On Saturday, Kayli Carter will go up against veteran actresses Regina King, Tyne Daley, and J. Smith-Cameron, as well as fellow newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, for the Independent Spirit Awards names this year’s Best Supporting Actress award. But only a couple of years ago, the 25-year-old actress and recent graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, who is nominated for her role in Netflix’s Private Life, couldn’t even imagine a future in film for herself. “I did no student films in college, but I did almost every play,” she said. “I guess I thought there was no place for me in film. I thought, ‘I’m happy to do basement theater for the next 30 years and barely making rent.’” Needless to say, things are looking considerably brighter now.
Acting, though, has always been in the cards for Carter. Growing up in rural Florida, putting on plays and performances was a natural part of her childhood. “Our neighbors lived far away from our house, but I was singing Annie so loud on our swing-set that they’d come out of their houses and come watch and clap, which was very nice,” she said. “But that’s how loud it was.” In high school, she participated in competitive theater (a thing, apparently, in Florida), but was too pragmatic to actually consider a career in the arts. That is, until her passions got the better of her. “I walked in to the school theater one night and all the lights were on and I was alone, looking at all the seats. And I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to do this,'” she recalled.
Upon graduating from SCAD with a BFA in performing arts, Carter booked a part in Mark Rylance’s play Nice Fish, which saw her performing in the shows’ debut at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and continued with subsequent Off-Broadway and West End productions. It was toward the final production’s end that she found herself pondering what was to come. “My first professional job was with one of the greatest stage actors of all time. I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to peak right here,'” she said. “I was reading the worst scripts imaginable for pilot season. Everything was awful.”
But then it came: the script for Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’s dramedy about two middle-aged writers, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, who are desperately trying to have a kid. Three weeks out from shooting, the filmmakers were still looking for a young actress to play the role of Sadie, a young woman who offers to become the couple’s egg donor. “They had lost an actress and I thought, ‘Oh good, they’re desperate,'” Carter said. “Tamara said to the casting department, ‘Go find some theater girl under a rock.'” They found Carter.
The movie premiered at Sundance in 2018 to rave reviews, and was released on Netflix in October. It currently holds a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and landed on many top critics’ best of 2018 lists. “I knew when I read the script,” Carter said of the film’s reception. “I read a lot of stuff and rarely do I read anything this specific and human. Tamara Jenkins is a genius and has been for thirty years. When I read the script, I knew exactly what it was going to be and exactly who these people were. I saw the ensemble that she had built, and looked at this people and thought, ‘These are some of the most under-appreciated, flawless actors.’ I was confident that people would see it and know how special it was. I cringe to watch myself on screen, and I was able to watch it. “
But even knowing in advance doesn’t necessarily prepare one for breaking into this brand new world of press tours, awards shows, and red carpets. “It’s a hard thing until it’s tangible,” she said. “I did not know what press was, or how to do it. I never had this many cameras pointed at me at anytime. It’s scary, but it makes me want to swing for the fences.” There’s been plenty of surreal experiences, as well. “We were at a contenders event the other day and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kathryn [Hahn] were talking about schools for children. I had no business being in this conversation. I was like, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here.’ But I’m told everyone has imposter syndrome.” Or take the Emmy’s, her first major red carpet. ” I was standing next to Carole Kane talking to her about how much we were sweating. I was scrolling through Instagram and everything looks so glamorous, but really everyone is getting pulled at and tugged. It’s been so strange.”
The Independent Spirit Awards will mark Carter’s first major awards show where she’s nominated. “Being on the periphery of any awards conversation is baffling to me,” she said. A few weeks ahead of the ceremony, she was still putting it all in perspective, recalling the day she learned she was nominated. “I walked away from that day, and aside from being nominated next to people like Regina King, who I thought was just flawless in Beale Street, or being nominated at all, I think I felt most proud because of the conversation that was being had. For the first time I looked over the categories of films, and it was women being represented. To be part of that history and the actual push to change things felt really meaningful to me.”
But there’s still the fun part of it all: playing dress up. Carter, who works with stylist Molly Dickson, is fully embracing that part of this new gig, opting to have as much fun with her red carpet looks as possible. Weeks out, the pair were still planning her look for the big night. “I think we should do something fun with color,” she mused. “You can do really fun stuff. Margot Robbie wore animal print, and it was so cute. I would never have thought of that, but it looked amazing.
“You can sort of be arrowless,” she continued, remarking on being a red carpet newbie. “I find that part very exciting. I don’t want people to get too comfortable with any idea of who I am. All of that is so cultivated. I’m an actor, so my job is to disappear. If you are constantly sending the exact same message, people can box you in. I’m hoping to avoid that.”
She may hope to disappear, but that doesn’t mean she’s completely immune to the, let’s say, perks of being a recognizable face—namely, being recognized while going about your business in New York City. “I did get a DM from a girl who was like, ‘Hi, I saw you on the subway but you were talking to two friends and I didn’t want to bother you.’ But that was really nice,” she said. “So, shoutout to the girl who didn’t come up to me. I really appreciated that.”