The White Girl Stars on Why Discomfort Is a Good Thing

Morgan Saylor and India Menuez ruminate on fall’s most controversial movie.

By: Emily Ramshaw
Photography: Alec Kugler

To give you an idea, White Girl, out in theaters tomorrow, is being compared to Kids, that seminal ‘90s movie about New York youth that made everyone squirm out of discomfort, recognition, fear...or really all of the above. TBD, watching White Girl is a stressful, uncomfortable experience largely because the main character, played by Morgan Saylor, and her best friend and roommate, played by India Menuez, are simultaneously completely relatable, yet totally frightening. Through the length of the film, and Elizabeth Wood’s writing and direction, you live their dream/nightmare summer as they navigate a hell of a lot of sex, drugs, violence, and a whole lot of testing their power and privilege as young white women in New York—you know, normal coming of age stuff accelerated to the nth degree. It probably goes without saying the Saylor and Menuez are about as smart and savvy as they come. After a screening of the film last week we let the co-stars do their thing in a hotel conference room and got to listen in on their conversation about everything from patriarchy and rape culture to how they became IRL friends.

 

How physical transformation helps you get into character and what wearing certain clothes can do to your persona:

Morgan: “How you get dressed in the morning makes you feel a certain way and feels so specific to me. When I’m acting, especially when I’m prepping for an audition, and I don’t have something that feels like the character, I’ll go out and purchase something that does because it helps you feel more able to embody the character.”

India: “Being a woman living in a patriarchy, there’s a lot of performativity involved in how we dress ourselves everyday, and normativity that’s necessary to feel powerful; to feel like you can do what you want to do and people aren’t going to say, ‘you can’t do that.’”

 

Morgan: “Elizabeth tells a story. When I first auditioned in February, I came in in a big coat and was wearing little shorts and a ‘New York’ tank top. I had put on jeans in the morning and was like, ‘she would want to be seen more than this.’”

India: “For me, [the costumes in the movie] reminded me of when I first started to go through puberty and grow tits and an ass. I wanted people to notice, and I remember that feeling so specifically. The first time I got male attention on the street I was thirteen years old and it was kind of repulsive but also really exhilarating. I had some new power. It doesn’t always feel empowering, but it is a power. I don’t have control of it but I can play with it. It feels good to appreciate your body and feel like your body’s appreciated. It’s creepy when it’s someone you don’t invite to appreciate it, but when it’s happening for the first time, like with these characters just moving to the city, it’s a new attention.”

 

The intricacies of living with a friend for the first time:

India: “The main story is [Morgan’s character] Leah’s, but it’s also about moving in with a friend for the first time. These kinds of dynamics happen in all friendships where you have ideas about the differences in your identities, especially when you’re in your young 20s in college. You’re trying to find that identity and discovering, ‘she’s the wilder one and I’m a little more straight-laced, but I still want to have fun, even though I’ve probably taken her home a couple nights.’”

Morgan: “Yeah, like, who buys the toilet paper… who buys the drugs?”

 

How they left the characters behind and became friends:

Morgan: “It was weird for me. This is the largest role I’ve done in a film and I was figuring out my own methods and process, which are silly words, but they’re true.

“I was figuring out how to get into something. I had crowd anxiety for a while after. Most party scenes [in the movie] are me running around naked and that isn’t me, that’s not the way I want to act in a crowd. So I felt funny at shows and things after. But you just have to breathe. That’s something I’ve related to other actors, too, some time alone gives you the space that you need. And your friends are important.”

India: “It was funny to meet through this process because since then, we’ve developed more of a real friendship. When you’re on a movie with somebody for a month, you learn about each other through these characters. As much as we were sharing real things about each other, for a while after we shot the movie, it would kind of freak me out to bump into Morgan because I feel like sometimes we’d get into this hyper dynamic of the characters that we were on the movie. Especially when her hair was still blonde, we’d bump into each other and there would always be this hectic energy that was not really true to who either of us are in real life.”

 

On the controversy surrounding the film:

Morgan: “I was scared of it because it felt honest. Most scripts I read about young people are the sweet high school comedy. People I knew and liked were discussing things that were relevant and important as a young person, and things that were being discussed within my world. Yeah, we knew it would be divisive because most films don’t talk about these things.

“To be honest, the controversy has brought such healthy discussion, more so than anything negative. It feels like it engages the discussion of understanding something bigger. You need to be conscious of that as an opportunity.”

India: “It’s been interesting to see everything that’s been happening in the public eye this year, in terms of rape and race. You know, systemic white supremacy, systemic rape culture—all these things really being on the forefront of common conversation. For me, reading the script, it was clearly going to be controversial, but it’s been interesting to see that by the time that it’s finally coming out, people are going to be more able to be open to these dialogues: where white people have to about what it’s like to live in white supremacist America. They’re uncomfortable conversations, but that’s why they’re so important.”

 

The significance of the title White Girl:

Morgan: “It’s punny. I think it’s really strong. It’s grown on me more and more and more. I do think that people who haven’t seen it don’t understand it, but I think that’s something cool about it.”

India: “I’m just laughing because when I mentioned it to somebody they’re like, you mean White Chicks? It’s good because it’s uncomfortable, and that’s kind of the point of the movie. You get sucked in and you’re like ‘what is this crazy movie, it looks fun and weird.’”

 

Why it’s important that the movie is uncomfortable to watch:

India: “I think movies can make people uncomfortable in two different ways. One, because it’s triggering things they recognize in their own reality and the other is just the magic of movies. You know, the scary music if it’s a horror film is brutal.”

Morgan: “Dude, to be honest, rom-coms make me uncomfortable because they feel like such bullshit.”

India: “That’s what I’m saying. There are things that are uncomfortable because they’re ridiculous and unreal, and then there are things that are too real.”

Morgan: “I’d rather do the latter.”

India: “If things are making people feel uncomfortable because they’re honest, that’s good and important.”

Morgan: “But I do recognize the purpose of films or TV for escaping or relaxing. I think they’re healthy in the same way that we read a fairy tale.”

India: “They serve a different purpose.”

 

Why White Girl is important from a feminist perspective:

India: “This being an independent film directed and written by a female director, was something that was very exciting. It’s exciting seeing more of these projects happening and being funded to exist. Seeing films that are coming from a more diverse viewpoint is something that I’m looking forward to seeing more of.”

Morgan: “And illustrating more diverse female roles. This feels like a messy, complex female that isn’t like a girlfriend. That’s really exciting to me, that’s the kind of thing that I’d like to participate in and encourage more of.”

Morgan: “[It was important that it came from a female director and writer] because before it didn’t exist.”

India: “Paralleling gender to race is always a problematic thing to do, but in terms of this being a story that’s not just about gender, but also about race, I think it was smart of Elizabeth to not try to tell the story of the Puerto Rican drug dealers. It wasn’t their story because she couldn’t tell that, it wasn’t her experience to tell at all. Her experience was closer to Leah’s: living in the illusion of post-race society and having it fuck you. People can really only be honest to their own experience and you can push your experience and learn from other people’s experiences, but to really have such a brutally honest retelling of something…”

Morgan: “...comes from a place of knowing.”

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