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Decatur teen Morgan Saylor is definitely not her character on "Homeland"

This story originally appeared in our March 2013 issue.

The face—knitted brow, scrunched nose, curled lip, eye roll at the ready—is familiar to anyone who’s ever been, or been in the orbit of, a teenager. With elegant simplicity, it says one thing: You suck. Morgan Saylor is a pro at making the face. Millions have seen her do it.

Saylor plays surly teenager Dana Brody on Showtime’s addictive drama Homeland, where the face appears so often it’s been immortalized on websites, Tumblrs, and dedicated Twitter feeds. It’s become such a part of the pop culture consciousness that it was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live.

But tonight, as Saylor squeezes into a booth with her four best friends at Fellini’s Pizza in Decatur, there is no sign of the face. She folds a napkin into an origami bird with what they playfully call her E.T. fingers, long and knobby from years of competitive rock climbing, and they chat about class color day, egging cars, spring break at Grayton Beach, and who will take Saylor to the prom.

“She dances like this,” jokes Saylor’s friend, Rhiannon Stone-Miller, jumping out of her seat to demonstrate. She looks like a chicken with some ballet training.

“I do not!” Saylor giggles. “I danced at the after-party for the Golden Globes.”

Yes, Saylor was there just four nights ago, in a spangly gold gown with a plunging neckline, standing center stage with Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin, Mandy Patinkin, and her other costars from Homeland to accept the award for best TV drama.

Sure, we may enjoy the baroque melodrama of Downton Abbey, or the stylized cool of Mad Men, or the bleak morality play that is Breaking Bad, but it is Homeland that feels unnervingly topical. Heck, even President Obama makes it a point to watch. The show centers around Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a Marine sergeant who, after eight years as the prisoner of an Islamic terrorist, returns home to his family a damaged and different man. Self-serving politicians try to exploit him for their own gain, but Brody harbors a secret: His years in captivity turned him to the terrorists’ cause. In the first season finale, it was a phone call from Brody’s daughter, played by Saylor, that kept her father from detonating a bomb that would have killed him, the vice president, and much of the president’s cabinet. Meanwhile the only person who suspects Brody’s true motives is CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Danes), who has fallen in love with him. Homeland is a complicated show about a simple thing: trust, both in people and in institutions. And what happens when that trust evaporates.

For Saylor, whose character is in many ways Homeland’s idealistic heart, the show’s breakaway success has meant living two lives in almost equal measure: that of a regular Decatur teen, and that of a television star. Successfully straddling these disparate worlds is no small feat. She’s been known to drive four hours to the Homeland set in Charlotte to shoot a scene, then drive back to Decatur for a friend’s birthday party. Saylor shifts from playing a grumpy teenager on television to being a lighter, happier one in real life, and goes back and forth, again and again.

Sometimes one of her two lives gets short shrift. By living in Decatur instead of Los Angeles or New York, she’s at a disadvantage for new roles, auditioning by tape instead of meeting a casting director face-to-face. And when she’s at work, she misses out on pivotal teenage moments back home, like the time her friends got not one but five snow days during the “Atlanta Snowpocalypse” of 2011. Shooting the pilot for Homeland, Saylor watched as her Facebook feed filled with updates about her friends’ fun in the snow.

“I was devastated to miss it,” Saylor says. “I mean, I have two great choices. I love Homeland, and I love Atlanta. But still there is a feeling of missing things.”

Right now, in this booth at Fellini’s, Saylor is fully inhabiting her role as a real-life teenager. Someone suggests a game called “Who Knows Morgan Best?”

“Ooh, this is fun!” Saylor says.

The competition is stiff. Sophie Maschinot has known Saylor since fourth grade, and the others—Stone-Miller, John Speed, and Luke Wertz—have been her friends since ninth grade. They toss out some random bits of trivia about Saylor: She won’t eat pork because she had a pet pig named Olivia, her favorite food is pasta with salt and lemon (preferably in Italy), she has worn fake eyelashes, she doesn’t sleep late, and she loves Simon & Garfunkel. Now they’re ready to do battle.

1) Where was Morgan Saylor born?

They all get the right answer: Chicago, though she moved to Villa Rica when she was two years old and to Decatur when she was ten. During the summers she tried playing soccer but wasn’t any good, so she signed up for acting camps run by the Department of Recreation. “I remember pacing around the kitchen, memorizing a monologue, and I 
was just so excited,” Saylor says. “It was just fun to play pretend.”

She went on to earn the title role in OnStage Atlanta’s Alana, a children’s theater production about a young girl who pretends to be a dolphin, and played Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street. Then, in fourth grade, she relocated to Los Angeles for the summer, staying at the famed Oakwood Toluca Hills, an apartment complex inhabited primarily by aspiring young actors and divorced dads. Miley Cyrus stayed there once. So did Kirsten Dunst.

After dozens of auditions, Saylor landed only one job: a voice-over part as “young Meadow” in flashback scenes from two episodes of The Sopranos in 2006. But Saylor was undaunted, rehearsing the line “acting is my life” before meeting with a prospective agent. Her brother had lost plenty of ice hockey games and never quit, so her parents didn’t dissuade her.

At about eleven years old, Saylor went to an empty building near the Ace Hardware on Scott Boulevard and lined up with hundreds of other children to audition for local talent agent Joy Pervis. Saylor recited a thirty-second commercial, Pervis wrote something on a piece of paper, and then it was on to the next kid. Saylor got a callback and eventually signed with Pervis.

“What I immediately recognized in Morgan was her natural ability to deliver lines. She was so authentic and real,” says Pervis, who is credited with discovering Dakota Fanning and has represented Raven Symoné. “It was clear she was not interested in being famous. She just loved to act.”

Pervis helped Saylor book a radio commercial and a television ad, then some small roles on television and parts in films like 2009’s Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant with John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek, and 2010’s Father of Invention with Kevin Spacey.

Then Pervis emailed Saylor the script for Homeland. She auditioned in December of 2010 and was among the few girls invited for a callback a month later. Saylor was asked to read a scene from the pilot, where Dana’s mother catches her smoking pot. Saylor, playing up her character's insolence, kicked off her shoes. And she must have made the face.

2) When did Morgan find out she won the part on Homeland?

This is a toughie.

“Don’t you guys remember?” Saylor asks, pushing away her plate at Fellini’s.

“I don’t remember,” Stone-Miller says.

“I was standing out in front of the school,” Saylor says. “I didn’t have a cell phone then, so I borrowed someone’s and called my agent. Do you remember that, Luke?”

“Yeah, I remember when you didn’t have a phone,” he says.

Saylor remembers that day clearly, and that she felt excited, but cautiously so. A lot of scripts look good, and a lot of pilots get made, but not many are successful. She had no idea that Homeland would be a hit, and she didn’t want to be disappointed if it failed.

When she’s not filming, Saylor typically watches Homeland with Maschinot and Maschinot’s extended family. But most of Saylor’s other friends don’t watch. They don’t have Showtime, and really, the show resonates a lot more with their parents than with the kids. At school it’s the teachers who ask her about Sergeant Brody and mention the Emmy wins. Still, all four of Saylor’s best friends came to the set and worked as extras in the 
second-season episode where Dana and her then boyfriend—the vice president’s son, played by Timothée Chalamet—shake his Secret Service detail in a high-speed chase and end up committing a hit-and-run.

Chalamet hadn’t watched Homeland’s first season when he was cast as Finn Walden. And when the seventeen-year-old found out that his story arc would include a romance with Dana Brody, he assumed the actress playing her would be a homeschooled showbiz kid. Instead he encountered Saylor, who immediately peppered him with personal questions.

“Man, it was like a slap in the face to realize I was going to be spending the summer with a real teenager,” says Chalamet, who attends LaGuardia Arts high school (of Fame fame) in New York City. “It wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. This girl is real and has a normal life. It was both intimidating and refreshing. She was being raw and vulnerable. I knew I was going to have to work my tail off to keep up with this girl.”

After Saylor finished filming her scenes for the season’s finale, the two drove to Decatur to celebrate her eighteenth birthday with all of her friends.

“It’s not like teenagers are the same everywhere; it was sick to meet her friends,” he says. “When I first met her, she seemed very confident, but as I’ve gotten to know her, I can see she’s really shy. I asked her, ‘Why are you so shy around everyone? That first day you hit me with a trillion questions.’ But she said it was to build chemistry.”

3) Who is Morgan Saylor’s crush?

Her friends yell out names: Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. Oh, and Eddie Redmayne of My Week with Marilyn and the new Les Misérables.

“Yes! He has freckles and he’s English and just wonderful-looking,” Saylor says. “Once, he was talking to Damian [Lewis] and Eddie said, ‘That girl who plays your daughter on the show is really good.’ And I have the biggest crush on him!”

“What about that guy with the cigarette, on Shameless?” Maschinot says.

That’s Jeremy Allen White, who plays Lip Gallagher on the Showtime show.

“Ohhhhh,” Saylor sighs.

As it turns out, her next project is a film with another star of Shameless, Cameron Monaghan. Called Jamie Marks Is Dead, the movie is directed by Carter Smith and based on Christopher Barzak’s novel One for Sorrow. It’s about a murdered high schooler who comes back as a ghost. Saylor plays Gracie, the (ghost’s) love interest.

Saylor is dating someone right now, but she doesn’t like to talk about him, other than to say he’s not from Hollywood and that it can be difficult to explain her acting life to someone outside of show business.

The third season of Homeland starts shooting in June. Between now and then there’s spring break, prom, and high school graduation in May. Saylor is applying to Brown, Northwestern, the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and several other colleges, though she may defer any acceptances in order to do more movies.

“I read something and it gets me psyched. My palms sweat, I get so excited about the script,” she says. “I like making people feel things. Acting doesn’t seem like lying, but like storytelling.” Her friends will head to college in the fall, so she’ll likely leave Georgia then too, perhaps moving to New York.

“But Decatur will always be home,” she says.

4) What’s Morgan Saylor’s middle name?

“Frances!” Maschinot calls out. She’s considering getting the name inked on her foot, and Saylor wants Maschinot’s middle name (Dolores) on hers.

Saylor already has one tattoo, a quarter-sized anchor behind her left ear, similar to the large-scale anchor her twenty-year-old brother has on his forearm (because they’re “Saylors”—get it?). He’s a server at Decatur’s Brick Store Pub. Her mother works at outdoorsy retailer REI and does some bookkeeping. Her father does renovations for Starbucks. They’re divorced, and Saylor lives on her own.

Whenever she’s in town, she’s with her friends—at a Braves game or a movie, or checking out a band. They also sneak off to the special spots they’ve discovered in and around Atlanta, including an “inground trampoline” (no further details offered) and the off-limits Bellwood Quarry that will eventually become a 300-acre park located along Atlanta’s BeltLine.

Saylor still loves to rock climb, though she doesn’t get a chance to do it as much these days. “That’s what she’d do if she wasn’t an actress,” Stone-Miller says. “She’d be a rock climber.”

“I just love how the rock feels under my fingers,” Saylor says. “That’s a huge part of why I like doing it. I like how it feels in my arms. It isn’t as much about how high I can go.”

5) What makes Morgan Saylor the most self-conscious?

“Acting?” Speed says. “You won’t do it at school.”

“It’s true,” Maschinot says. “Oh, or compliments!”

“I’m getting better!” Saylor says, then hides behind her curtain of curls. “I’m self-conscious about a lot of things. But yeah, ‘compliments’ might be the right answer.”

That makes Maschinot the quiz winner, but the group pays her victory little mind. They’re focused more on picking the onions out of their salads. “Morgan doesn’t like to talk about her acting,” Wertz says.

When Rupert Friend joined the show as Peter Quinn, the mysterious CIA analyst, he asked Saylor whether she was recognized all the time and if the paparazzi chased her. He’s from Britain, where Homeland is an even bigger phenomenon because the show is aired on network television. Everyone can see it.

In Atlanta, though, Saylor is rarely recognized, despite the city’s growing reputation as the Hollywood of the South. “The other day someone said, ‘Congrats on the Golden Globe,’ and you said, ‘Yeah,’ and walked away,” Wertz says.

Saylor retreats further behind her hair. “I said it politely! I said, ‘Thank you, bye.’ I wasn’t rude.”

Once when she and her friends were in line for pretzels at the mall, a man said that Saylor looked remarkably like Dana Brody.

“Morgan said, ‘Yeah, I get that a lot,’” Stone-Miller says.

During a recent workout at the rock wall, a fellow climber made a similar remark. When Saylor admitted he was correct, the man laughed and walked away. Even then, she didn’t break out the Dana Brody Face.

“Everyone knows kids who are snotty, and I wouldn’t consider myself one of them, but it’s easy to understand where they’re coming from,” Saylor says. “I can express the brooding part of myself on-screen. It’s kind of fun to get to do the bratty things I really wouldn’t do. And then I get to go back to my regular life.”