There is a certain kind of bonding that happens in the ladies’ bathroom, an oasis at a party or a bar, where best friends remind you that your trash ex doesn’t deserve you or that you’re the coolest person they know. You make friends in the girls’ room — these relationships are fast and fleeting, though you feel like those connections will last forever. Everyone looks beautiful there, because everyone is.
Waves, the new Trey Edward Shults project that debuts November 15, pays homage to this special space of camaraderie and comfort about halfway through the film: Senior Alexis (Alexa Demie) and freshman Emily (Taylor Russell) bond over their dresses and makeup during a breather from their high school’s semi-formal. The latter is soft-spoken and visibly in awe of her older brother’s ex-girlfriend, who is known by classmates as “the Goddess.” Emily shyly compliments Alexis’s lip gloss, so the latter pats some onto the younger girl’s lips in a tender act of sisterhood.
“It feels like an exchange of energy from Alexis to Emily,” Demie tells MTV News about the moment, which serves as a transition between the film’s two main acts. The first half is largely dedicated to Emily’s older brother, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and his relationship with Alexis, while the final installment focuses on Emily as she navigates her own relationships. But what is most magical about the scene is that it happened at all. It wasn’t written into Shults’s script and only occurred after Demi and Russell, who had grown close during filming and bonded over a mutual love for Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, asked their director to let them improvise.
“He’s so collaborative and ego-less. He was like, ‘yes, of course,’” she says. “When we finished, we were being really hard on ourselves. ‘What the hell was that? What did we just do?’ But then, when we saw it in the theater, it was just so beautiful. We saw so much significance with that scene, and that came out of a director allowing us to do something we wanted, together.”
Togetherness is a key theme in Waves, which tells the story of a family trying to stay bonded in the face of personal and collective tragedy. We meet Tyler just as his life begins to spiral: The star wrestler feels mounting pressure from just about everyone, including his coach, his doctor, and his parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry). He hides a significant shoulder injury and sneaks painkillers to muscle through meets and workouts. His father is emotionally abusive, pushing Tyler beyond greatness and towards a breaking point. Alexis is his one reprieve — until she texts Tyler that her period is late. She’s pregnant and, after deciding to see her pregnancy through to term, breaks up with Tyler, who has begun using harder substances in order to staunch his fear of young fatherhood.
Demie accepted the role after filming the pilot of Euphoria, the star-making HBO series in which she plays queen bee Maddy Perez, whose judgments against her classmates are as sharp as her nail extensions and liquid cat-eyes. She remembers FaceTiming with Shults for a final audition before heading to Florida for filming one week later. “I probably FaceTime people more than I have actual calls, so it felt really natural and like we had known each other before,” she says. “I think he just needed to meet me. It was a really chill conversation.” She believed in her director’s vision almost instantly, which was key. “I think trust is huge,” she explains. “Trey trusted us, we trusted Trey, and then all of us trusted each other.”
While preparing to portray Alexis, who is less hard-edged than Maddy but no less confident, the actor prioritized her alone time and often listened to Lauryn Hill’s classic, “To Zion,” which Hill wrote about her first child. The track was a personal one for Demie, too: “My mom had me at an incredibly young age, so I grew up knowing her situation and her story. And growing up, I’ve had many girlfriends go through that situation.” In working on Waves, she channeled her mother’s experience to inform Alexis’s decisions to keep her pregnancy and seek support from her parents when Tyler fails her. “I connected to her strength and what she must have felt,” Demie explains.
Both Waves and Euphoria provide an unvarnished look at modern teenagerhood; by design, neither are particularly easy watches. “I’m attracted to stories that are not always the most fun to play, and are kind of hard to play,” Demie says, adding that her ideal characters have “a lot of strength and depth and vulnerability. [Alexis] is loving, but she’s ready to stand up for what she believes in and isn’t going to let anyone get in the way of that.”
That look is bolstered by behind-the-scenes work that informs how viewers see and hear the story. While Euphoria defined its fractured teen queens with larger-than-life makeup and Instagram-ready outfits, Waves features a kaleidoscope of color, courtesy of Shults and longtime cinematographer, Drew Daniels. (The duo collaborated on Krishna and It Comes at Night; Daniels also fittingly provided cinematography for “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde,” the Euphoria episode focusing on Maddy’s childhood, as well as her reasons for staying in an abusive relationship.) The dizzying camerawork in Waves at times mimic the highs of drug use; parties and bonfires blur and contrast with subtler moments, like the experience of sharing your lip gloss with a friend in the bathroom. It is teenagerhood in a prism — the way an Instagram filter augments what you know to be true into something a little more ephemeral, but no less genuine.
Though Demie regularly visited set to watch scenes she wasn’t in, seeing the final product was an experience all its own. “It just blew me away, honestly,” she says. “When I saw it finished for the first time, Taylor and I just held each other for 30 minutes and sobbed in the theater.”
As her star continues to rise, Demie is already on the lookout for other subversive roles. “People of every race, ethnicity, and gender should be playing these incredible parts,” she says. “We should honestly get rid of every single cliché in Hollywood because it’s boring.” For her, those tropes often manifest as stereotypes about Latinas. “I’ve always been very clear to anyone that I work with that I don’t want those ‘sexy, spicy’ roles with a thick accent,” she explains. Rather, she dreams of playing a female James Bond or star in a Casino remake. “Maybe as Robert De Niro’s character instead of Sharon Stone’s character,” she says, quickly qualifying, “but I would also die to play Sharon Stone’s character.”
While ending the year on such a high note would be enough of a reason for anyone to take a break, Demie won’t slow down any time soon. “I have a phobia of doing nothing,” she explains. She looks forward to working on Season 2 of Euphoria in 2020, fashion and music projects, and a movie she will produce with her mom.
“I have fun with what I do, so that’s what I like,” she continues. “I’ve always had this feeling that I was going to be successful and do all that I wanted to do — I just didn’t know when. 2019 hit me by quite a bit of surprise, but 2020 is going to be even better.”