“I’ve worked since I was 13 years old,” says Taylor Russell. “So many random things. Mostly restaurants, but I worked at a jewelry store, and I almost worked for Amazon, doing shipping and receiving.” She laughs. “Yeah, I’ve dipped my toe in a few different sectors.” Surprisingly, the job that probably proved useful in later life was a short stint in a butcher’s shop: handling all that raw meat must have come in handy when Luca Guadagnino came calling with the female lead for his stylish new horror project, an adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’s acclaimed 2016 YA novel Bones and All.
Set in ’80s America, the film stars Russell as Maren Yearly, a teenage misfit who comes to realize that her taste for human flesh makes her part of an underground subculture. On a quest to find a reason for this from her estranged mother, Maren meets another ‘eater’, Lee (Timothée Chalamet), and together they embark on a bloody but strangely tender killing spree.
Russell didn’t know any of this beforehand. “I didn’t know the book, I didn’t know the subject matter, I didn’t know anything at all,” she says. She certainly wasn’t expecting to co-star in it either. “I kind of felt — and still feel — that it could have led to anything. It could have just been a small role, and by the grace of whatever is looking out for me in this world, it was not a small role. That was a good and pleasant surprise.”
It’s a testament to her intrepid spirit that the 28-year-old did not need to be asked twice. What sealed it? “He’s a real leader, Luca. He’s somebody who’s so specific in what he’s looking for. At the same time, he’s also open to being changed every day. There’s a malleable sense to him that, I think, is just innate to who he is. He has that beautiful blend of knowing where he wants to get to but not necessarily knowing how he’s going to get there. That’s the sweet spot where all of us want to live, but it’s definitely where he resides.” Did it rub off? “Being around that every day is scary at first,” she says, “but you learn how to trust yourself and trust your choices. I had a lot of support in the jumping off of the cliff into the abyss. I didn’t feel like I was alone.”
She is similarly flattering about her co-star Chalamet, whom she’s known for a while and who she almost worked with on a few projects that didn’t come together. “Timothée is also somebody who’s very available,” she says. “He’s always looking for another way to do a scene, or for a way push it further, to squeeze all of the beautiful, creative juice out of it. Working with him in that way, you never really feel like there was anything left undiscovered. You feel great at the end of the day, because you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve done everything that maybe I would’ve wanted to try there, because the actor across from me is pushing himself to the same degree that I want to push myself.’”
Then there’s Mark Rylance, the British Oscar-winner who plays Sully, Maren’s guide to the cannibal cognoscenti. She appears with him in a gruesome and wholly indelible scene where, dressed only in his baggy white undies, he invites Maren to tuck into a dying grandmother. “He’s a very curious and gentle soul,” says Russell, “and when you look in his eyes, he’s so ancient and wise. I felt immediately very comfortable with him. The fascinating thing about Maren and Sully is that it’s not like she’s completely freaked out by him. It’s not black and white. She feels a sort of familial draw to him.”
Though she’s taking it in her stride, Bones and All marks a new stage in Russell’s career, moving up from eye-catching supporting roles like the one she had in 2019’s Waves that won her a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor. But Russell still can’t quite place where the impulse to act first came from.
“I don’t really know,” she says. “I’ve been asked that a lot lately. I wish I had a more simple answer, but, on reflection, ever since I was a little girl, I definitely wanted to be in the arts. I loved dancing, and my ultimate dream was to go to Julliard to be a ballerina.”
That didn’t happen, and so she thought for a while that maybe she’d be a painter instead. “I also really liked psychology and English,” she recalls. “I loved reading. I didn’t start acting until I was 18, when I took a theater class. My parents are very artistic people, and I was always a little ham and a goofball, in my own way. It was around me. I just didn’t accept it, necessarily, until I graduated.”
The first play she remembers doing was Fame. “It was just a small role,” she says. “I don’t remember what part I played, I don’t even think I said anything, but I’d broken my wrist the night before, so I had a bright pink cast on my arm. My mom said, ‘You have to go out and do the play. You committed to this.’ That was the first time I experienced ‘the show must go on’: no matter what’s going on, you have push forward and prevail in your own way.” She laughs. “Yeah, that’s my first acting memory.”
Russell grew up in Canada, and she definitely feels that the healthy film scene in Vancouver helped her progress. “I got my agent there after high school,” she says, “and then just started doing smaller roles, or auditioning for whatever I could. I think — although I’m not 100% sure — that the first thing I did was a show called Emily Owens MD. I played Mean Girl 2, I had just one line, and the part got cut.”
After five years or so, she landed a regular job in the streaming series Lost in Space, as Judy Robinson. “I was so broke until that point,” she says, “and then suddenly I was making good Netflix money. I finally felt like, ‘Oh, I guess I can quit my job now.’ But, even then, I felt that I would go back to it at some point.”
Another lifeline came while Russell was working on a movie called Words On Bathroom Walls in the Carolinas with actor Kelvin Harrison, Jr. He FaceTimed her to talk about the movie he’d just signed up for. “I’m doing this movie called Waves,” he said, “and it looks like you could play my sister.” So, Russell sent an audition tape and got the part.
“I had this wonderful experience on it,” she says, remembering a dreamlike time on set. “I had so much space. I really was able to daydream and look at the clouds and kind of float. It felt like the first time I was able to float while working.” She laughs. “I don’t even really know what I mean by that, but it felt really good. Yeah, it definitely changed my life.”
More changes came in 2020, with her first documentary, The Heart Still Hums, about the foster-care system. “I love documentary filmmaking,” she says. “I think, as an actor, you’re also trying to strive for some sort of truth. It may exist in acting, but it exists for sure in documentary storytelling. That was really interesting to me.”
Russell has no immediate plans to return to documentary filmmaking. Instead, she’s working on “a really wonderful indie film” called Mother Couch, by up-and-coming Swedish director Niclas Larsson. “It’s about a mother who will not leave the couch,” she says, rather helpfully. “Ellen Burstyn’s in the film, so is Ewan McGregor, and a whole other slew of incredible actors. I’ve never done a comedy before, so I’m feeling very pushed in a great way, and I feel very unsure of if I’m going to be totally treacherous in it. I’m in the middle of filming it, so it’s hard for me to fully dissect it yet.”
And after that? What would a director have to say to pique her interest? She laughs. “I love that question! Nobody’s ever asked me that before! What would they have to say? I don’t know, but I’d want to feel as though they were offering me a meal that I had never tasted before, metaphorically, and that it also would feel very dangerous.”
Isn’t that the exact pitch that Luca gave her for the rigorous roadtrip of Bones and All? “It’s not far off. Not far off at all. Yeah, I want to feel scared is how I want feel. I know a lot of actors say that, and I used to think, ‘What does that even mean?’ Now I kind of understand. It means that you want to be suspended and know that maybe it’s all going to crack. Or maybe it won’t. Who knows?”
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