Kayli Carter’s father had a saying when she was growing up: “Take up some space.”
“He was interested in raising someone who knew her mind,” she says.
Carter clearly got the message. The 25-year-old actress is more discriminating about her projects than some leading ladies. “I say ‘no’ a lot. Luckily, I have people who support me,” Carter says. “I don’t know if there’s anything around the corner. But I’d rather be doing nothing than play uninteresting women. People are now getting an idea of the kind of movies I want to be a part of.”
“Private Life” is definitely one of those films. Oscar-nominated Tamara Jenkins’ perfectly pitched ensemble, which was released Friday, features Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as Richard and Rachel, an infertile couple desperate to have a baby and navigating the mood swings of assisted fertility and adoption, which leaves them emotionally drained and their bank accounts depleted.
Carter plays Sadie, an impetuous college student who’s given to acting on her whims. Taking time off from school midstream, Sadie swoops in on her favorite nonjudgmental aunt and uncle. They share her literary tendencies and she’s sympathetic to their reproductive ordeal, eventually agreeing to become an egg donor.
“She doesn’t think before the free fall,” Carter says of Sadie. “Her sensibility is pretty filterless. She has very few consequences for the things she says.”
Sadie begins rounds of painful hormone injections and has humiliating interactions with medical staffers. But that’s nothing compared with the reception her news of being an egg donor receives at Thanksgiving dinner after she stands up and blurts it out to family and guests.
“I’m very close with my own mother. Sadie’s relationship with her mother [played by Molly Shannon], seems to be one where they butt up against each other. But that’s Tamara — the electric turkey carver,” Carter says, referring to Shannon, who is so upset by her daughter’s announcement that she takes revenge on the bird. “That Thanksgiving scene is everyone’s worst nightmare of what Thanksgiving can be. It’s such a hodgepodge family. I love that they’re all artists.
“Tamara likes to find beautiful little human things that happen before we hit ‘action’,” Carter says. “Tamara also gets people talking. There’s one scene in particular, where I’m talking about my classmates and how entitled and privileged they are. It just spilled out of me. It’s Tamara’s writing itself. Tamara’s sensibility is like you’re a fly on the wall. Tamara was saying that Rachel and Richard feel like they’re of the earth of the East Village. They’re very specific people. It’s so interesting to play with. When we read the script, I could tell exactly what this movie was going to be. Reading the script, everything was there.”
Carter sympathizes with Sadie’s rootlessness. “We’re all trying to find things to do with our lives that we really love,” she says. “I grew up in a town, Oviedo, Fla. Most of the people I went to high school with are still living there. How lucky I am to be in this.
“You have to be pretty fearless in this business,” she adds. “I always felt I could rely on my gut.”
She attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she earned a BFA in performing arts. “I was in a showcase,” she says. “A woman saw me in the show and cast me in a horror movie, ‘Rings.’ About three days later, I was in an office in New York, taking a meeting. My last semester of college was spent driving back and forth from Savannah to Atlanta to shoot the horror movie.”
In “Godless,” a seven-part Netflix miniseries that aired in 2017 about a mining town after a disaster that’s inhabited almost entirely by women, she bonded with the cast. “In this show, there were quite a few of us — women,” Carter says. “That’s been my experience with incredible women. Something in my energy in the world attracts them to me. I grew up around strong women.”
When Carter auditioned for “Nice Fish” by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance (co-written with Louis Jenkins), she had an audience with the playwright. “I went in and got a callback. It was 60 minutes with Mark Rylance. We played and improvised. He just let me be an actor. It was a wacky script.” Carter originated the role of Flo at American Repertory Theater, and continued with the subsequent Off-Broadway and West End productions, where the London run was nominated for an Olivier Award for best new comedy.
Carter says of Jenkins and Rylance, “They’re my first mentors, my first art mom and art dad,” echoing a line from “Private Life” when Sadie describes Rachel, a novelist, and Richard, who used to run an experimental theater, as her “art mom and art dad,” and says she has more in common with them than her own parents.
Next up for Carter is Corey Finley’s “Bad Education,” set in Roslyn, N.Y., with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, about a school superintendent who embezzles public funds from the district. “I play Allison Janney’s daughter. It’s set in the early 2000s. It was a real theft and they stole millions of dollars, bankrolling a very lavish lifestyle for educators. It’s very much a black comedy. I think life falls between comedy and drama. The costumes — the early 2000s were not kind to women. It’s Juicy Couture pink tracksuits and everything really tight.”
Carter is developing other talents and building creative muscles beyond acting. “I am a writer,” she says, adding, “I’m writing a short film about Squeaky Fromme. I played her in the [upcoming] movie ‘Charlie Says,’ but I didn’t get to explore her as much as I wanted to. That whole period of time around [Gerald] Ford’s presidency is so interesting. Squeaky was also stalking members of Led Zeppelin.
“I would like to direct, but that’s down the road,” she says. “I want to be a really, really good actor first. I want to squeeze a lot of juice from my roles. I would want to direct really great people. Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Boogie Nights’ is my favorite film. I love how big those ensembles are. He’s a divine storyteller and writes really interesting women. I watch everything. I’m a lover of good film. I want to do more.”