HOLLY TAYLOR IN NEW YORK, MARCH 2016. PHOTOS: HANS NEUMANN. STYLING: KATELYN GRAY. HAIR: DAVID COLVIN. MAKEUP: CEDRIC JOLIVET/SEE MANAGEMENT USING MAC COSMETICS. MANICURE: ANGEL WILLIAMS/EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING CHANEL LE VERNIS. STYLING ASSISTANT: MARGAUX DONNELIER.
To be KGB or not to be KGB? That is the question currently before 15-year-old Paige Jennings in Joe Weisberg’s FX series The Americans. Set in a suburb of Washington, D.C. during the Cold War in the early 1980s, The Americans began airing its fourth season on Wednesday. During Seasons One and Two, Paige was able to lead a relatively normal life. She attended school, bickered with her younger brother Henry, and cringed in embarrassment at the thought of going bra shopping with her mother. She had moments of unease; her travel agent parents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) always seemed preoccupied, leaving home suddenly after phone calls at odd hours. But when she confronted them towards the end of Season Three, their answer still came as shock. Mr. and Mrs. Jennings are Soviet spies, and now Paige must declare her allegiance to her home country, the United States, or her parents and Mother Russia.
“Playing Paige, especially toward the end of Season Three going into Season Four, has put some pressure on me,” 18-year-old actress Holly Taylor tells us. “Paige’s role has been growing and her story within the show is very heavy. There’s a lot going on with her emotionally,” she continues. “It’s been hard to play her but it’s been a lot of fun and I’m really glad that the writers are trusting me with telling her story. With every scene there’s a different emotion; sometimes there’s anger, there’s hurt, pain, confusion. There are so many different layers and sometimes you have to play them all at once and sometimes it’s just one of them.”
Born in Nova Scotia and raised in New Jersey, Taylor’s career began at age 11 with an open call audition for Broadway’s Billy Elliot the Musical. After 22 months of performances, Taylor left the show in 2011 and, only a year later, sent in a tape for The Americans. Since The Americans debuted in 2013, Taylor has been juggling high school in her home state with filming in Brooklyn. We spoke over the phone while she took a break from shooting the end of Season Four to talk about her early dancing days, college plans, and the choice Paige has to make.
HALEY WEISS: Paige rebels from her parents by joining a church, which isn’t a typical form of teenage rebellion, like drinking or sneaking out at night. Do you think she was drawn to the church because of the community it offered her or is she actually drawn to Christianity?
HOLLY TAYLOR: I’m sure it’s both for Paige. She’s definitely attracted to the community but also the religion itself. She doesn’t have really stable parental figures at home. Her parents work a lot, she doesn’t know what’s going on with them most of the time and is kept out of the loop, and she can never vent or talk to them about her problems. Going to the church gives her that opportunity and that’s one of the reasons why, in a way, Pastor Tim has become a fatherly figure to her and she respects him so much. He is always there for her and gives her that stable thing to rely on that she doesn’t have at home.
WEISS: When you read in the script that Paige’s parents would reveal they’re spies because Paige confronts them, were you surprised?
TAYLOR: I was definitely surprised when I read that script. First of all, I was so excited because I’ve always wanted Paige to know. I didn’t know how she’d react and I knew that was completely up to the writers, but I’d always been excited to see how that would come about. Literally nobody was expecting it to happen the way it did. It was in the middle of the season in the middle of an episode. It was very unpredictable, which is one of the great things about the show, it’s always that way. I love the way that they did it.
WEISS: I read that you felt very drained after filming that episode. What about it did you find particularly difficult?
TAYLOR: The most difficult part was probably that scene itself because it’s such a buildup of emotion. As soon as [her parents] came in the door, Paige was ready with questions. She had been staying up all night waiting for them to come home. It’s like she was their parent and they got caught sneaking out. We did that scene so many times and a bunch of different ways. All of us were sitting at the kitchen table on set just staring, zoned out, because it was just so draining filming that scene.
WEISS: Is there anything in particular that you do to get into character before a scene like that? Do you listen to music?
TAYLOR: I’ve tried listening to music but none of that really works for me. I really like being in the moment and feeding off of whatever the other actors in the scene are doing. I think that being there in that moment and thinking of the actual sad things coming out is the best way to connect with the character.
WEISS: Part of what’s fascinating about the show is that as a viewer, at least at first, you align yourself with the Russians because the Jennings family is your main point of entry. Paige almost becomes the moral center in that she’s the one questioning her parents.
TAYLOR: For a long time, Paige has been the mindset of the audience: She’s curious all the time, she’s trying to figure out what her parents are going through. Now that she knows—like the audience knows—she’s still trying to figure out most of it. She has to make that decision of what side she wants to pick because it’s really a matter of sides; it is a war. That’s really complicated for her and that’s also the position the audience is put in. Like you said, you find yourself rooting for the Russians and their cause because of Elizabeth and Philip, but at the same time you see someone like Henry or Stan or even Paige who are living on the opposite side of the coin. It’s very difficult to pick apart the country we currently live in and what we’ve learned in our history textbooks.
WEISS: How has working on the show altered your perspective of the Cold War?
TAYLOR: It has provided more of an understanding because you see this whole under layer that they don’t really teach you about in school, of what spies have to do and everything that people went through in their family lives. When you learn about it in school, it’s more about the politics and legality of it. It’s definitely a unique perspective and it’s something that I’ve learned to appreciate.
I learn a lot from the scripts that we get. There’s so much information in there and they really stay true to the timeline of the Cold War. A lot of the stuff that they write into the show has actually happened on that exact day at that exact time. It’s really cool how they tie in the history.
WEISS: I know you started off dancing professionally in Billy Elliot the Musical. How long had you been dancing prior to that role?
TAYLOR: I’ve been dancing since I was three. That was my first thing and I did it competitively. That was all I did for a million years. [laughs]
WEISS: You were in Billy Elliot for a long time, especially considering you were only 11.
TAYLOR: Yeah, and I was going to middle school at the time in New Jersey. It was eight shows a week and we had rehearsals during the week in the city. It was insane… My mom drove me in every single day. I owe a lot of credit to my mom. She’s always been helpful.
WEISS: What kept you going?
TAYLOR: I just thought it was so much fun. I really enjoyed the dancing—my character got to be on pointe. It was my first time ever doing something like that, with acting and singing involved. There were 14 other girls and young boys so it was like you were hanging out with your friends, and you were friends with the adult cast too; everyone was so friendly. Now I look back on it and think, “How did I do eight shows a week and get home past midnight every night during the week and still do homework?” but when you’re in the middle of it you just do what you have to do and it didn’t seem that bad.
WEISS: What made you decide to stop doing the show?
TAYLOR: Me and my mom had to make an educated decision because I was getting sick a lot and I had a passive pneumonia, so we thought, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” It definitely got to be a little crazy and the show was done on a raked stage, so especially being on pointe shoes my hips would get pushed out of alignment. People were constantly injured; it was inevitable. It was definitely one of those shows you could only do for so long.
WEISS: Did you decide to pursue acting immediately after? When did that come into the picture?
TAYLOR: Pretty much once I finished Billy Elliot I realized that I wanted to try something different. I had done Broadway and I was really interested in film, TV, and the acting aspect of it, so my mom, my dad, and I all just decided we were going to go for it. We moved to L.A. when I was in the eighth grade. I did homeschooling for [that year]. We thought, “If we’re going to go for it, we’re going to give it everything we have and then if it doesn’t work, we can say we tried.” I did a few [acting] classes here and there. I did some casting director workshops and was trying to get set up with a manager and an agent. Everything just fell into place from there. I did an on tape audition for The Americans and they called me back to New York to read with Keri Russell, the director, the producers, and the creator of the show—everybody who was important was there.
WEISS: Were you intimidated going into that room?
TAYLOR: They didn’t tell me what to expect when I got there, so we just flew back to New York and thought it was a normal callback and that maybe the casting director would be there and they’d send it off to the producers, but literally everybody was there and I was just like, “Wait, what’s going on?” And they said, “Oh, Keri Russell is here too,” and I saw her walk into the room and thought, “Wait, that’s actually Keri Russell in the same room as me.” But I guess it was good that it was all unexpected because I didn’t really have to worry about getting nervous about all of that. Keri is so nice. We bonded over dance because she used to be a dancer, so it was an easy audition and it was fun.
WEISS: Was it important to you to go to a regular high school after a year of homeschooling?
TAYLOR: I definitely wanted to go to high school back in New Jersey. That was the plan whether I got The Americans or not, so we knew once the fall of that year came we were going back to New Jersey, I was starting my freshmen year of high school, and it just so happened that The Americans was going to be shooting in Brooklyn and I got it, so I was able to do both. It was really very lucky.
WEISS: Do you enjoy school? Do you have a favorite subject?
TAYLOR: I actually don’t mind school. Sometimes—well, all of the time actually—it’s super stressful and a lot of the homework is kind of unnecessary, but I love going and having that social interaction with my friends and having a teacher in a classroom with me. My favorite class that I’m taking this year, which is probably [my favorite] I’ve ever taken, is my philosophy class. And I’m a senior, so I’m getting ready for college.
I just got accepted in the advertising and PR program at Penn State. I’m going to attend the world campus there, which is the online school for it. That way I can keep doing the show and keep up with my schoolwork at the same time, because education is my number one priority.
WEISS: What made you choose that program in particular?
TAYLOR: I always wanted to do psychology but it’s so saturated now with people who can’t find jobs that easily in [that field]. I didn’t want to be a therapist; I wanted to do research and knew I’d have to get a doctoral degree and that could be a little too complicated, so I figured I’d do something that was a business major but I could still be creative with marketing or advertising. I leaned toward that because that way I have something reliable that’s not too bland.
WEISS: Looking toward the future, do you want to do more film and television acting or just focus on school?
TAYLOR: I’d like to do both. I’ll be focusing on school but I’d really like to do some movies, hopefully a comedy or more TV shows. Anything, really, I’d love to stay in the business.
THE FOURTH SEASON OF THE AMERICANS AIRS WEDNESDAY NIGHTS ON FX.