After establishing herself as a multi-hyphenate entertainer, Teyana Taylor has entered her movie star era, thanks to her critically acclaimed performance in Sundance prize-winner “A…
After establishing herself as a multi-hyphenate entertainer, Teyana Taylor has entered her movie star era, thanks to her critically acclaimed performance in Sundance prize-winner “A Thousand and One.”
“This is that first, like ‘Take me serious role,’” Taylor told Variety of starring in the film, where she plays a woman named Inez, who kidnaps her six-year-old son from the foster care system and sets out to build a new life.
“I appreciate A.V. [Rockwell, the film’s writer-director] so much for believing in me and taking the chance on me, especially with something that is so meaningful to her,” Taylor added, sitting alongside her co-star Will Catlett and Rockwell when they visited the Variety Sundance Studio, presented by Audible to discuss the film.
“It was wonderful to dance with these beautiful women. I haven’t met such a beautiful director in my life,” Catlett added. “I think people gonna take a lot from this film — A.V. poured her heart out, Teyana poured her heart out, all the cast, and I’m excited for the world to experience it.”
Written and directed by Rockwell, in her feature directorial debut, “A Thousand and One” follows Inez and her son Terry as they build a new life together in a rapidly gentrifying mid-90s New York.
“I don’t take for granted, at all, what this means for me as a filmmaker, for any filmmaker,” Rockwell said of having the film debut in competition the festival. “I’m so grateful that everyone’s embracing it, because it’s not mine anymore. Now it’s the world’s.”
(To say the film’s being “embraced” might be an understatement, since it was awarded the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize on Friday, but this interview took place days before that development. Rockwell is just the third Black woman to win that prize.)
“I was just reconciling a lot of what I was feeling as I was seeing the city change,” Rockwell said, explaining how the premise came to be. “There’s actually like pretty cool parallels between New York, the rough and tough city that I knew growing up when it felt like there was so much vitality, and you see that in Inez, in Teyana.”
She continued: “The way I think of the spirit of the city, and the way that it kind of has lost that spirit makes me think of the character and definitely added to the fire what I was trying to create in writing her story.”
But it’s not just about Harlem or New York. Rockwell’s commentary is larger, reflecting and representing the effects of gentrification on Black America and other communities of color across the country, which she describes as “a devastating loss.”
“To me, gentrification was just a new villain,” Rockwell said.
Signing on to play Inez was Taylor’s first major move following her retirement from music and she describes it as “a leap of faith” and an opportunity to “show up for herself.”
“I got too dependent on people showing up for me because I showed up everybody else but [taking this role] was me stepping out and not being afraid of what was going to come at me,” Taylor explained. “So, this story, this character, this opportunity really, really means a lot.”
When Taylor read the script, she immediately recognized the character. “Inez is within all of us – our aunties, our mothers, our grandmothers,” she shared. “Her story is so raw, we wanted to make sure it was told in that way, where it stayed raw and stayed authentic.”
But to maintain that authenticity, Taylor had to tap into some deep and complex emotions. “Life kicked Inez’s ass,” she said. “And she walked right through it. It wasn’t an easy walk, but she walks right through it, and I feel like that’s life.”
In some ways, Taylor could relate. For example, as a mother of two herself, Taylor intimately understood the complexities of being a mom, but she also dipped back into her childhood, growing up with a single mother. “[Motherhood] is very, very hard, especially for a single working parent,” she said.
At the time of filming, Taylor had just given birth and was dealing with a few deaths in her family, so it was a deeply emotional time.
“A.V. just had me channel all of that emotion into Inez,” she recalled. “It was a hard walk but it was something that I got through. Both me and Inez were getting through something together and pushing each other through.”
“A Thousand and One” is produced by Sight Unseen’s Eddie Vaisman and Julia Lebedev; Hillman Grad’s Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani; and Makeready’s Brad Weston. Sight Unseen’s Oren Moverman is executive producing alongside Rachel Jacobs. The film, distributed by Focus Features, is set for theatrical release on March 31.
“It was so beautiful and so stunning,” Waithe said of the project, which was ultimately released by Fox Searchlight. “We gave her her first TV directing gig on ‘Boomerang,’ and she came in and did a fantastic job.”
Thus, it was only natural that Hillman Grad would continue their support once it was time for Rockwell to make her feature directorial debut, riding the wave as they had with Justin SImien (Waithe’s partner on “Dear White People”) and Radha Blank (with “The Forty-Year Old Version”).
“A.V. is just such a special filmmaker with such a special vision,” Waithe said, also touting Taylor and Catlett’s performances. “It was a journey when it’s your first film.”
She continued: “It’s a journey I know well. But it’s one that I don’t take lightly because [the filmmakers are] really putting their trust in you that you’re going to really be fair, you’re going to listen and you’re going to step up when you have to and give them space and room when you need to as well.”
That’s the key to being a successful producer, Waithe noted.
“I don’t want to tell you how to make your movie. I can support you while you make your vision come true, because ultimately you got to stand by your work,” she explained. “It’s about being supportive but also given enough space for her to fly. And I think we were able to do that.”