Two young black women face futures made precarious by sudden violence wrought by men in their lives. One is a shy Florida high schooler struggling to find solace as her family tears itself apart. The other is a disaffected lawyer on the run with a stranger turned improbable soul mate. Both journey through traumas that are eventually eased by those mighty human salves — acceptance and love.
The women’s stories are at the center of “Waves” and “Queen & Slim,” two films that popped this season in large part to the star-making performances of their young female stars: Taylor Russell in “Waves” (“an open-faced heartbreaker,” wrote The New York Times); and Jodie Turner-Smith, who played the world-weary “Queen,” across from Daniel Kaluuya, with deep reservoirs of steel and grace.
Russell, who is 25 and from Canada, recently won a Gotham Award for her performance as Emily, a South Florida teen whose world is upended after her brother derails his life. In “Waves,” Russell made Emily’s feelings for her family visceral, having spent hours beforehand poring over her co-stars’ baby pictures. “It really made me love them,” Russell said. “I think it connects you to a person more immediately than just talking to them. People have so many walls up.”
Turner-Smith, 33, an Englishwoman of Jamaican descent, got her start in modeling, landing parts in music videos and other acting gigs before receiving a fairy tale of a message: Carmen Cuba, the celebrated casting director, wanted to meet. Not long after, Turner-Smith learned that Cuba was casting “Queen & Slim,” Lena Waithe’s screenplay about a couple on their first Tinder date who end up scrambling to outrun the law after a police officer gets shot. During the auditions, every time Turner-Smith read — for the producers, the director and eventually Kaluuya — she sent up a silent plea: “I just hoped that I would make them feel something,” she recalled.
Both actors recently spoke about their experiences in separate interviews; Russell was in South Africa, where she was in production for the film “Escape Room 2,” and Turner-Smith from Berlin, where she was filming “Without Remorse” with Michael B. Jordan.
Taylor, congrats on the Gotham for “Waves”! Do you have to do the awards circuit when you wrap production there?
RUSSELL I go to L.A. for January, but I’m a newbie. I don’t know about any of this stuff. Every time something new gets announced, I’m honestly like, “Wow, wow! They watched the movie?” It all feels like a bonus. I really feel like if I had just filmed the movie, and it didn’t get released, and it was just me and those people for that summer and the creative process that I found during that film, that would have been enough. I felt so completely in love and so whole after that.
Jodie, “Queen & Slim” was your first leading role in a feature film — was there a highlight?
TURNER-SMITH Getting to work with Daniel. I couldn’t have asked for a more incredible human being and amazing artist to have as a leading man. He really nurtured me through the process, and held me under his wing.
How did you get first get into the business?
RUSSELL When I was 18 or 19, I began driving down from Vancouver to L.A. in my little tiny Toyota, trying to go to auditions. I didn’t have money or a visa, and I couldn’t be a waiter in America so I’d save up over many, many months. My parents never really worried about me — I was working in a restaurant when I was 13 and had two jobs when I was 15. When I was 20 or 21, I moved down there, and booked “Lost in Space,” which, funnily enough, was produced in Vancouver.
TURNER-SMITH When I first started in modeling, I went back to England, and it was really hard, because I would go around to the agencies and they would be like, ‘We already have one mixed-race black girl.’ With Instagram and the internet that seems to have really shifted. People are making a lot more noise about representation and diversity. But I think modeling is one of the professions where people can be kind of racist. When I went back to England, I really couldn’t get any work. I was there for eight months and moved back to L.A., where it was definitely easier.
Given that you’re not from America, did you feel there were experiences and challenges that are specific to portraying people of color in the United States?
TURNER-SMITH What’s unique about America is that the country itself was built upon oppression, it’s in the very foundation. We definitely experience racism in England and different levels of oppression as well. Anywhere affected by colonialism there’s certain kinds of race relations and class relations going on. What’s unique about the American experience is that it’s built into the very fabric of society.
RUSSELL There was a lot of instability in Emily’s life, and I think that the pressures are much more intense. However, I think those exist for black families everywhere, whether you realize it or not. I’m in South Africa right now, you really feel the segregation here a lot. It’s not talked about as much. And in this family, in “Waves,” that is talked about: “This is who you are, and this is what you mean in society. Do you realize that? You need to recognize that and own that because you need to rise above that.” And the pressure is immense.
What specifically about your character resonated with you?
RUSSELL There’s a lot of similarities between me and [Emily] when I was that age. She’s very protective of her inner life and also can’t hide how she feels. Her face is what betrays her. Though in my life I’m loud and a little bit crazy, it’s hard for my family to put me in the background, so I’m not like Emily in that.
She is the lost-child archetype, because she’s kind of fallen into the background and her family doesn’t pay as much attention solely for the reason that they’re not as worried about her as they’re worried about Tyler. That can make you feel really lonely and unloved and unseen — and it asks you to hold yourself up and be your own support system. That is the curse and the gift.
TURNER-SMITH With Queen, I could really relate to the idea of being on the outside of the group that you’re in. She had used her own pursuits, and her education, and her job to isolate herself from having any kind of community, to the point where when she was feeling low, the place that she went to was not to friends or family, but to a stranger on the internet.
How much did the location of the films inform how you played your role?
TURNER-SMITH We did most of our filming in and around New Orleans — and the black history and spiritual energy in that city was so intense. I felt like so honored to be able to do this film there. I felt I was being blessed by the ancestors to tell that story. I was definitely calling on them and using that energy.
RUSSELL Florida is like a different country. It’s crazy — the nature, the people. I will say I really, really enjoyed it there. We all were trying to see what the Florida kids were up to. We hung out at malls, looked at Instagram to see what was up, trying to be as specific as possible. I was wearing really short shorts and showing my bra and things like that. This rapper named XXXTentacion had just passed away so there was a lot of people talking about that. A lot of rapping and a lot of going to the beach.
Jodie, we don’t see a lot of love scenes onscreen anymore, especially for people of color. Did that feel significant?
TURNER-SMITH To be with Daniel and portray a couple that looked like Daniel and I was not lost on us. To see a story about two people that looked like us and were together and in love and explore so many themes in black lives — trauma, black love and forgiveness — the hope was that it would be special to people that watched it. Someone messaged me and said that watching the movie made every name anyone ever called them for being dark-skinned fade away. And that really meant so much to me. I know what that feels like.