In our Winter 2022 issue, the Bones And All actor discusses what it’s like to be Hollywood’s hottest new star
I realise slightly too late that the lightning bolt tattooed on Taylor Russell’s inner wrist, peeking out from beneath the cuff of her black Prada turtleneck, is the same thin lightning bolt tattooed on Patti Smith’s left knee, immortalised in so many of Robert Mapplethorpe’s edgy grayscale photographs—probably one of the most famous single knees in the world. “Her words are so deeply ingrained in the map of my body,” the 28-year-old actress tells me over the phone, just a few days after we meet one warm fall afternoon in Central Park. (Actually, we rendezvous in the old-fashioned lobby at Park Lane New York across the street, but Russell, a native to Vancouver’s rocky beaches and snow-capped mountains, prefers nature’s “divine magical presence” to the stuffy insulation of an upscale hotel room.) “I discovered her writing when I first moved here, and I felt akin to her in so many different ways,” she says, “ways that have revealed themselves to me more with time and reflection.”
Such devotion comes easily to fans of Smith’s polymathic genius. Her bracingly personal oeuvre, which spans poetry, music, visual art and memoir, feels alive to the world in a way that at times approaches the mystical, as though she’s been on earth far longer than what the corporal form allows and therefore possesses a kind of ancient wisdom. “An artist is somebody who enters into competition with God,” she once told a reporter. Just Kids, a favourite of Russell’s, is one of those beloved books that creative types endorse almost rapturously, sometimes following up intermittently afterwards to see whether you’ve read it since they last advised you to. It’s a poetic elegy to Mapplethorpe, sure, a gleaming altar to the pair’s spiritual twinship, but mostly it’s an affecting portrait of two young artists grasping at self-discovery, a fable of becoming: the perfect literary companion for a young artist newly released into New York City’s frenetic energy. Russell, who is five-foot-four and pixie-like, estimates she’s read it at least ten times since she first found it three years ago, those coruscating phrases imprinting themselves on her like…well…tattoos. “There’s a line I’ll never forget,” she says, “and I think it captures how I really feel: ‘No one expected me. Everything awaited me.’”
Before she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actor at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, for her performance as a loping, heartbroken flesheater in Luca Guadagnino’s romance/horror/road movie Bones and All, Russell was a curious teenager busying herself with what every Canadian artist seems to do best: figuring out how to leave Canada. “I remember being six, sitting awake in the middle of the night, and saying to myself, ‘This isn’t my life; my life is something else,’” she says. Near the steep outcrop she’s chosen for us to stretch out on, a group of people in robes unfurl their bodies into martial arts poses, bathed in a wide patch of golden sunlight. She pauses for several seconds, disappearing into memory. “It’s not because things were necessarily good or bad,” she continues. “It was just that I felt this constant sense of displacement, this feeling that I wasn’t where I was meant to be.”
At first, Russell was sure she would be a ballet dancer. She projected into the future a crystalline image of herself twirling on polished plywood, taking one of those ever-romanticized, ever-competitive classes at Juilliard. Then, she dreamed of life as a painter. (Her parents, she says, are both artists in their own right, though her mother would never identify that way.) Shuttling between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, Russell moved sixteen times before her eighteenth birthday. And that constant forward motion meant she was always in the midst of reinventing herself — deciding, every couple of months, whether she would keep her name at the next school, how she could change her style of dress, who she might be in that next fleeting scene of life. Her mother and father took life on a rolling basis, she says, not for lack of trying to plan, but because bohemianism was native to the family’s character. “I think it’s just part of their souls in some way,” she says. “And it manifests in me, too.”
At eighteen, Russell took an acting class that basically sealed the deal. She’d always been obsessed with movies, and as a child would wake up hours before the school day started to watch The Mummy on VHS, thrilled and warmed by the adventures of Brendan Fraser. Finally at the precipice of adulthood, she found her fixation solidifying into actionable desire. She bought a Toyota Yaris with the money she’d earned from five years of work – at 13, she padded her age on a resume to work as a hostess at a Szechuan restaurant called Sammy J’s – and began a routine. She would drive the Interstate to Los Angeles, spend all the money she’d made over the last however many months, and then return home to start saving again. Her day jobs were a blur of butcher shops, jewellery stores, Indian restaurants, clothing stores, Amazon warehouses. She auditioned. And auditioned more. “It was four years before anything happened,” she says.
And when it did happen – when she flipped the small settlement from a minor car crash to take one last drive down the Interstate to California, where she landed her first major TV role—it was as if the whole winding course of her life made sense. Suddenly, that constant need to migrate, and the shame that attached itself to her fundamental restlessness, revealed itself not as some inarticulate expression of escaping home, but as an instinctual movement towards something that awaited her.
There’s a moment at the midway point of Waves (2019), Trey Edward Shults’s fractured portrait of a middle-class black American family, when the movie’s agonizing, high-octane key resolves to a delicate, tender consonance. It’s as if someone cracked open a window. Like being compensated, after hours spent in traffic, with an unobstructed stretch of beach: hard pavement dissolving into sand dimples. After an hour-and-a-half of spinning cameras, oxycodone snorting, testosterone-fuelled action and police car lights, the movie’s gravitational centre shifts to Russell, not so much playing an indrawn teen as channeling her. Fishing at the water’s edge, Emily [Russell], her older brother recently incarcerated, confesses to her father a regret: she blames herself for not intercepting the violent outburst, for not rescuing her brother from himself. Why did she freeze when she detected something stormy beneath his movements at the party that night?
“I don’t know why I did that,” she laments, and Russell pleats her voice with self-torment. Her face is open, dexterous, and achingly youthful. It registers doubt, heartbreak, and then, all at once, a miasmic fury. “I hate him so much,” she says, this misguided anger a momentary refuge. “What he did was evil, Dad. He’s evil. He’s a monster.”
“There was something transformative about her” – Luca Guadagnino
The scene arrives like a revelation. She plays it with subtle precision, quietly attuned to those minor chords of feeling—what John Cassavetes, the father of American independent cinema, called an actor’s “secrets.” Arpeggios of emotional acuity. “There was so much in my life that I could draw from at that point,” Russell tells me, eyes wide beneath a black beret. We’ve just moved from laying on one stretch of bedrock in the park to a different stretch of bedrock, in a collective effort to stay in the sun’s path. Small birds, as though charmed, keep leaping from the branches above to stand near her outstretched legs. When she was shooting Waves, Russell continues, she would wake up each morning crying and screaming from nightmares. She journalled her feelings feverishly, and sent poetry she wrote to Shults. On set, she requested baby photos from her costars, to wring intimacy from a tight shooting schedule.
“There was something transformative about her,” the Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino recently told the fashion designer Jonathan Anderson of Russell’s performance, for which she won, among a litany of other accolades, a Gotham Independent Award. (In November, Anderson named her Loewe’s latest global ambassador.) Guadagnino admired her “transparent, apparent fragility,” and the sensitivity with which she captured the inner turmoil of a sixteen-year-old girl. Russell is a veteran of teen experience. She excels where locker-framed marches towards self-realization don’t necessarily end cleanly, but at least result in a change that makes life more bearable to navigate.
Behind the camera, too, Russell draws from a font of compassion. She made her directorial debut in 2020 with The Heart Still Hums, an intimate, 28-minute documentary she co-wrote, directed and produced with her friend Savanah Leaf. The black-and-white film anatomizes the struggles of five Sacramento mothers fighting for their children amid the cycles of addiction, homelessness, limited resources, and impending decisions about adoption. The year of its release, it won the Best Short Documentary award at Palm Springs International ShortFest, as well as at the Nashville and BlackStar Film Festivals.
In real life, Russell has the warm, inviting disposition of an old friend, and a habit of chewing on her bottom lip when considering the answer to a question that resonates. On screen she seems to gravitate towards the outcasts, the introverts, the young adults pricked with the abiding sense that something fundamental in their biology makes them incompatible with their surroundings—cosmic typos resisting autocorrect. “I have a limited understanding of it,” she says. “I have this esoteric sense that the roles are choosing me in a way that I don’t fully comprehend.” Her characters, like those that tend to appear in Guadagnino’s worlds, are wallflowers with worlds behind their eyes. They’re unseen or misunderstood, except for when those mean the same thing.
“I felt like there was a cord between our hearts,” she says of their first conversation. In the same way Guadagnino had been impressed by Russell, she had felt captivated by his languorous studies of desire, and had resolved to write him an effusive letter cataloguing her love for We Are Who We Are, the director’s coming-of-age miniseries that unfurls on a US military base. She’d never written to a director before. It turned out he, in thrall with Waves, was already arranging a meeting through her agent. When they FaceTimed, she says, Guadagnino’s expressions filled the iPhone screen at that charming, up-close angle favoured by parents who’ve misplaced their glasses. He explained in brief that he had a partial script for a movie, about lovesick cannibals drifting through the flat American Midwest on a bloody cross-country odyssey. “Would you read it?” he asked.
She was, it turns out, the only person Guadagnino even considered for the role of Maren Yearly. It was a natural fit. Her and Timothée Chalamet, her costar in Bones and All, had been circling projects for years in search of something to work on, and here was one that felt right. (“We made sure that the priority on set was that the safest place would be with each other,” she says.) And she saw fragments of herself in Maren, a mutual understanding of what it means to be displaced. “I loved how seemingly misunderstood she was, and that she represented this sort of isolation I feel acutely for whatever reason in my life,” Russell tells me. “I’m not as peculiar as Maren and her wants. But the role did ease something in me.”
Cravings emerge and confound, take root and stay put. Some long-dead psychoanalysts used to say that in our youth we lunge headlong, instinctively, to immediately satiate our desires; that adulthood is the stage which involves acquaintance with the disorienting pain of lack and the knowledge that some cravings can’t be immediately satisfied. A friend of mine, a filmmaker, recently tweeted about how “the only thing that conquers a desire is another, deeper desire”—put another way, that sometimes longing is incurable.
That tension, both dramatic and sexual, begins early on in Bones, amid the humid, mischievous atmosphere of an unauthorized high school slumber party. Maren, eager to exit the social margins, sneaks out of her bedroom window one night (her father, played by André Holland, keeps a lock on her door) and follows the power lines up to her friend’s house up on the hill. The girls are painting each other’s nails when she gets inside. She treads a bit awkwardly at first, but eventually settles in on the floor next to the friend who invited her. “So where’d you move here from, anyway?” that friend asks. They chat. Everything’s fine, even good. She’s socializing! And then the moment comes when something shifts in the air between them, when the tight space beneath the table, which frames their faces with a host of girlish items, kindles with something like urgency. Maren inhales deeply, draws nearer and, spellbound, takes the girl’s index finger into her mouth…and bites it off clean.
If we didn’t already know the premise of the film, if it hadn’t defined the uneasy mood of the first trailer, we might initially read this moment to be erotic, and one could reasonably argue that it still is. “Horror is the closest thing to love,” Guadagnino said recently, “because it’s visceral.” Maybe. The director, who moonlights as an interior designer, is often praised for the lushness of his landscapes, his adoring eye for texture and light and fabric—the critic Doreen St. Félix once referred to his sumptuous “location fetishism.” Even the damp, paint-chipped rooms in Bones glow with morbid romanticism. What’s mentioned with far less frequency is how food and desire in Guadagnino’s films are often coterminous elements: a prawn dish arouses Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), who is fed a warm, mouthwatering spoonful of fresh ricotta in A Bigger Splash, and Chalamet, quite famously, finishes into a peach in Call Me By Your Name. (Like Chekhov’s gun principle contends, if you introduce a dripping, swollen peach, someone has to eat it.)
Whatever the allegory might be, that hysterical surge in Maren’s body doesn’t come as quite the shock to her father. He procedurally evacuates their home immediately and, the morning of her 18th birthday, abandons her in a squalid room with nothing but a wad of cash and a tape recorder narrating the reason for the rejection: Maren has compulsively eaten flesh since she was a child, and it doesn’t seem to be a mutable or repressible trait. So she sets off on a journey to find her mother, and on the way finds Lee (Chalamet), a sculpted boy with a mop of dyed-red curls, himself a young “eater” moping around the midwest. “They’re like mirrors of each other,” says Russell, “like twins.” Which is a way to say they fall in love. They share a guarded, unsure skittishness, all nerve endings and teenage intensity. They move with the slump of those familiar with what it means to be denied. When the pair get their meet-cute, at a roadside convenience store where Maren is shoplifting tampons and Lee is driving out a man who’s been harassing patrons, they seem to register those qualities almost immediately, and not just because eaters can smell each other. There’s a silent recognition in the look they exchange. When they begin to make room for it, the intimacy between them is thick, and fiercely protective. It dispels the loneliness they’ve both accepted as birthright. But it can’t completely excise the guilt they both feel for the cravings that haunt them. “The world of love wants no monsters in it,” someone says.
This could be the movie’s thesis, if we can take a moment to theorize one. Bones unfolds in dirty rooms no one would describe as beautiful, set intentionally against the backdrop of a conservative America in which the Reagan administration was laughing in press conferences about the rising death toll of a “gay plague.” Guadagnino’s eaters are rendered as people deemed monstrous for their desires, traits they’ve inherited and cannot, no matter how hard they try, discard. “I don’t want to hurt anybody,” says Maren, to which Lee replies: “Famous last words.” And haven’t our monsters always been queer? Haven’t they always been diseased, tainted, possessed, lusty? Haven’t they cross-dressed, been effeminate men and butch women, been sublimated by the Hays Code into a host of conservative celluloid anxieties? The monster has often been a litmus test for the existence of “unconditional” love, and Bones revels in winking at the symbolism of the cannibal (as when someone tosses an anti-gay slur at Chalamet’s Lee).
Guadagnino gave Russell a “film Bible” to prepare for the role, which included Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. (He also gave her the fringe haircut of a minor character in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.) “What’s interesting about all those movies, what ties them together, is that all the characters are very much in their bodies, in a way that feels kind of jolted—like there’s a bird trapped inside them, or something, and so they’re slightly offbeat in some way,” says Russell. In her preparation, she also read Mabel Elsworth Todd’s The Thinking Body, a 1937 study of human physiology that was a favourite of Marilyn Monroe’s and many modern dance schools.
“You have to keep it real, because if you rely on things that will fade, everything’s going to shatter really quickly. And I never want to be that fragile.” – Taylor Russell
Horror is only sometimes about “coming of age,” but coming of age is most always a horror story. Russell and I agree, only half-jokingly, that nobody emerges from the wreckage of adolescence untraumatized. (More than a decade after its release, critics are finally admitting that Jennifer’s Body was way ahead of its time.) A list of descriptors we culled together: sticky, disgusting, isolating (Russell’s); messy, painful, apocalyptic (mine). “Coming of age movies are like perfect recipes for messiness,” she explains, “because everything’s happening for the first time in your body, in your brain, and it’s the perfect storm. You’re reflecting on how you feel about the world—your family, your friends, and yourself, mostly, since we all think about ourselves more than anyone else as teenagers. And you have these intense swings between pleasure and pain, ecstasy and fear, and it’s euphoric. You feel untouchable. Don’t you?”
Russell has long since grown out of that delusion of invincibility. She likes for her life to have a slow, measured pace, and says she never feels rushed. She’ll wait for the roles that feel right to her, and didn’t agree to work again for a year and three months after Bones, when she started filming a movie with “the legendary Ellen Burstyn,” whose “wild, innocent, childlike vulnerability” she reveres. Everything feels more precious to her now, dusted with a new layer of meaning. “I feel very in tune with what I care about,” she says. She doesn’t feel disillusioned about who her friends are, and spends a lot of time tending to them, curing their minor headaches with holistic home remedies that often begin with crushing pearl powder. She also, despite the evidence, does not “feel famous.” Fame is a funny thing that belongs to other people. For the sake of self-preservation, she keeps a healthy amount of separation between her private life and what she shares on social media. She prefers boredom (“it’s essential for creation”) to Twitter.
Somebody told Russell a while ago that she should start lying about her age, because she might get more opportunities if people had the chance to be impressed by her youth—as though she isn’t only 28. Youth, she says, like beauty, is nice to have on your side, but it’s not the only thing worth cultivating, and it’s not a sustainable resource. “I’m looking forward to the day that I’m 60, when I can have some real gusto behind the things that I’m saying,” she says. “I’m working with actors right now who are a lot older than me, and everything they say is so meaningful. Because they’ve said it in a whole host of ways in their real lives already, one-thousand times over. And my insecurity is always that I don’t have enough soul behind me for the words to really hit. I just want to keep gathering that, and the only way to do it is by being around people who keep shit real. You have to keep it real, because if you rely on things that will fade, everything’s going to shatter really quickly. And I never want to be that fragile.”
Hair MUSTAFA YANAZ at ART + COMMERCE, make-up KENNEDY KALI at FORWARD ARTISTS using M.A.C, set design HEATH MATTIOLI, photographic assistants WILLIAM TAKAHASI, DIEGO BENDEZU, styling assistants DELANEY WILLIAMS, DEVANTE ROLLINS, hair assistants TAKAO HAYASHI, set design assistants JOSEPH SCIACCA, JESSE MINISTERO, NIKO NOEL, production SPECIAL PRODUCTION AGENCY