Rapid Round: 'White Girl' Star Morgan Saylor Talks Drugs, Math and 'Homeland's' Dana Brody

Morgan Saylor - Getty - H 2016
Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

For the University of Chicago math major, there's a through line between number crunching and acting: "There are derivatives to be found between story arcs and character motivations."

Fans of Homeland know Morgan Saylor as Dana Brody, the troubled teen with the complicated father. Few will recognize her in Elizabeth Wood’s sexy new drug drama White Girl, the feature film in which she stars as Leah, a privileged girl who hooks up with a Puerto Rican drug dealer and begins slinging cocaine in the quest to spring him from jail. Following the film’s Sundance debut, The Hollywood Reporter called her performance “never blank or predictable…[with] a fierce intelligence that comes through.”

Neither of her characters in Homeland and White Girl bear any resemblance to the real Saylor, who is a brainiac majoring in mathematics at the University of Chicago. But the FilmRise movie, which expanded into 16 theaters this weekend, grossing a meager $27,750, is still proving to be an impressive calling card for the UTA-repped actress. Now, Saylor is plotting her next move (think indies, not superhero movies).

The 21-year-old Georgia native talked to THR before the start of the fall semester about her favorite drug-themed movie, whether or not she’ll return to Homeland and the through line between mathematics and acting: "There are derivatives to be found between story arcs and character motivations."

You were 19 when you landed the starring role in White Girl. Was it a difficult audition process?

It was a really fun audition process. It was February [2015], and it was a blizzard out and I came in wearing a very long jacket. I took it off and was wearing short shorts and a tank top because when I got ready that morning, jeans and a turtleneck didn’t feel right. Elizabeth really likes to play around and try to figure out the scene in a way that just isn’t plainly on the paper. So we really did try it a bunch of different ways.

What, if anything, do you and White Girl's Leah have in common?

Not much. But I moved to New York too when I was 18, like Leah. I grew up in Atlanta and definitely found the city in a different way but still related to coming to this giant universe from this small, little rest of America, and the opportunities and weird adventures you can have in the city. But I definitely went about it a different way than Leah.

What’s your favorite drug-themed movie?

The Panic in Needle Park. That does it for me. Young [Al] Pacino. Man oh man.

What profession would you pursue if not this?

Something to do with numbers. Maybe a physicist if I’m really daydreaming.

Is there any through line between studying mathematics and being an actress?

Completely. Especially as my classes have gotten harder, more intense. I’m such a dork, but I really think there are derivatives to be found between story arcs and character motivations. And the way you evaluate functions is a really interesting way to look at stories and the way you act. I really believe it.

So do you have a favorite number?

Six. Always has been. It’s a very comfortable number. Certain numbers feel better than others, for sure. When I had to live in the dorms, I would wake up with the math majors every morning and be like, “Today’s the 21st, 3, 7, wow that feels good.” (Laughs)

You're not on Twitter. Why not?

I like being mysterious as an actress. That’s my simple answer. I’m scared to put that much out there in terms of “Morgan.”

What are you currently reading?

[Erik Larson’s] The Devil in the White City. I also have a book of Emily Dickinson poems on top of it as well, which are fun to read.

What was your very first acting job?

My first proper credit was a small voice-over on an episode of The Sopranos when I was like 11 or 12. I didn’t know [how culturally influential] the series was then, but I have since watched it and think it’s phenomenal. I’m very proud that was my first thing.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

Pick your battles.

Describe yourself in three words.

Goofy. Interested. Thoughtful.

What do you hate the most about Hollywood?

That’s tricky. Maybe red carpets. They’re just weird.

This will be the second presidential election you can vote in. Hillary or Trump?

Hillary. It’s a pretty simple decision to make. I have been a fan of hers for a while, and I’m excited.

Who would be your dream director?

Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Audiard

Any chance you’ll return to Homeland?

No plans, but I am still great friends with them and they’re all in New York now shooting, so I’ve been hanging out with them a bit. But no plans on the calendar.

Have you been courted for superhero movies yet?

They come my way. They come everyone’s way. And I don’t usually pursue them that hard. You don’t read the script; you don’t know the director. So I haven’t tried to play that game yet and I’m not sure I will, but who knows? We’ll see. Indies tend to be my cup of tea more often.

Who would you most like to meet?

Probably Miuccia Prada. Hang out with her a little bit. I love her clothing and think she’s brilliant. She’s got a Ph.D. in political science and makes the coolest clothes in the world. I’ve met her very briefly from afar at a fashion show, but all I want to do is talk to her.

What would White Girl’s Leah think of Dana Brody?

That’s a good question. Well, Leah likes everyone, it seems. So maybe she’d be able to get a smile out of Dana somehow. I’m not sure Dana would be as excited by Leah.