Taylor Russell, the breakout star of Trey Edward Schults’ family drama Waves, was so intent on connecting with her cast — including Lucas Hedges, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown — that she asked them for childhood photos. “How can you not love somebody if you see them as a child?” asks the 25-year-old actress, who, as Emily, longs to make a more intimate connection with her father and brother, and eventually grapples with a violent tragedy that strikes the family. Set to receive the Virtuosos Award on Jan. 18 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the Canadian actress spoke with THR about the film’s deeply collaborative process, her preparation for the role and some of the other breakout performances she’s admired this year.
So, your involvement in Waves started with a FaceTime call?
I was working on a movie [on set] with Kelvin’s really good friend, and Kelvin had the part already. He had been working on it with Trey for, I think, probably eight months or more. They were on FaceTime, and I just said hi, and Kelvin saw me and said, “I’m doing this movie called Waves. You look like you could play my sister.” I was like, “Oh, that’s cool,” and I didn’t really think that much of it in the moment. Then, I went home that night and I had an email from my agent for a self-tape audition for Waves. That was completely unrelated to Kelvin. It was just kind of serendipitous.
Kelvin has talked about how his process with Trey was very collaborative. Did you feel that same sense of collaboration when you joined?
I got to know Kelvin a little bit during the process, so he let me know how much collaboration he was having with Trey prior to my joining the film. When I did meet Trey and got the part, I was sending him everything that I saw in poetry, stuff that I was writing, and music — different moods I was feeling for Emily. From the beginning, it was like we had a dialogue. He didn’t try to sway my creative process at all. He just lets you play.
You also asked for your co-stars’ baby pictures. Why is that?
I saw a photo of Kelvin as a baby, and the way that I felt about him after seeing that … I felt more tender toward him and like I could create a history with him in that way. So, I asked Sterling for photos, and I had so many of Kelvin, and I got a lot of Lucas as well. I just thought it was important for my process in this film. I’d never done anything like that before. Seeing them as babies, for some reason, it just sparked something in me.
Trey wrote very specific music cues into the script. Did those help you understand the story better?
When we first got the [digital] script, all the music was embedded in it [via links]. So you could press play and read the script at the same time. It was interactive. I hadn’t read anything like that before, so I knew when I read it what the tone of the movie would be, which is a huge gift that you don’t get as an actor a lot of the time.
What other breakout performances have you loved this season?
Honor Swinton Byrne from The Souvenir. I thought she was so nuanced and magnificent. Julia Fox, I thought was great in Uncut Gems. She was so fun and really buoyant. Jonathan Majors [in The Last Black Man in San Francisco]. I thought he was really great. He’s so, so lovely.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.