accessories ambassador for the brand).

As a debut director, she’s something of a creative curator herself. Russell and her partner Savanah Leaf collaborated on documentary short The Heart Still Hums, which trails five women fighting to protect their children through poverty and addiction.” I grew up knowing a lot of women like the women that are in our documentary, and I felt like it was really important for those stories to be told,” Russell says. The project took home the award for Best Documentary Short at Palm Springs International ShortFest.

Though last year’s awards season brought Russell a good deal of notoriety for her performance in Waves, she tells me it’s rare for people to recognize her offscreen. “I like being anonymous,” she assures me. In fact, it only strengthens her craft. “As an actor you want to be able to watch people, you don't want people watching you.”Given her quick ascent, it’s unclear how long the native Canadian will be able to observe unfettered. For now, she’s happy to play the role of approachable stranger. “if anybody wants to come up and talk about their lives or whatever, I'm open to listening,” she says.

Read on as the breakout star discusses her new film, her high school experience and, you know, Brendan Fraser. 

 InStyle: How has your quarantine been going?

Taylor Russell: It has been all over the place. Very up and down, like most people. I was alone for part of it, and now I'm with friends, so it's better.

Have you picked up any new hobbies or anything?

Yes, I did. At the very beginning, I was kind of like, "I need things to do," and I just had come off working. I was riled up still from that, and feeling like I needed something to occupy my brain. I learned how to play a couple songs on the harp. But lately I haven’t been doing a whole lot.

I feel like there are weeks that I'm really productive, and then other weeks where I don't even know how many days have gone by. It's all a blur, but it also feels really necessary. There's so much happening in the world right now, and I feel like our awareness is rising, and clarity is coming along with that. And that is one of the most special things that I think is happening right now.

You've played high school quite a bit. How does that affect you, do you feel nostalgic for your own high school experiences at all?

I think [I feel nostalgic] for the emotions that come along with that age range, yes. Feeling everything for the first time, and it feeling colossal and brand new — I miss that. For me at least, a new feeling is rare. And when I do have something that I haven't felt before, it's all I can think about. I look back [at my time in high school] and I think, "Oh, I was going through so much newness, and it was overwhelming."

I'm lucky, ‘cause I have a little brother and he is in high school. So I feel like I have my finger on the pulse, or in the ring, to some degree. I have somebody at least to call me out and say, "This is actually what's happening.” But yeah, I am a baby face. I suspect this is something that will be part of my journey for a while.

Maya is this super driven, straight-A student. Were you able to relate to that? Was that similar to you in high school?

Yes, I think she's kind of like a Jack-of-all-trades. I think she sees herself in many ways as an adult, and because her mother's not around and her whole family relies on her for money, and for a lot of things, she's kind of like the golden ticket. She's not the type of person who's complaining, or even opening up about her experience. She's very internal in a lot of ways, and also her eye is on the prize and she knows what she wants. And so she knows what she's going to do to get there, she's not wasting any time. There's this very mature aspect of her that feels beyond high school.

In high school I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. I was experimenting a lot. I don't think I was as, maybe, harsh in some ways as she is, but there was an aspect of me at that time that was driven. Maybe to a lesser degree than Maya is, but maybe more so now as I get older.

How did you feel about wearing a school uniform?

I don't like that everybody looks the same in a school uniform, and it feels controlling to me. I didn't have to wear a school uniform. It was sweet, and it was wholesome, and very nice. I don't know how I would've felt if I was 16 wearing a school uniform. I imagine many, many people aren't excited about that during their youth.

Credit: Jacob Yakob, Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

So shooting this and Waves back to back, they're both very heavy films, heavy subject matter. Was that difficult for you as an actor, to carry that emotional burden?

I think it depends. Each character sits so differently. I guess for me, it's not easy to kind of look back and see where everything sat. I don't want to carry it, and I try my best not to. But I'm also at the point in my youth [where] I don't have a family, I'm not coming home and having to worry about really switching off for anybody because I need to be in a different role, like a parent. So in that way, I feel like there's a big freedom that comes with that. But no, I'm not staying in character all the time. I really trust that it'll be there at the right moments.

Did you and Charlie Plummer do anything off screen to establish your connection on screen?

We had some dinners and stuff beforehand, and we were shooting on location in North Carolina. Whenever you're on location you always, I think, more naturally get together with the other actors than you would if you were shooting where you live, because you don't have anybody to go home to, or your normal things to do. So we all just hung out and kind of got to know each other. It was really easy. He's a very likable, nice person. I liked his work, I'd seen a few movies that he did and I thought he was really talented. So I knew that I was going to have a good partner in him, and that made me feel really safe and confident.

Credit: Jacob Yakob, Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

This film is so powerful in the way that it portrays mental illness. And schizophrenia in particular, is a mental illness that carries such stigma. Is de-stigmatizing mental illness something that’s important to you?

Yeah. I think with anything that has a strong preconceived notion that is just misconstrued, or there's a lot of misinformation about it, it's important to educate.

I didn't know a lot about schizophrenia at all, I had a lot of research to do when I got the role in the project. And I'm really grateful. I think that's one of the best things, being able to expand and really educate through the lens of empathy, and trying to portray and convey a certain story. So you have to dig into it even more. But yeah, I think it is kind of the worst thing, to feel misunderstood. And I think that there's a lot of that around mental health. But right now it seems like everybody's talking about it for the most part, which gives me a lot of hope.

What was your research process like for this?

Just talking to people, really. Finding any information I could online. And then when we got to set, there were a lot of crew members that had family members with schizophrenia. So it felt like there was a continued education all the time, or somebody would say, "Oh, I'm so glad this story is being told because my brother … [or] my son … has it." And that is kind of like the alchemy of people coming together around the same thing — you don't really know until you get to know them, why they are brought there. I kept feeling like that. And then also watching Charlie act, conveying that. I could see all the research that he did within his actions. There were multiple levels and access points into my education about it, which also was really unique.

Credit: Jacob Yakob, Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

A bunch of people are tweeting that they think you should play Whitney Houston in a biopic. What are your thoughts on that?

Oh my gosh. Well, first of all, that's really kind. Because she, I think, is one of the most special performers of all time. I think that the right person will play her. I'll just say that. I don't know if that person will be me. I think somebody more fitting for the role will probably play her. And I can't wait to see who that is, and I can't wait to see it, but I know it's going to be good. 

I saw that you posted about Black Lives Matter back in the beginning of June. How do you feel that the movement intersects with your experience in Hollywood, and your own personal expression and art?

I think that what's happening right now is exactly on time. I've dealt with marginalization in my own specific ways, and yet my experience, I feel like I've been really lucky with inserting myself into projects and parts that maybe weren't meant for me, initially, but did turn out that way. 

I'm also so new in this career. I haven't been doing it since I was a kid, I started when I graduated high school. So I've only been doing it for eight years. And because of that, I think I've had an easier experience. And yet I've still seen a lot of stuff in my earlier days that was worrisome. But I feel like with Black Lives Matter, there's so much coming to light, and so many people who are listening. The series that I really love, I May Destroy You, [written and produced by star] Michaela Coel — her success is one of the most incredible things to me. And I think the fact that people who aren't Black are listening right now, it feels like this is a really great time to be an artist, and to be trying to tell stories that you want to get heard, because there's more opportunities for them to live. 

Credit: Cameron McCool

I also am a light-skinned Black girl, I'm mixed. I have it easier than a lot of my peers do, who aren't light-skinned like me. I'm really optimistic about the change that is going to come, and I do feel like it's obviously due time for huge shifts to happen, and hopefully they will.

I'm so in awe of everything I see with all of the activists that are out right now for Black Lives Matter, and every single day. It's not just a moment in time, it's a really, really long journey that is happening, and will happen for years and years and years to come ... You can't look away. And that is the strongest part of it, that you can't just say, "This isn't happening." There's no denying. It's apparent, and it's evident, and it's here. And I'm really happy that I'm alive and witnessing such a drastic change in humanity.

SMALL TALK

What's your favorite item of clothing that you own?

I have these pajama pants that have strawberries all over them, probably those.

Astrology, yes or no?

Yes. Yes. But not insane, I'm not checking my horoscope every day. So to a degree, yes.

You're a Cancer, right? Do you feel well-represented by your sign?

I do. But I just read that as you get older, you become more of your moon sign. And my moon sign is Scorpio, and right now I really identify as more Scorpio than Cancer. But yes, I think I'm very emotional in the ways that Cancers are, so probably for better or for worse, yes.

What's one book you could read over and over?

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose. I tell all my friends to read it, it's one of the best books.It's a book of essays about her life, basically. And I think she's around [my] age, so it feels just on point nostalgia-wise. She's also an immigrant, and talks about her experience throughout her life, and in being displaced, but also finding who she is. There's so much to connect to. 

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Brendan Fraser from The Mummy. I was obsessed with him. I would wake up at six o’clock every day and watch The Mummy, and I just thought he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen.

Credit: Cameron McCool

What was your last binge-watch?

It's the new Derek Cianfrance TV show on HBO. It's called I Know This Much Is True. It's the best thing that I've seen this year, probably.

My mom is a big fan.

Yeah. I've actually talked to a lot of moms about this show. I'm trying to spread it to more people, but it is beautifully done. The cinematography, the acting, everything is spot-on. And I'm a huge fan of Derek Cianfrance. 

If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose? 

I would choose Gloria by John Cassavetes. I'm going to be really thoughtful about this, so let me just think quickly. What are the three movies? Probably The Fox and the Hound, I love that movie. And lastly, Punch-Drunk Love.

What's one thing you wish more people knew about you?

That I like getting to know people, and that I'm approachable. That if anybody wants to come up and talk about their lives or whatever, I'm open to listening. 

Words on Bathroom Walls is playing in theaters nationwide.

Makeup: Chanel Beauty. Jewelry: Chanel.