The harp is anchored by a carved wooden pillar that is more than four feet tall, sometimes topped with an ornate decorative crown. At the bottom is a soundboard, and at the top is a harmonically curved neck. In between are dozens of strings with a range spanning six and a half octaves. It’s celestial, elegant, and incredibly delicate—harps are notoriously finicky about temperature and upkeep—making the instrument complex not only to play but also to maintain.
During the early days of pandemic lockdown, while some of us were hoarding plants or feeding sourdough starters, 28-year-old Canadian actor Taylor Russell took up the harp. “I wanted to play it for a very long time,” she explains. “I was like, ‘What’s the one instrument that none of my neighbors are going to hate hearing?’” Russell was living in New York at the time, and everyone was stuck indoors. “It’s the harp. It could never be annoying. It’s such a beautiful, calming thing,” she says. Russell signed up for virtual lessons and rented a harp. (The first song she learned to play was “Creep” by Radiohead.) Three years later, her enthusiasm and commitment have not dimmed. She’s just finished Mother Couch!, a dark comedy in which she costars alongside Ellen Burstyn and Ewan McGregor, and she is buying one as a wrap gift to herself. “You can’t leave a harp at home and travel. You have to really take care of it and tend to it daily because the strings break and it can’t be in a certain temperature,” she says. “It’s so sensitive.”
Russell and I are sitting across from each other, straddling a massive concrete bench on the second floor of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile. The soaring ceilings of the 1939 building reimagined by Renzo Piano clash pleasingly with the ephemerality of the media housed inside its walls. The low afternoon sunlight pours in through the massive windows, throwing Russell’s petite silhouette into relief. We sip coffees we have just been admonished for attempting to bring into the galleries.
Russell is fresh off a press tour for her new film, the Luca Guadagnino–directed cannibal love story Bones and All, in which she stars alongside Timothée Chalamet. Her biggest project to date, the film has not been short on buzz. Some of it has centered on Guadagnino and Chalamet, reunited for the first time since 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, which transformed Chalamet into a megastar. Some of it has to do with the film’s outré plotline, a classic American road trip cum love story where the protagonists are known as “eaters,” or cannibals. But a lot of it has centered on Russell, who was handpicked by Guadagnino for the role and whose performance has been critically acclaimed for its freshness and empathy.
Everything seems to be lining up right now for Russell: She’s in the right movie with the right director opposite the right costar. (Despite keeping a low profile on social media and posting infrequently on Instagram, she gained 30,000 new followers during the Bones and All press tour.) Before Bones, it was the 2019 A24 film Waves, an arresting drama about a Black family in crisis in Miami, that signaled her arrival. You probably would have to have been a regular viewer of the Netflix sci-fi series Lost in Space, which ran for three seasons, from 2018 to 2021, to have had Russell on your radar before that.
“Acting is the opposite of running away. It illuminates something.”
Russell has also emerged as an absolute force on the red carpet. Her fashion-forward choices have impressed even the most discerning armchair critics. A particular standout was a Schiaparelli Haute Couture design by Daniel Roseberry that Russell wore to the 2022 BFI London Film Festival in October: a boned, champagne-colored corset under a sharp-shouldered suit jacket with a drop-waist pencil skirt. The consensus online was that Chalamet’s all-white Alexander McQueen suit literally paled in comparison.
Russell is leery of the breathless headlines labeling her an It girl. She tells me that she recently turned off her phone for a week and “didn’t turn it back on and just read for the week because my brain was so overwhelmed.”
Russell is right to be protective of her image and her mental health, especially as a young woman of color. Obsession inevitably gives way to indifference. In Hollywood, it’s shockingly easy to become disposable. Actors, particularly young women, have very little agency in an industry still ruled primarily by white male studio heads.
It was Russell’s idea for us to go to the Academy Museum. She’s a newish transplant to Los Angeles, having lived in New York for several years. She thought it would be interesting to take a walk through the shrines we’ve built to the silver screen. She believes what makes a good artist is the capacity for change. “The good ones, you can tell that their life is evolving throughout the decades because they’re interested in different things. I mean, all the good ones have their specific eras,” she says. Russell is playing the long game; she doesn’t just want to be an artist, she wants to build an artistic life.
When I meet her, she is wearing the most New York outfit I’ve ever seen: a perfectly worn-in black leather jacket, a vintage Tracy Chapman tee, and baggy jeans. A black Lemaire Croissant bag is slung across her shoulder. Los Angeles is famously a Lululemon town, but Russell won’t submit. “I can’t bring myself to wear sweats outside,” she admits, laughing. She’s worn Balenciaga Couture and vintage Ralph Lauren on the red carpet, and she also wore a black leather Alexander McQueen dress to the Academy Museum Gala four days after it was shown on the runway. Each appearance sent social media into a frenzy.
Fashion and Hollywood are an ouroboros. Designers depend on actors to showcase their looks on red carpets for publicity, and actors depend on designers to dress them in the best because what you wear is reflective of a certain star power. There is a mutually beneficial relationship, with each betting on the other that the collaboration will pay off. If you are chosen by a coveted designer, it’s a sign that you’re well on your way to being ushered into the inner sanctum of Hollywood.
“I’ve often read that on set with Marilyn Monroe, people couldn’t see what she was doing. With Taylor, I had a similar feeling,” says Mark Rylance
Russell was personally selected by Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson to open the house’s Spring 2023 show in Paris and model in the precollection campaign shot by Juergen Teller. “I just thought there was something about this precision in someone who is ultimately about the future of acting or the future of performance,” Anderson tells me over email. He’s known for his whimsical approach to fashion, having dreamed up everything from pigeon-shaped clutches to heels that look like you’re walking on balloons. “I feel like a little kid being able to do all this stuff that I’m doing right now,” Russell says of her approach to fashion. “ ‘Why not just run around that playground?’ is how I feel. Let’s see how it shifts and evolves.”
If fashion is where Russell gets to play, she takes the opposite approach to acting. She cliff-dives into her roles, a task that counterintuitively requires remaining present. “Acting is the opposite of running away,” Russell says. “It illuminates something.” She tells me she taps into different memories and reanimates her past in order to connect with characters. But sometimes taking a deep dive into her inner life to play a role has consequences for her real life: “Have I sorted out something with that part of me? Can I close the chapter? Or have I just opened the book?”
As we stroll through the museum, we come across a screen playing Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands, the noir romance that follows a pair of young lovers across the vastness of the American Midwest as they try to escape capture after going on a crime spree. Russell stops dead in her tracks, transfixed. For a moment, I think she genuinely forgets that I’m standing there. She turns to me suddenly and explains that the film, which she adores, was a key inspiration for her while she worked on Bones, in which she plays Maren, a wide-eyed and soft-spoken “eater.”
“Sissy Spacek is probably my favorite actress of all time,” Russell says, nodding toward the screen. Spacek’s Holly in Badlands clearly informs Russell’s Maren. Both women are virginal and murderous with mommy issues. Maren physically cannot stop herself from eating human flesh, the most taboo of bodily acts. Like Spacek, Russell plays her character with an unmistakable innocence, leaving a tension between her demeanor and her actions that challenges the viewer. “It felt so sincere,” Russell says of the Bones script. “That’s something I look for because I think it’s vulnerable to be sincere. That’s something that a lot of people want, but it’s hard to grasp.”
Mark Rylance, who also stars in Bones, was taken aback by Russell’s performance, the subtleties of which were not immediately visible. “I’ve often read that on set with Marilyn Monroe, people couldn’t see what she was doing,” Rylance says. “With Taylor, I had a similar feeling. That was the surprise for me: how much the camera digs into the soul of a person.”
Russell didn’t audition to be Maren. “Guadagnino just offered me the role after seeing Waves,” she says. She couldn’t believe her luck: “I just felt like, ‘Oh wow, life can be easy like that? That’s weird.’ ” Russell assures me that having parts handed to her isn’t typical. She fought tooth and nail for her role in Waves.
Typically, casting a movie involves a slew of studio approvals. But Guadagnino opted to secure Italian financiers for the film—he pulled the budget together in just a week—and had total creative control. He wanted Russell and he got her. Guadagnino tells me he wishes he could cast his movies this way more often. It would be more conducive to artistic collaboration. Guadagnino now considers Russell, in addition to Chalamet, a dear friend as well as a collaborator. “Taylor is a very sharp woman with, I think, a very beautiful will. And I could feel that,” Guadagnino says.
Taylor Russell was born in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove in the middle of July. She is the middle child of three with two brothers. Deep Cove is the name of both the community just south of Mount Seymour and the bay of water the village sits on. Deep Cove bay connects to a glacial fjord that extends into the rugged North Shore Mountains and out of sight. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Russell recalls an idyllic childhood. “My friends’ houses were on the water, and you would take a ferry to get to their house. Most of my memories are playing on the beach: turning over the rocks, finding crabs and seeing them scramble. Catching jellyfish.”
Russell doesn’t go back to Deep Cove much, in part because she wants to leave the memory untouched. Like much of Vancouver, Deep Cove has become increasingly unlivable due to gentrification. It doesn’t look like it did when Russell was a child. A lot of people can no longer afford to live there.
Russell’s definition of chosen family elides the border between work and life. She felt safe relocating from New York to Los Angeles solo because she knew she had a home there with her best friend and Waves costar, Alexa Demie. The stylish pair are frequently photographed together wearing coordinated looks. “Yeah, that’s my family,” Russell says of Demie.
Demie was equally effusive when she shared the Bones trailer on her Instagram Stories: “my sister my angel my star made a film & it’s brutally heartwarming.”
When Russell was six, her family moved across the country to Toronto. She instantly felt more at home. Unlike what she had experienced in Deep Cove, she was surrounded by people of color. “The beauty of Toronto is that, out of Canada, that’s where the culture is,” Russell says. “My dad is Jamaican, and we ate Caribbean food, and it felt like that community was very intact, and I liked that. Similarly, when I moved to New York, I felt that as well, like, ‘Thank God. I’m on the train in Harlem with my people and I can find the food that makes me feel connected to my roots.’ It’s so vital. It’s lifeblood,” Russell says.
“I think it’s vulnerable to be sincere.”
There is a steely discipline undergirding Russell’s soft demeanor. She says that before she committed to acting, she wanted to be a dancer. She has a wordless command of her body on-screen; she shrinks herself, she quivers with rage or want, she dances for the camera the way a teen girl might. Russell is very sensitive to her surroundings. As an actor, she seems to be drawn to projects in which natural landscapes figure prominently.
Russell says that while filming Waves on location in Florida, she felt “really attached to the landscape and the clouds.” She pauses a moment. “That sounds so woo-woo,” she says, “but it’s the truth.” Russell explains that she let the bigness of the sea inform how invisible her character felt.
Guadagnino, who has been described as a “location fetishist” in The New Yorker, doesn’t think it’s woo-woo. “The greatest inspiration for Bones and All was the landscape of the Midwest,” he says. Guadagnino wanted the solitude and melancholy of the landscape to set the tone of the film. “Those parts of America are so big,” Russell explains. “They feel so wide. It’s like there’s no boundaries at all.”
Waves was Russell’s first big art-house movie, and in a lot of ways it signaled her arrival. She certainly earned her success the hard way; Russell is no nepotism baby. After graduating high school, Russell decided to sign up for an acting class and landed an agent soon after. She would save up money, make the trek down the coast from Vancouver, where she was living at the time, to Los Angeles—20 hours by car—and go on auditions for as long as she could afford to do so. When she could no longer sustain herself, she drove back to Vancouver, got another job, and started saving all over again. She did this for years.
Russell has been slowly adjusting to all this newfound attention. Any other 20-something might party with friends to celebrate—and take plenty of pictures for Instagram while doing it—but she prefers to keep her world small and quiet. “All I want to be doing is sleeping and playing the harp and sitting in the sun,” she says.
She strikes me as someone who has had to be a grown-up for a long time. Russell has worked various odd jobs since she was 13. “I was more like a mom,” she says of her childhood. So it’s a bit of a relief when we stumble upon that beloved low-stakes youth obsession: astrology. When I broach the topic, as I’m wont to do, Russell immediately lights up. We’re Cancers with Scorpio moons and fire ascendant signs. (Look it up.)
“I mean, you and I have a psychotic chart,” she tells me. “Do you know that? Do you know that we’re crazy?”
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR, available on newsstands January 31.