Taylor John Smith Is About to Be the Surprise Breakout of Sharp Objects
If you aren’t already familiar with the name Taylor John Smith, you’re about to be. The 23-year-old actor has been steadily cast in supporting Hollywood roles since 2012, most notably appearing in season two of American Crime in 2016. But thanks to his most recent turn as the broody and mysterious John Keene in HBO’s latest dark thriller Sharp Objects, Smith’s star is about to get a whole lot brighter.
The eight-part miniseries follows journalist Camille Preaker (played by Amy Adams), who returns to her small and endlessly creepy hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the murders of multiple young local girls. Smith portrays John Keene, the heartbroken older brother of the killer’s most recent victim, Natalie. And while we’ve only seen brief snippets of Smith’s character in the first three episodes, let’s just say that you’re going to want to keep a close eye on John. His storyline, just getting started, is packed with twists you won’t see coming.
Landing the role in itself was a big surprise for Smith. “I didn't fit the mold for the character at all,” he tells InStyle. “When I went in to audition, there were five or so other guys there and I didn’t look anything like them. I was like, ‘Am I in the wrong room?’” Turned out, it was the right room — and in the eyes of the show’s Emmy award-winning director, Jean-Marc Vallée of Big Little Lies, Smith was the only actor for the part. “Right after I finished reading the scene, Jean-Marc said, ‘Can you shave your head?’” says Smith. “I was like, ‘Do you have a razor?’”
Once he had John Keene’s look down pat, it was time for the newly shorn Smith to study up on the shifty character’s background. “John is very strange, dark, and evasive, and he just doesn't fit in with everyone else,” says Smith. “He’s an outsider from the city, and when he moves to the small town to be with his family, it seems like a chance for them to start over. But as the town begins to show its dark underbelly, he realizes that it’s not the place for him.” While John is trying to figure out where he belongs, locals start to question his involvement in his sister’s death. “They think he’s guilty.” (And at this point in the series, it's hard to say whether he is or isn't.)
When filming began, Smith arrived to set feeling confident — probably because he had no idea that he would spend his entire first day on the job crying. “We were filming the funeral of my character’s sister, and I had to cry the entire time,” says Smith. “I thought I crushed it on the first couple of takes, but then Jean-Marc would be like, ‘Again, again, again.’ We ended up shooting the funeral scene all day. I had never experienced anything like that before, and it just felt like a tsunami wave of, ‘What the fuck?’”
Luckily, Smith had the full support of his co-stars during filming. “Amy came up to me a few times during those hard scenes and said, ‘Hang in there. Keep pushing,’” says Smith. The fact that he was working alongside acting veterans like Adams and Patricia Clarkson wasn’t lost on the up-and-comer. “It feels like you’ve been playing basketball at community college and you suddenly get drafted to the NBA,” says Smith, who started acting at 17; he'd been planning on joining the Marines after high school, but when his younger sister dropped out of the acting classes their mom signed her up for, he took her slot, and here we are.
Quickly he found himself in the company of Hollywood greats. “You're surrounded by people who are total stars and professionals, and you start thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ You begin to feel like a fraud. But everyone was super kind and made me feel welcome. I was constantly reminded that I belonged there — especially by Jean-Marc. He said, ‘I knew halfway through your audition scene that I didn't need to see anyone else.’ That was a good feeling.”
While filming in Georgia, the cast and crew became a close-knit bunch. “We would have Sundays off, so we would go on hikes or to hot springs together,” says Smith. “We’d go out to dinner as a group after long days of filming, too. It was a very family-oriented environment.”
And Smith has already embraced a few of his co-star’s on-set tactics. “Amy taught me that the people you look up to can be just as human and kind as you are, and that you don't have to be pretentious,” he says. “You can be incredible at what you do and still be a nice person. She was always walking around, talking to the cast and crew and reminding everybody that we were all working together as a team.”
Unfortunately for fans of the show, those private moments the group shared on set will remain just that. “Jean-Marc had this rule that you couldn’t have your phone on set,” explains Smith. “You would have to leave it in a phone bank if you brought it with you. After the first few days, I ended up leaving it in my trailer which allowed me to be so much more present on set. Instead of checking your phone between scenes, you’re talking to the people you’re working with. It was great for me, because I like to unplug and time totally flies when you’re not checking your phone every 10 minutes. I’m going to start following the no-phone rule on every project I do from now on.”
Only time will tell if Smith stands by that declaration. Next month, he heads to Bulgaria to film the war drama The Outpost with Orlando Bloom and Scott Eastwood. And if we’re lucky, he just might break his rule and sneak a snap with his fellow hunky co-stars for the ‘gram.