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U. of C. student Morgan Saylor goes to dark place in ‘White Girl’

University of Chicago student Morgan Saylor plays the lead in "White Girl."

In “White Girl,” opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, University of Chicago sophomore Morgan Saylor plays Leah, a fast-living New York college student for whom there seemingly are no limits when it comes to hard partying or pursuing hedonistic pleasures — no matter where they take her.

A big reason the young actress Morgan Saylor decided to take on the role was that “it was about as far from my true personality — my true me — as anything I could have done.

“Getting into character was definitely a journey. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked to get away from myself for a role.”

Perhaps best known for her role as Dana Brody on the hit cable series “Homeland,” the actress admitted during a recent phone interview that she generally is attracted to characters who may not be appealing or have “good girl” personalities.

“I love doing those roles,” said Saylor. “The challenge of working on those is fun and exciting. For me, I like to always discover a way to do something far different from how I am in real life. That’s the whole point of being an actress for me. Because I do look younger than I am — I’m 22 now — I do get offered those sweet roles, because I always can play younger.

“But those characters are not as complex nor as interesting for me to play.”

One exception to that, Saylor said, was the chance to play Kevin Costner’s daughter in “McFarland, USA,” the inspiring film released last year about an unlikely cross-country track team of Mexican-American kids in California, coached to championship status by Jim White (played by Costner).

“Now that was a sweet role — I did a lot of smiling,” said Saylor, “but I was so glad to be part of that project, especially because of the director, Niki Caro, and Kevin, of course. The message of that film was so important.”

As for “White Girl,” Saylor said that working with first-time feature director Elizabeth Wood “was a very intimate experience. We had the phenomenal opportunity to work together for a month before we actually shot [the movie]. It was the lowest budget of anything I’ve worked on, but the longest rehearsal period. And that’s just not typical when it comes to independent films.”

Along with all the rehearsing and running of lines with other actors, Saylor noted that “we also would do things like going out into the neighborhood in Brooklyn where so much of the film takes place. For example, I’d sit on the roof of a building and just kind of explore that environment, which really helped me to create that story and that universe where Leah was living.”

Morgan Saylor strikes a post at the “White Girl” New York Premiere on August 22, 2016. | Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Morgan Saylor strikes a post at the “White Girl” New York Premiere on August 22, 2016. | Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The title “White Girl” has a double meaning, referring both to Leah’s bleached blonde, pale Caucasian looks and the street slang name for cocaine to which the character is addicted.

In the film, Leah becomes involved with a young man, a cocaine dealer named Blue (played by musician-turned-actor Brian “Sene” Marc), whose impoverished Puerto Rican heritage contrasts strongly with her upper-middle-class background. The two become lovers and then Leah goes to extreme lengths to secure his freedom after he is arrested for drug dealing. An added twist: Leah is left in possession of a large stash of Blue’s cocaine.

Saylor agreed that one of the strong messages in the film is how making one or two bad decisions can lead to disastrous consequences.

“It not only shows how those decisions can take away your opportunity to control your destiny, it also touches on a lot of big issues that affect our society today — like gender roles.

“But, yes, it does come down to showing you have to live with the consequences of your actions — whether it’s doing dangerous drugs or the way you treat people. That’s the most important thing Leah learns,” said Saylor. “Addictions can overwhelm your life. Leah initially doesn’t even realize how her addiction and hedonism control her life.”

While Saylor was born in Chicago, she moved away at the age of 2 and grew up in Atlanta, before reconnecting to her birthplace by enrolling at the University of Chicago. She’s studying mathematics, her favorite subject since she was little.

“I won’t ever do math as a career, but I do think it’s very applicable to the way it shapes my brain and helps be think about life — and acting!” she said with a laugh. “I like it — it’s fun.”

Someday she may want to do more than merely act in films — beginning with perhaps penning some future scripts. Meanwhile, on many weekends one can find Saylor in perhaps a somewhat unlikely place: the university’s movie theater “where I work as a projectionist almost every Saturday night. It’s one of the things I really love to do.”

NOTE: Saylor will be present for audience discussions after the 8:30 p.m. Friday and 8:15 p.m. Saturday screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center.