Ever since Morgan Saylor’s galvanizing portrayal of a drug-addled college student in Elizabeth Wood’s “White Girl” blew the roof off the Gene Siskel Film Center upon its Windy City premiere in 2016, she instantly emerged as one of my favorite actors. Saylor involved me so completely in her character’s emotional journey that the very act of watching her became an out-of-body experience. She was hilarious, unsettling, sensual, shattering and never less than fully human. For her next film, Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate,” the actress did a 180 degree turn, inhabiting the tremulous soul of a nun in training with such aching vulnerability that it left me scarred. “Anywhere With You,” Saylor’s latest picture, adds another intriguing layer to her screen persona, affirming the 24-year-old as an actor of astonishing range.
Named “We the Coyotes” when it debuted at Cannes last year, this romantic yet grounded slice of life centers on a young couple, Amanda (Saylor) and Jake (McCaul Lombardi of “American Honey”), as they spend their first day together roughing it in Los Angeles while on the lookout for work. The film was written and directed by a real-life couple, Hanna Ladoul and Marco La Via, who based it somewhat on their own experiences of moving from France to LA. It’s a lovely film well worth seeking out, particularly for the excellent performances by Saylor and Lombardi.
I had the great pleasure of chatting on the phone with Saylor yesterday about making these three very different films, the benefit of long takes and why it was imperative while filming “Anywhere With You” to be “more chill.”
How did your experience moving from Illinois, where you attended the University of Chicago, to Los Angeles inform your approach to playing Amanda?
It was completely relevant to my experience of playing the character. When I got Hanna and Marco’s script, it felt like they knew what I’d been going through. It was really special because McCaul literally moved all of my things from Chicago to LA before we shot the film. It was our own sort of weird rehearsal experiment. I was still in school during what was, of course, a terrible Chicago winter, so I just left. I needed to go to sunny, happy California. So I abandoned all my furniture and books and other possessions in Chicago, and took the train to LA. Then I had to go back and get all my stuff, so when I got the script, I figured I had to be a part of it. McCaul and I were like, “Let’s do it,” and decided to make the actual road trip ourselves.
What degree of freedom was afforded to you and McCaul from Hanna and Marco in terms of forming the characters?
They really gave us a lot of freedom. Hanna and Marco are a young couple and this is their first big feature, as well as their first time working with proper actors. They wanted this film to be based on their story, to an extent, but they also wanted it to be about American kids, and we knew more of that world than they did. They were really down to let us build, and we spent a lot of time filming. I only signed on a month before we shot it—it all happened kind of quickly—but we tried to squeeze in as much rehearsal as we could.
Hanna, McCaul, Marco and I spent one week straight just going through the script. They filmed us improvising all the scenes, and then they’d take home the script and rewrite it based on what we had done. The next day, they would bring it back and have us try to fit in what made the most sense with our own sensibilities, and with the story that we were trying to tell. All of that happened before we did our giant road trip. We had all of that in our pockets to kind of chew on and come up with as we were driving together and getting to know one another, McCaul and I.
I love how you find moments of tenderness within the mounting stress, such as when Amanda and Jake embrace on the bridge while going to retrieve their car.
Yeah, it felt really important to find those moments. The movie takes place in one day, which was very unique. That was something I had never done or attempted to try within a story. It’s fascinating to film over a month and really keep track of the humanity and the tenderness within the characters, and decide on the points when they’re closest as well as when they’re furthest from one another. Hanna and Marco charted it for us very well, and made those building blocks of the relationship be the important backbone of the story. Then we could let the reality take over when the scenes were being shot.
Many twenty-somethings will be able to relate to Amanda’s outrage at unpaid internships, which only seem to favor those at a certain level of wealth.
Having just had the experience of going to a fancy college while wanting to be creative, but coming from a more conventional and financially stable background, I found this scene really interesting, even if I couldn’t completely relate to it. My own life has been a bit different, but most of my peers in college related much more to Amanda and Jake’s situation. It was interesting to discuss the script with them and feel their pain. They really sympathized with and related to Amanda in a way that I don’t think I can as much because I haven’t had to be interviewed for an adult office job. But I definitely felt more in touch with that sense of anxiety while making this movie than at any other time in my life.
The film suggests that people who arrive jobless in LA will likely have to start at the bottom when working toward their dreams.
You must make do with what you have. That’s the message of the film, as well as the mentality that led our filmmaking.
The five-minute shot of your face on the beach is absolutely mesmerizing, as Amanda goes through a near-operatic roller coaster of emotions. Was that scene always meant to be shot that way?
No it wasn’t. Phone calls are always very technical on film. You have to figure out where the person on the other line is going to be, or if they’ll be there at all. The take we used was the first one we filmed. I don’t think we planned to do the second phone call in the same take, but I did it anyway and it worked. They really liked the idea of both calls being in one shot. We originally thought that we’d have Jake in the background calling to me, but there was also the problem of losing light. These are the sort of not-so-fun things that happen onset.
I actually remember being very unsatisfied, performance-wise, with that scene, but now in retrospect, I’m quite pleased with it. It’s just so stressful and weird when you have only thirty minutes of that perfect sunset light to work with, and you don’t have the right people as the voices on the other end of the line. It’s really difficult to react to that, but it ended up being one of those magic things. The assistant director was like, “Should we call cut? Should we not?” And they just kept rolling, and that’s what made it in the final cut. That scene has been talked about a lot, and I think that’s cool.
The way the line, “This is what I want,” comes tumbling out of your mouth, it’s as if you’re letting out a pent-up feeling that has been long repressed.
That’s exactly how we wanted Amanda to end that conversation, for sure. Just to have her speak to her mother with that kind of honesty.
Were there people on the other line?
There was someone doing the mother’s lines, but then they later changed it to a different voice, or maybe it was just someone randomly reading it in the first place. There wasn’t anyone voicing the woman from the bookstore during that take. It’s always funny, as an actor, to have a conversation with someone who isn’t there.
When I interviewed Elizabeth Wood last year, she told me about her preference for utilizing long takes. From an acting perspective, what is the benefit of performing a scene without cuts?
You just get to stick within the moment and react to things in real time as opposed to breaking it up into different parts. We get to feel how Amanda feels in the moment during those different phone calls. As an actor, I love thinking about where my character was at the moment before a particular scene and where they are going in the moment immediately afterward. I’m sure most actors do, but it is incredibly important to me. Theatre training obviously teaches you how to find the strength in a performance within a certain narrative. That’s what I feel theatre does so well, and that also has to do with being able to take a scene from the beginning to the end properly. You just get to discover the proper richness of it.
I’ll never forget Elizabeth’s story about how you tracked your character’s drug intake in a mathematical, color-coded graph throughout production.
I say this in almost every interview, but I believe it so wholeheartedly that when you shoot everything out of order, it’s so important to remember at what points are the highest highs and the lowest lows. In the case of “White Girl,” that’s in reference to being on drugs, but I really did the same thing on this film. I put a graph on the wall, went through it and divided up the schedule according to what I had to film when, while noting what days were the gnarliest. And then I just learn to accept it, because you have a certain amount of weeks that you’re shooting, and it’s a marathon. You have to prepare yourself for the sprint and know which piece of the puzzle goes where each day. That’s really how I figure out characters—by putting a graph on my wall and having pieces that you can move around with colors. [laughs] It sounds silly, but it’s really helpful.
Did you find yourself relying more on your intuition while making “Anywhere With You,” since keeping track of precisely where you are during the story’s 24-hour period would prove daunting over the course of a month?
Yeah, that sort of tracking with the graph is all relative to whatever project I happen to be involved with. I can keep all the highs and climaxes mapped out, but once you have that backbone and that shape intact in your brain, then it’s really about letting go—especially on this film, much moreso than in “White Girl” or any other thing I’ve done. It just felt so natural. From what Hanna and Marco told us at the very beginning, it was clear that they wanted the film to have a documentary quality. Their most frequent note was, “More chill!”, which they’d exclaim in their French accents. Every day, that was a note. It’s really about living in the moment, which means not thinking about the backbone at all.
It must’ve been quite a switch going from the uninhibited wildness of “White Girl” to the repression of “Novitiate,” another film I loved so much that I sought out the director, in this case Maggie Betts, for an interview.
I mean, it was wonderful. That’s what I live for. [laughs] I didn’t make a conscious career choice to play total opposites, but I think my insides wanted that somehow. It was really fun. I like playing very different people, and I hope to continue it that way.
I was struck by how the nuns channeled their sexuality into the act of worship.
There is so much to learn within that film, even in terms of my own life. I don’t think what I learned from that experience necessarily had to do with spirituality or sexuality, it was more about my own understanding of myself. Maggie is incredibly intelligent, and she sent us all a lot of reading that detailed different real women’s perspectives and stories, showing the reasons they went into convents. That was very fascinating.
Was there a particular story that impacted you?
The story that I remember most vividly is the one that related to my character, who was the most devout and intense novitiate of the group. Her backstory, which was mentioned briefly in the film, stems from something that many families went through. My character had many brothers, and she was chosen out of all her siblings to be sacrificed. The belief was that if someone in a family was sacrificed, then everyone would get into heaven. If a family had an alcoholic father, they would put the daughter in the nunnery because that meant the father would still get into heaven. That was the kind of story that I couldn’t get enough of.
The scene where your character is forced to kneel in a circle of her peers while being grilled by Melissa Leo is immensely harrowing, in no small part due to your palpable fear.
We shot that “Circle of Truth” scene around the time that I went to Sundance for “White Girl,” so I was very nervous about that. [laughs] The actual timing of it was ideal. But we had an intense nun camp before we started making that film where we kind of did our own sharing of truths, so we were all really comfortable by the time we shot it.
Considering you’ve lived in many great cities—Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—which one feels most like home to you?
New York, New York, for sure, for life. When I moved there, I was 18, and it just felt like home. I lived mostly in Brooklyn, but everything about the city—the diversity, the resilience, the creativity—really did it for me.