Movie lovers don’t necessarily come to high concept horrors like “Escape Room” or its sequel “Tournament of Champions” for the acting.
Yet even with all the high-stakes flash of these thrilling, set-piece and spectacle-driven puzzles-within-puzzles, star Taylor Russell’s talent shines though as the traumatized but determined Zoey.
The 26-year-old is still a relative newcomer on the scene with a handful of roles in projects like Netflix’s “Lost in Space,” indies like “Waves” and the “Escape Room” movies, the latest of which is out now. But she’s quickly establishing herself as one to watch.
“She’s incapable of hitting a false note,” said “Escape Room” director Adam Robitel. “She’s amazing. She’s a star. I just hope she continues to flourish.”
Russell was born in Vancouver and moved around a lot growing up. She didn’t even start acting until she was 18.
“I really wanted to be a dancer but that just wasn’t in the cards for me,” she said in a recent interview.
But the desire to perform seems to have been with her from the start. Her mom told her that she’d stay up into the early hours of the morning in her room talking to herself and doing characters.
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“I think it’s always been something that I loved,” Russell said. “I loved watching movies and would try to recite everything they did in the mirror and repeat what they did. In that way I think I was always going to do this. But I didn’t come to that realization until I was 18.”
Her family is full of creative people — writers, poets and artists — but no one had any meaningful ins to the show business world. So when she decided to go for it, she started from the bottom, auditioning in Canada, booking gigs here and there and saving up enough money to drive to Los Angeles for pilot season. Russell did “the young L.A. actor thing” of auditioning and sleeping on couches until the money ran out and she’d drive back north and start saving again. She did that for three years.
Taylor Russell, left, Thomas Cocquerel and Logan Miller star in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” – Courtesy of Sony Pictures
She even quit at one point, after turning down a gig she booked that she realized was “a bad deal.” Russell retreated to her parents’ house in Canada to work in a restaurant and figure out what she was going to do with her life. Then, on a random visit to L.A. to see a friend, she booked the audition that would end up being her big break: The Netflix revival of the 1965 series “Lost in Space.”
Starring as the inquisitive and brave Judy Robinson in the sci-fi series, “kind of changed the game for me,” she said. The third and final season is expected to hit the streamer later this year.
The platform also helped open up opportunities. Soon after booking “Lost in Space,” she was cast to lead “Escape Room,” which was conceived as a possible trilogy from the start.
Robitel knew he needed to find someone equal parts empathetic and intelligent.
“I don’t think you can act intelligence, frankly. You need to embody it,” he said. “And she just came in and nailed it. It was just absolutely clear to me that she was Zoey.”
Though the “Escape Room” films aren’t quite Shakespeare, Robitel laughed, they are uniquely challenging in a different way for actors with the elaborate stunts and camera coverage required. Russell impressed him throughout.
And it ended up being a success. The first film, released in early 2019, grossed over $155 million at the box office and a sequel was quickly put into motion, which would reunite Russell and with her co-star Logan Miller and add a host of new players, like Holland Roden and Indya Moore.
“I’m so glad people enjoyed the first one,” Russell said. “I think this one is coming at a good time to enjoy in the theater and immerse yourself in this whole wild world.”
Film critic Katie Walsh compared Russell’s Zoey to Neve Campbell’s Sidney from “Scream” as someone so compelling to watch that you almost don’t want her to be free from the horrific plight.
Taylor Russell and Logan Miller in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” – Courtesy of Sony Pictures
“We’re in a strange paradox as viewers: Do we even want to see her escape? That would deny the satisfaction of watching her work,” Walsh wrote. “But it doesn’t seem like it’s coming to an end any time soon, so that will happily remain a quandary for another day.”
Some of Russell’s most fulfilling projects thus far have been the independent films, like “Waves,” in which she played the younger sister to a high school sports star and addict.
“I wanted that film so bad,” Russell said. “I dreamt about making films like that.”
Time critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote that, “Russell’s performance is like a rush of wind on a dry, hot day, the blessing you didn’t know you needed.”
Next up, she’s starring opposite Timothée Chalamet in “Bones & All,” a story about first love directed by Luca Guadagnino of “Call Me By Your Name.”
And she’s just grateful for the work, especially in a year where so many of her peers have found themselves languishing.
“I’m still a very young person in this world and I have so much more to learn, but what excites me right now is I look back on the things that I’ve done and they all feel so different, to me at least,” she said. “I love working on independent films, I love working on bigger films. I love all of it.”