“Intentional” is a word that comes up quite a bit when talking to Teyana Taylor about “A Thousand and One,” the feature debut by writer-director A.V. Rockwell in which the Harlem-native plays Inez, a woman who kidnaps her son from the foster care system in an attempt for them both to have a fresh start in a rapidly changing New York City.
The opportunity to star in the Focus Features release came at a major turning point in Taylor’s career, when she had just had her second child, was battling postpartum depression, and “was in a space where I felt like the people that I love most were not showing up for me, especially the people that’s supposed to make sure I have what I need,” Taylor said to IndieWire over Zoom.
Coming off the release of her third R&B LP “The Album” in 2020, not feeling any support from her record label Def Jam, Taylor says she locked herself in a room one day, and “I made an announcement that I was retiring from music, and that I wanted to focus on other things that I loved just as much,” she said. “I hate when people try and box me into one thing. So it was time to take charge and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ [Music] can wait.”
It was a leap of faith, but Taylor trusted her heart and her gut. “I want to say not even a month later, I get this script across my desk,” she said. “It was just something that drew me to this that I was like, ‘This is the one.’ This is going to be the one that makes it. I started talking as if the role was already offered to me.” The multi-hyphenate had already done plenty of acting in films like “Coming 2 America” and “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” and popular shows like “Star” and “Hit the Floor,” but said she felt like “I always wanted to be a part of something that I can show my range. I wanted my moment for people to take me seriously. I didn’t want to be the sexy girl anymore.”
Rockwell really made Taylor work hard in the auditions to play Inez, having previously told IndieWire “I would have loved to just street cast the role.” But the current Independent Spirit Award nominee for Best Lead Performance said her choice to retire from music, and focus on her acting career made her feel like “nothing can stop me. Nothing can get in the way of what I’m setting my intentions on.”
Taylor added, “I don’t think it would’ve come to me had I not made this very big scary decision to take this risk to [that], because now my grind is different. My mentality is different. Now it’s time to lock in. And I don’t think that I would’ve been the Inez that I am in this movie if everything had gone my way when I wanted it to go my way. So I realized this has been a patience game, and that’s the game that God’s played, the patient game, because he already knows what’s written for you.”
Even more than just allowing her to challenge herself as a performer, playing Inez in “A Thousand and One” “was really eye-opening and really healing for a lot of my childhood trauma,” said Taylor. Even before she was a mother, the performer who has been in the public eye since she was a teenager could feel how being perceived as a strong Black woman often meant people not being compelled to show up for her. “They feel like you don’t need help. They feel like you have it all and you know it all. So it’s less compassion, less empathy, less people putting themselves in your shoes,” said Taylor. “So being a strong woman and being in survivor mode, you are programmed to figure it out on your own. Because at this point, it’s like beating a dead horse trying to tell someone to see you.”
Playing a single mother on screen allowed her to exhibit a level of vulnerability that Taylor felt she could not access in her personal life. “I really use these scenes as therapy. I felt like getting on set and being Inez was my moment to finally be able to just take off my cape from being the perfect everything, and just finally having a moment of weakness and that moment of weakness turned into something so beautiful. For the first time, my weakness is being praised,” she said.
When it comes to the moments in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner that she’s most proud of, Taylor first mentions the earth-shattering ending of “A Thousand and One,” where Inez and her son Terry (Josiah Cross) put all their feelings and truths out on the table. “I remember certain takes where I would just be full blown crying and [Rockwell] would be like, ‘All right, now Teyana, let’s dial back.’ And I remember never really understanding. I’m like, ‘This is my Viola Davis moment, baby. I need the snot and everything. Why y’all not using my tear takes?,’’’ she said with a laugh. “But to understand Inez was to understand that it’s always but so much Inez is going to give you, because she’s always in survival mode and nobody’s ever shown up for her. So how they sequenced that scene was perfect. The method to that madness was perfect. Because I have more takes that were more cold, no crying at all than I have takes that’s full-blown selling it. But understanding that being too cold was not Inez or being overly emotional was not Inez. So now I have to find the happy medium into all of these things.”
It was an incredibly difficult scene to pull off, but Taylor previously explained to IndieWire that she and Rockwell had worked together to develop a technique where they associated colors with the different emotions her character was feeling as she said each bit of dialogue.
“The color red for Inez meant that she was in an angry space,” she said. “I had big giant poster boards with the words on it, and then certain lines or certain emotions, I color coordinated, so I would go under the line or a blue marker or the red marker or the pink marker, just to know, ‘Ok, cool. I’m about to really go into a space where I need to really turn it red right here. No matter what tears are coming out of my eyes.’ Or ‘Now the color’s blue, which is just water, and just like all of my emotion, this is the part where now I get to just let it out and just cry.’”
A short yet poignant scene where Inez eats a cup of Oodles of Noodles while watching an episode of a trashy 90s talk show, oscillating between laughter and tears also stands out as a moment that finally allowed Taylor to showcase her range, and how she could channel some of the heartbreak she was feeling around the time of production into Inez. “That was another big layering moment to have to laugh through my cry and vice versa. And I received a really, really heartbreaking phone call right before [Rockwell] yelled action. And already that week I had been, in less than two weeks, to two different funerals during my lunch break from just childhood friends that had passed on in Harlem. And I was still dealing with postpartum depression. I was six months postpartum. So it was a lot,” she said. “So those two scenes I love the most, but the whole movie, every single moment was cherishable. Every single moment there was something that was happening. I suffered from a lot of loss.”
Taylor could see just as much of herself in Terry as she did in Inez, so the experience of being on the outside looking in on raising an NYC teenager made her “an even better daughter, even better niece, even better granddaughter, even better mom. Because it also made me feel like I wasn’t bugging. I’m like, ‘Yes, we go above and beyond. We would do anything for our kids.’ So it was really healing in a lot of ways,” she said. Before, she struggled with her mother being a workaholic, and not being as present during her childhood, but now she could better empathize, saying to herself “Oh, wow, she was really working her ass off trying to make ends meet, and making things happen to make sure I have the career and the grace and the head on my shoulder that I have now.”
Though it may have put her through the wringer, Taylor is nothing but grateful for the experience of starring in “A Thousand and One.” “This is doing everything that I prayed for, everything that I wanted it to do, everything that I knew intentionally,” she said. “People see me now. They’re showing up for me now. They’re appreciating me now, and it’s from what I was able to put on screen. It had nothing to do with the popularity, had nothing to do with any of those things. Coming from music, it’s a popularity contest. But in acting it’s a different level of appreciation because it’s either you got it or you don’t. They acknowledge the work, not the person, not the personality or the popularity of this personality. What they saw on that screen was Inez.”
Having been nominated for a Gotham Award, and honored with the Breakthrough Actress Award (Film) at the Critics Choice Celebration of Cinema and Television event in December, Taylor finds just the prospect of being considered for more award nominations exciting. “Being brought up in these conversations, and even just seeing things that I wasn’t nominated for, and people fighting for me—’Teyana was snubbed’— I’m like, ‘I’m in the conversation. You have to understand it’s a different level of appreciation and gratefulness. So I’m not even looking at certain stuff like ‘How come I wasn’t awarded?,’” she said.
“Being a part of the conversation is all I ever really wanted. Of course, we all want to win, but I think that we all miss out on the fact that we’re even in the conversation. The conversation is the most important to me,” said Taylor. “It’s all still a win, even the snub talk, I love that the most. Because it’s people in here that’s like, ‘I would love to see Teyana. I hope they keep Teyana in mind when it’s time for award season, when it is time for Oscars.’”
As for what’s next for Taylor outside of awards season, the artist is constantly cooking up ideas for more creative direction work with her production company The Aunties. And as an actress, “I’m even in a space where I’m making sure the roles that I take are roles that are going to allow me to keep pushing my range and to continue to work toward being a better version of everything than I am. So, for me, I don’t want to take anything that’s too easy. I want to take on the challenge and further myself,” said the star of the upcoming biblical dramedy “The Book of Clarence,” out January 12.
This creative rebirth has even caused Taylor to consider a return to music, feeling more assured in her retirement announcement being one of the best decisions she made as an artist. “If I didn’t lock myself in that room and do that, I would’ve continued to have people back me in a corner and say all the things I shouldn’t do or why I shouldn’t do it,” she said, revealing that labels have started new conversations with her, with the intentions to do right by her this time. “What if I would’ve stayed? We would’ve never known. They would’ve never known what it felt like to lose me, or felt like to miss me, or felt like to say, ‘Oh, wow, she took a leap and didn’t drown. She took a leap, and she’s literally walking on water.’”
“A Thousand and One” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.