Pop-Culturalist Chats with Taylor John Smith
Taylor John Smith is one of Hollywood’s most buzzed-about actors. He’s graced both television and film with his world-class talent and indescribable presence. His performance in Bart Freundlich’s coming-of-age story Wolves (which opens this week) was the talk of the Tribeca Film Festival. And, you’ll be surprised to learn, it was his film debut. In the role, he plays Anthony Keller, a high school jock. On the surface, he seems to have it all, but at home, he’s dealing with a troubled father with a gambling addiction. He also starred as Luke in the second season of John Ridley’s Emmy Award-winning anthology American Crime. Pop-Culturalist was lucky enough to chat with him about Wolves and his exciting new project.
P-C: Can you tell us about the film and your character?
Taylor: I play Anthony Keller. Basically, I’m a high school basketball star in a private school in New York. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be able to afford it, but because of my abilities, they allowed me to come and play there. My home life is super rocky. I have a strange relationship with my dad. I’m always vying for his attention and his love, and not receiving it, partially, I think, because my mother’s fallen out of love with him. He sees her love toward me and is envious of that. On the outside looking in, I’ve got the perfect life: the best girlfriend, I’m popular at school, I’m a star athlete. I have everything going for me. When you peel back the layers, you quickly realize how screwed up and broken my family really is. It’s basically a coming-of-age story about doing the hard things that you’ll thank yourself for down the line, but in the moment seems impossible.
P-C: Did you grow up playing a lot of basketball? And how did you prepare for the role?
Taylor: No. Not at all, actually. When I went to the audition, I read the character breakdown and whatnot. I loved the character, but I assumed that when the script said there was basketball involved, there might have been a scene or two and they could just use a stunt double. I had no idea how much basketball was actually going to be within the script itself. When he asked me at the second or third audition, I totally lied about that and told them that I played varsity my freshman year and for some reason, he believed me. Thank God he did. I remember driving home as fast as I could and stopping at a sporting goods store to buy a basketball. I got to the court and realized how crappy I actually was at basketball and how little I knew. That’s when trouble set in and I realized that this was going to be a little out of my hands. I guess the lesson learned is if you don’t do something, pretend you do and act “as if.”
P-C: Fake it until you make it?
Taylor: Yes. Exactly. Fake it until you make it.
P-C: Your character deals with a lot of challenges in the film. Was there a particular moment in your life you drew upon?
Taylor: It’s funny. I found this role therapeutic in many ways. I saw a lot of parallels with Anthony, especially during the time before and during filming—a lot of stuff I was going through. It made me feel not so alone. If somebody can create a character like Anthony, then these problems had to have happened to somebody, they had to stem from somewhere or somebody real. It made me feel a little less lonely and feel like I understand myself a little bit more. When I was playing him, there were lots of times where he chose to remain silent instead of standing up for something he knew. Sometimes it’s out of fear and sometimes it’s out of wisdom or respect. I always question why I did or didn’t do certain things in my personal life and to know that I’m not as lost as I thought I was is comforting for sure.
P-C: You said early that the film is a coming-of-age story. How does Anthony progress throughout the film?
Taylor: At the beginning, he seems to have everything going for him. He’s not happy-go-lucky, but he’s definitely got it good. As the movie moves on, you realize that he’s met with a ton of challenges and he can’t seem to listen to the right things. He can’t make the right choices or follow the directions he’s been given. He feels trapped. Towards the end of the movie, he realizes that until he “mans up” and makes the tough choices—the hard ones, the ones with severe consequences—he’s never going to be in charge of his own life. At the end of the movie, he makes a decision that alters the course of his own life and the course of his family’s life. Right at the end of the movie is when he finally comes to terms with what it means to be a man. They grow up and do the tough things, especially when it’s hardest. Making the right choices, I think, is a huge coming-of-age point. Making right choices—you always feel good when you do that. Anthony definitely suffers with that a lot. He comes out on top in the end.
P-C: In the film, Anthony is mentored by Socrates. Did you have a mentor when you made the decision to become an actor?
Taylor: For sure, my mom. She’s my number-one cheerleader. She’s there through everything. Even the stuff that I don’t know, she’s telling me to give it a try anyway. Also, my ceramics teacher in high school. He’s kind of like a father/mentor figure to me. I was originally going to join the Marines. He told me to give acting a try for a year. If it didn’t work out, I could enlist afterwards. It worked out and I have him to thank for sure.
P-C: This is your first feature film. What did you learn from the experience?
Taylor: Definitely to enjoy it more. You’re so worried about yourself and about your performance and about being the best you can be that you forget it’s also meant to be enjoyed. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to feel like work. When you continually worry about yourself and how you’re doing and where you match up with everybody else, it takes the fun out of it. I definitely learned for future projects that I’ve worked on recently just to enjoy it because life is as short as can be. You might as well have fun doing it and not take it too seriously.
P-C: Did you get any tips from Michael Shannon or Carla Gugino? What was the experience like sharing a screen with them?
Taylor: They’re so present. The one thing that I kind of matched up on with them is they came so prepared. I tried to come as prepared as possible. When you get on set, there’s just an effortlessness to it. It looks easy, only because they’ve done the hard work prior. It was honestly just a huge blessing and an honor to share the screen with them at all. They’re just forces to be reckoned with. Carla’s like the sweetest woman ever. She’s like the “mom” on the set. Michael, he’s got a lot of wisdom, a lot of stuff that you don’t think other people think about it. It’s important in your life, but he’s constantly thinking about it. He definitely gave me some pointers on how to take the next ten to fifteen years of my life so I end up in the right direction.
Check out the trailer below:
P-C: When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
Taylor: Probably the first time I made somebody laugh and I didn’t get in trouble for it. I was always seeking attention in class and whatnot and I would get reprimanded for it. My mom would definitely get a call from the principal. I was doing acting class for the first time and I was doing an SNL skit. People laughed. It made me feel like, “If I can make other people feel good about themselves, then that’s going to make me feel good.” I didn’t know that was an option. When I grew up, I thought movies came out of a vending machine. I was so naïve growing up in Virginia. I found out you can make a career out of this and you can enjoy the hell out of it while doing so. I think that might have been the first point, or maybe when I realized I was scared of it, and that’s why I needed to do it. It put fear in me not knowing the “what if” part. What if it does work out, or what if it doesn’t? I think I just needed to know for myself.
P-C: Do you have a dream role that you would love to play?
Taylor: One of my favorite movies is Stand By Me. I’d love to do a millennial version of that if possible. Four best friends trying to go find an urban legend, or myth, or friend’s dead body, and then save somebody along the way. That’d be really cool.
P-C: Is there somebody you would love to work with in the future, maybe in that remake?
Taylor: Definitely. Jake Gyllenhaal and Shia LaBeouf would be awesome.
P-C: What advice would you give young actors breaking into the industry?
Taylor: Get used to hearing “no.” Honestly. Get comfortable with rejection and know that you can go out on 100 auditions and there’s probably going to be 99 of those that are going to be “no,” and then there’s that one audition that’s going to be “yes.” That’s going to keep you going forward. That’s all you need, one person to acknowledge what you already believe about yourself in your heart—that you can do it. Don’t give up until you get a “yes” and keep moving forward. It will be a revolving door from then on out.
P-C: You’re also starring in the new Cruel Intentions TV show. What can you tell us about that project?
Taylor: The Cruel Intentions TV show actually got passed on by NBC, so it’s not happening anymore. On March 8, I’m starting an HBO series with Jean-Marc Vallée called Sharp Objects. Amy Adams is in it. They’re just getting started on the rest of the casting. It’s based on a Gillian Flynn book—she wrote Gone Girl. Her first novel was Sharp Objects. I play John Keene in that.
P-C: Did you read the book beforehand?
Taylor: I just finished it yesterday. Not before the audition, just because if I did read it and I was the killer, I didn’t want that to affect my choices in the audition. I wanted to believe that I was leaving so much as it did happen. As soon as I found out I got it, I read it in like probably two and a half or three days. It’s a great story.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
P-C: Guilty pleasure TV show?
Taylor: Stranger Things or House of Cards
P-C: Guilty pleasure movie?
Taylor: End of Watch
P-C: Favorite book?
Taylor: The Giving Tree
P-C: Favorite play or musical?
Taylor: I’ve only seen one play and it was The Spoils, that Jesse Eisenberg starred in.
P-C: Favorite Social Media Platform?
Taylor: Instagram, for sure. It’s simple. I like pictures.
P-C: Hidden talent?
Taylor: I like writing poetry. I have a journal I write in everyday that no one will ever see. Maybe I’ll give it to my kids when I’m older.
P-C: Go-to karaoke song?
Taylor: I could give you the classic answer. Bohemian Rhapsody, or I could be real and say Blink-182. Anything Blink-182. I’d say that.