The plot of Waves is much like the lifecycle of a wave itself: The churning water as the wave builds momentum, followed by beautiful frothiness as it reaches its peak, and the chaotic crash, water against water, before it retreats away back into the sea. Writer and director Trey Edward Shults’ fearless drama, led by breakout stars Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Taylor Russell, is divided into two distinct parts. The first follows Tyler (Harrison Jr.), a high school senior, as he navigates the burden of expectations put on him by his overbearing father, played with bristling intensity by Sterling K. Brown. The second half completely shifts the film’s focus to Emily (Russell), Tyler’s younger sister whose own coming-of-age story is obscured by her brother’s trauma. The result is a gorgeous, music-driven tale exploring the generational gap within families, and its interplay with issues of class, race, and gender.
Russell’s arc comes after the crash, but is no less momentous. After her brother is involved in a deadly accident, her world is turned upside down. She finds solace in a new relationship with a classmate, Luke, played by Lucas Hedges, who later reveals he is dealing with his own demons. Emily naturally takes on the role of listener, confidante, and emotional support system, for her parents, her brother, and her boyfriend. But she’s not just a crutch to be used and discarded by the men in her life. She somehow doesn’t let all this darkness stop her from shining, and flourishing, despite the pain. A role like this is career-making, especially for someone whose character steadily becomes the heart and soul of a film. It’s a departure from the 25-year-old Canadian actress’s previous projects, which include two sci-fi shows (Falling Skies and Lost in Space), smaller parts in indies (Before I Fall and Hot Air), and A horror franchise (Escape Room and the upcoming Escape Room 2).
Russell was made to bring Emily to life, just as it feels like Harrison, Jr. was made to bring Tyler to life (he was lucky enough to also contribute to early versions of Shults’ script and build his character). The loudness of the film, both literally and figuratively, requires Emily’s silence and softness. Meeting Russell in a quiet corner in the basement of New York City’s Whitby Hotel, she continues to exude her character’s quiet intelligence and welcoming, calm demeanor.
Ahead, Russell discusses the cosmic moments that brought this daring film to life.
Refinery29: Emily is the character in the film who shows the most vulnerability. How did you build that trust with your costars, especially Kelvin and Lucas?
Taylor Russell: “I met Kelvin and Lucas the same day in Los Angeles — I had dinner with Kelvin, and I hung out with Lucas after. It felt like we were part of the tribe. We spoke the same language. We all had unexplainable, intangible connections between human beings that feels really right. It felt effortless, like, I already know you. I don’t need to feel self-conscious around you or scared to be who I am.”
How do you get in the mindset of a character who is dealing with such trauma?
“It is such a mix of so many different mediums. A lot of it was listening. Some days it is just journaling, and I was doing a lot of dreamwork. Sometimes I’d wake up and write down a dream from that night, and it would inform how I would act that day. There are so many different avenues that I was using to get into [Emily]. But the silence of her, and thinking about what was going on inside her head, was the most important. It was very cerebral and internal and introverted. It was nice to have the permission to be silent, and she gave me that. It felt like a new process for me this time around. I don’t have a process.”
Do you feel like Emily carries an unfair burden in bearing everyone else’s problems?
“Part of me thinks yes. It is unfair for a child in a family to be overlooked, and to have so much stress put upon you, and to hold the weight of the world on your shoulders. The other part of me thinks certain people can hold that, and can hold all the burdens of the people around them and take it upon themselves to heal others. That is part of the gift. Certain people have the capacity to hold their loved ones and push them forward into the path of healing, restoring parts of themselves that are perhaps lost. What a profound gift you have as a human being to do that. Emily is definitely one of those people. I feel bad for her because it’s like, you deserve the chance to be a teenager, but at the same time, it seems like part of her purpose is so much bigger than that. She is the chosen one.”
The scene where Emily and Luke swim with manatees was a sweet reprieve from the intensity.
“It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Weeki Wachee — where we went — I’m so protective of it, I don’t want to tell anyone about it. It looks like Thailand. The water is completely clear. We did this road trip during the first part of the movie. Trey and the cinematographer and Lucas and I would just run off, away from everybody else, and film things that we would just create. We’d stumble on these moments that felt divine, and the manatees were one of those. All of us were jumping in the water, jumping off swings. We saw manatees swim under us, and Luca and I jumped out of the kayak. We went underwater and swam with them so close, the baby manatee and the mommy manatee. It felt like we were in heaven. You need the joy. It’s so indicative of life — the depth, the lows, the highs.”
What was the meaning behind Emily’s hair evolution?
“[Her hair] was something that was important to me, and I discussed with Trey. His girlfriend in real life has curly hair, so he put that into the script as, ‘She lets her hair down for the first time.’ When I talked about it with him, I was like ‘I think I should have my hair straight for the first half because that is something I did in high school.’ I never had my hair curly. I went to a predominantly white high school so I straightened it because I was so ashamed of my curls. Towards the end of my high school experience I was like, No, this is my hair, this is who I am. It’s not what I see, but this is me. I have this hair for a reason.
“It’s a nice tool to show the growth of a person and the acceptance of themselves and their beauty and coming into their own as a young woman. I want the spectrum of the emotion connected with a hair journey for a mixed-race Black person.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.