Sundance is in full swing and the film community is abuzz with talk of top picks, unexpected surprises, Weiners, and Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. Of the many worthy features currently zipping their way across social media feeds, one in particular has turned a few heads and elicited some pretty strong responses just a few days into the festival.
White Girl is the debut feature by Columbia MFA grad Elizabeth Wood, who apparently spent her sophomore year in a Queens apartment dealing coke and having wild sex with a litany of men. This small biographical detail only really matters because White Girl is a semi-fictionalized account of the Oklahoma City-native’s uninhibited late-adolescence in the Big Apple.
In the film, Wood’s fictional counterpart, played by Morgan Saylor, gets in on the coke game with a Boricua neighbor who goes by the name of Blue. Though our debaucherous midwestern heroine hangs onto Blue for the good sex and perico hookup, she feels some pangs of guilt when he’s hauled off to prison right before her eyes. That’s when she decides to sell a shitload of coke to raise money for his bail. An hour-and-a-half of drug use, white guilt, and self-discovery ensues.
It’s not exactly light fare, but the Killer Films production imprint that threw its weight behind the first-time auteur also brought the world films like Kids and Party Monster, so it’s definitely within the brand. Now whether you find it gratuitous and empty, pleasantly shocking, or filled with philosophical depth, White Girl is also noteworthy for its use of real Puerto Rican actors to fill out the crew of drug-dealing neighbors led by Blue.
With a crossover performance from singer Brian “Sene” Marc as Blue, and turns by Adrian Martínez and Ralph Rodriguez, White Girl actually has more Latino actors than the last 10-years worth of Oscar nominations. To mark this historic occasion, the annual Latino Reel showcase at Sundance brought together Wood, Marc, Martínez, and Rodriguez, along with producer Gabriel Nussbaum, to chat about casting diverse talent. Moderated by Starz Director of Acquisitions Michele Sanchez, the conversation went places few might expect, with an interesting array of opinions regarding diversity in the film industry.
Here are some highlights from the chat.
Elizabeth Wood On Casting Puerto Rican Actors and Clueless Agents
It’s hilarious that for how many talented Puerto Rican actors there must be in the world and in New York City, how incredibly hard it is to locate them. We go to L.A., we meet with the head agent at one of the biggest agencies. We’re looking for Puerto Rican actors. He’s like, “What about Li’l Romeo?” I’m like, “He’s black…” “What about Anton Yelchin?” “I’m like, he’s Jewish” He’s like “Does it matter?” I’m like, “Yeah. So what else?” He’s like “Dave Franco.” I’m like, “I don’t think you get it.” The meeting was over quickly.
Adrian Martínez on Taking Whatever Role You Can Get
I had two callbacks for the role of the white girl. I came so close but they said “Do you wanna do Lloyd instead,” and I said, “Yeah.”
Ralph Rodriguez on Working with Wood and Nussbaum
They’ve been incredible and it’s great to be part of something so Hispanical.
Gabriel Nussbaum on Authenticity in Acting
These are not cookie cutter actors in the movie White Girl, and that’s the fun of the movie. We saw thousands of identical Australian actresses all trying to play a midwestern American student. No exaggeration. I mean they’re nice, but they’re hiding what sets them apart [their accent]… Authenticity stands out and will win the day.
Brian “Sene” Marc on Oscar Quotas
“For how many talented Puerto Rican actors there must be in the world and in New York City, it’s incredibly hard to locate them.”
To speak to the Oscars, I’m not as offended as people might expect or want me to be, maybe. I’m not ready to pitchfork, because I want to see the strongest roles… The best should get the job, the best should get the award. I don’t think anyone who’s not the best should get the award just because of something… I don’t think they should say, “It has to be 50% this race or 50% that race in the conversation”… It would be just as unfair to the Latino community, to the black community, to whomever, to just give it to them because you have to fill a statistic. I think that would be detrimental and it would take away from the whole equality thing.
Adrian Martínez on Perseverance
I think if you have the talent and you persevere, they will find you and they will find work for you. And if they don’t, then that’s your opportunity to self-generate work. I have a script, I’m trying to get it off the ground, I’m going to direct it this year, and no one’s gonna stop me. I don’t need permission to do that… There’s a whole world of opportunity, but it has to do with, “What’s keeping me up at night? What story do I have to tell?”
Brian “Sene” Marc on Not Being a Latino Actor
I don’t always find myself siding with people who say, “Well we need more roles.” And I know that may not go over too well, but I don’t think of an artist and a musician as like a white artist, or a black artist, or a Hispanic artist. So I kind of feel like until you open that conversation and put him in without saying, “Oh it’s a Latin role so you have to go Latin or it’s offensive.”
I’d love to play Egyptian or I’d love to play anything else, and so I never want someone to say “Oh, he’s a Latino actor.” And that’s no snub to my heritage or anything like that, but I’ve never looked at things like that. I grew up in a place where if you heard the word “spic,” my white or black friend was going to be just as angry if not angrier than me.
White Girl is screening in Brooklyn during Rooftop Films on August 11, 2016 at 8 p.m. The director will be present for a Q&A followed by an after-party. Buy tickets here.
White Girl opens in theaters throughout the month of September: NYC on 9/2, LA on 9/9, and nationwide on 9/16.