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"The first time my sisters showed an interest in anything I was doing was when they found out I was working on the film," Smith, 27, tells PEOPLE. "They were like, 'Who are you playing?' I'm like, 'Tate.' They're like, 'Thank God! Don't screw it up.' So the pressure came from my sisters."
Working with costar Daisy Edgar-Jones, director Olivia Newman and executive producer Reese Witherspoon helped Smith feel more at ease. "I was in the most capable hands ever," he says. "So all that pressure went away."
Smith and Edgar-Jones, 24, battled the elements of Louisiana while filming.
"There was one time, I'm in the marsh — I'm taking samples — and the water is up to my chest," the actor recalls. "I have a radio in the boat so I can hear the wildlife wrangler and the coordinator speaking through the walkie-talkie and I hear, 'Hey Taylor, don't be too alarmed but there is a gator coming up to your right.' Then I see this giant floating log slowly floating by me and I'm like, 'Don't look it in the eyes.'"
Kya's (Edgar-Jones) shack also flooded multiple times after what Smith refers to as "crazy thunderstorms." Despite all that, Smith calls Louisiana "one of the most beautiful and serene places to film."
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It helps that Smith considers himself a nature lover who enjoys camping, fishing and hiking. In fact, the first time he hung out with Edgar-Jones, they went fishing.
"We had been there for three hours and I caught nothing," Smith admits. "The first time she cast out the line, she got a bite. That was the through line throughout the entire filming process. I was this big outdoorsman and she showed me."
Michele K Short/Columbia Pictures
The movie tells the story of Kya, who grew up in the marsh on the outskirts of Barkley Cove, North Carolina in the 1950s and '60s and stands trial for the murder of the town's golden boy.
"People were very small-minded, and it shows in that town where they make snap judgments on people without ever taking the time to get to know them," Smith says. "Tate loved her so much but even he fell to the pressures of society."
Smith admits that after reading Crawdads, "I was pretty emotionally distraught by the ending."
And now he looks forward to audiences taking that journey in theaters. "I was wondering throughout the entire book: Did she? Didn't she? And when I got to the end I was like, 'Wow,'" the Sharp Objects alum says. "I'm excited for other people to see how it ends."
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Where the Crawdads Sing is out now.