“This goes beyond scholarship. This is a lived life for me,” said Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor of playing journalist Isabel Wilkerson in “Origin,” Ava DuVernay’s latest film that both brings the ideas from Pulitzer Prize winner’s 2020 book “Caste,” and the behind the scenes hardships Wilkerson faced while writing it, to movie theaters nationwide on January 19.
Speaking to IndieWire over Zoom, Ellis-Taylor used a moment over the holidays in her native Mississippi to describe the ways in which she challenges the pillars of caste Wilkerson writes about in her book, like terror and cruelty, in her everyday life. “I’ll put it like this: I wanted some catfish,” said the Oscar-nominated “King Richard” actress. However, upon entering the Hattiesburg establishment best known for the southern delicacy, she noticed the state flag on display was the pre-2020 one that still had the Confederate flag incorporated into its design.
Going up to the counter, she recalled saying to the cashier, “Mississippi retired this flag. Why is that flag still there?” She continued, “The cashier just tried to evade any culpability. I said, ‘You have people in this restaurant now who are Black, who are eating your food, who are working in this restaurant, and you have the flag of the Confederacy, the flag of the Ku Klux Klan on your walls.’ And sitting under the flag were two Black men eating, so I got up out of there and I had to get catfish from somewhere else.”
The moment was not far off from many of the scenes in “Origin,” in which Ellis-Taylor embodies Wilkerson pursuing challenging conversations with people from all different countries and backgrounds, and various positions in her theoretical global caste, to find the ways in which we’re all connected, and the origins of our discontent. “Ms. Wilkerson’s work particularly speaks to my life, it speaks to my experience, it speaks to the themes that haunt me and motivate me to get up in the morning. To continue to fight,” said Ellis-Taylor.
Below, the “Origin” star talks about all the craft that went into depicting Wilkerson’s journey, and the ongoing push to make sure people give the film a chance.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: Did it feel like your career changed after your “King Richard” experience? Reading your other interviews, it was a bit surprising to read you “didn’t think I had a shot in hell” of playing Isabel Wilkerson in “Origin,” even though you’d already worked with Ava DuVernay on “When They See Us.” Did the Oscar nomination not help with offers for significant roles?
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: A couple things came to me, some things that I thought were exciting and interesting. I don’t like telling people things because I don’t want to jinx anything, but we’ve done it, so an adaptation of “Nickel Boys” that was written by Colson Whitehead, RaMell Ross adapted it and directed it, that came my way. That happened.
But to be honest with you, most of that was maybe even before the Oscar nomination. It was all happening at the same time really. I don’t remember. But I never take for granted that a director is going to work with me. And I didn’t take for granted that she would want to hire me for this. I don’t know who she was thinking about, who she had imagined playing Isabel, but I knew that I wanted to insert myself into her imagination, and I did everything that I could in order to do that. I sent a picture of myself trying to look like Ms. Wilkerson. I’m twice her size, so God bless me. But I did all the things to just try to convey to Ava that I’m a possibility.
Do you find the character in your costumes? You mention trying to look like Wilkerson to secure the role. And in the film itself, part of her power comes from what she’s wearing. She often looks incredibly chic, whether it’s in a red gown at an NYC gala, or light outerwear for a reporting trip all the way in India.
Right? Thank you for asking me this because it gives me an opportunity to say this: I worked with an incredible crew and team of women artisans on “Origin,” from our makeup department head, LaLette Littlejohn, to Kim Kimble, who made those glorious wigs for me, to Ashunta Sheriff, who personally did my makeup every day. And Dominique Dawson, who was our costume designer and who made those dresses that you mentioned happen. And not enough is said about the work of hair and makeup, costumes. Not enough is said. And the reason why is because it’s women’s work. Let’s just be clear. It’s women’s work. You can have a man that comes in, does a song, does this and dah, dah, dah, dah. And not disparaging their jobs, they’re important too. But the work of these women, the work of LaLette Littlejohn, the work of Dominique Dawson, the work of Ashunta Sheriff, the work of Kim Kimble is in every frame of this movie. You don’t see me, you don’t see any other character without seeing their work.
It should be honored, it should be recognized and praised, so thank you for asking that question. But yes, the thing about Ms. Wilkerson is there’s nothing that presents that’s particularly dramatic about her. And it’s really the same way with Miss Oracene in “King Richard,” just very reserved, subtle, nuanced personas. There’s nothing necessarily that I can cling to. The way they walk, the way they talk. I just have to hold a lot of things in. I felt a lot of times I wasn’t doing anything. But having that wig, having those great, elegant dresses, I could put those on and just say the words.
As you step into the lead of this huge scale project, it was nice to see you joined by some fantastic supporting performances from actors like Niecy Nash-Betts and Audra Macdonald. Knowing what it’s like on the other side, having been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, how was it to be in these scenes where you are the lead, but still tee up others to really shine?
It’s interesting because in those scenes I’m the supporting actor. They take control of the scene, and control the tenor of the scene, and I’m just asking the questions. And both of those women, so far as acting is concerned, are glorious. What makes them glorious for me, as a scene partner, is they operate in truth. They’re not performers. I could just sit down with Audra, I could sit down with Niecy Nash-Betts, and just have a conversation. In that kind of context you can just breathe. It feels so good because there’s no muscle in it. You don’t have to pretend, it just feels like you’re spending time with someone that you respect and care for.
This film can be harrowing, but there was an aspect of it that seemed very cool. We’re seeing this woman travel the world and really challenge herself intellectually. Were you able to find those moments of joy in it, or was it always walking around with the specter of the hardships she goes through at that time?
It was all a joy. It was all a joy. If I felt that there were times where it was leaning into just emotion, I would say to Ava, “I can’t. Please stop. I have to stop here.” Because that felt dishonest to me. She goes through so much, losing all these people in a small amount of time. It could just be a party of tears. And I really would talk to Ava all the time about “I never want to be indulgent here.” I always want to make sure that, yes, I’m grieving, but that I am being specific about that expression.
Because grief ain’t always crying. It is a response to, but it is not always an expression of. I was really trying to be as aware of that as possible. And I was really having a good time. When a script is dull and boring, that’s when it’s trash. I don’t know how else to say it. That’s when you’re like, “Oh my God, do I have to?” But it was a joy to embody the brilliance of this woman, even though I’m pretending. I could never ever reach the heights of her intelligence, her intellect, her scholarship. But it was fun to pretend. It was great fun. I have no complaints. I had joy every day.
Well, you’re also playing someone who’s doing work that’s really fulfilling to her, so there is a positive aspect to it, even though she’s navigating some really hard times.
Yes. It’s funny, you figure out stuff way after the fact, right? That this book “Caste,” for me, was a love letter to the people that she lost. Someone said in one of the panels the other night how grief is this incredible connective tissue for all of us because we all have experienced it. Despite our differences, despite our divisions, someone at some point will be on a mourning bench. We will all be there and that is what binds us. I just saw it as a love letter to [her cousin] Marion, a love letter to [her husband] Brett, a love letter to my mother, to [her mother] Ruby. The scholarship felt like an expression of my love stories.
I remember your Oscar campaign for “King Richard” being a slow burn, where people were not considering you for Best Supporting Actress until more and more people saw the film. With “Origin,” and it premiering later in the schedule at the Venice Film Festival, and then later in the schedule at TIFF, it felt like many did not get the opportunity to see the film till later in the year, and we’re only now hearing the film community really tout it. What has it felt like for you taking this out into the world? Has it been another slow burn of more and more voices day by day telling you the film moved them?
Let me tell you something, I’m so tired of this slow burn. Listen, I know you all have wildfires out here, and I’m not trying to play with my karma or anything like that, or jinx anything. Can it stop burning slowly and just catch fire? And I say that we are a small film with a big heart. Indie production. Ava DuVernay shot this film in 37 days. It’s in three countries. And the way that she did it, she had hundreds of German actors in the actual square in Berlin where those book burnings happened. She shot that scene in the middle of the night, those books were really burning.
Come on. Let’s just take a second and acknowledge someone who does something like that, because folks can do the easy thing and she never does the easy thing. And the reason why she had her actors out there in that cold all night long, and I was out there the next night in the cold, was because she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her camera positioned in a place to see these brilliant actors have a real experience. And I applaud that. I just don’t think that she’s acknowledged and given the honor that she deserves for what she does. Yeah, I want people to come to this yesterday.
Yesterday. And I’ve got to say, before Christmas, it just felt like, Why? But now, since I’ve been back, we’ve had some events, and they’ve been really well attended, and people have some really positive things to say. I’m just hoping that people will continue to talk about it because you talk about triumphant films, the triumph of this film is the engagement— the conversations that happen as a result of people seeing it. It’s not one of those films that you consume and go home. You want people to see it and talk about it because of the themes in it. I know that Ava wanted this, I’m sure Ms. Wilkerson wanted it. She wanted it to be something that this country wrestles with.
If we don’t do that, I’m going to be bummed out. I’m working my ass off every day to try to make that happen. Yesterday I was in front of AMC Century City passing out flyers, telling people. And it’s funny, there’s a big poster of me, of “Origin,” in front of the Century City theater, and I’m standing under it, “Come see this movie. Hey, ma’am! Oh, you don’t want to— OK, that’s fine. Just come see it.” And I had a mask on, nobody knows who I am, but I’m like, “Yeah, that poster right there. Come see this movie.” And if I have time today, I’m going to go to another theater or go back to Century City and do the same thing.
Those who come by can currently see you in “The Color Purple,” you have “Origin” going wide on January 19, you mentioned “Nickel Boys” is in the can, and then I also saw that there’s “The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat” adaptation coming soon. Are you looking forward to the rest of 2024, having all these interesting projects to promote?
Yeah, I gotta take it one day at a time, because you presume things and then you get disappointed. And I think that we thought that the path with “Origin” was going to be much easier and it is not turning out that way. We are having to work harder and harder and harder, and I’m going to continue that until the 19th. And so I don’t have time to think about other things.
You’re focused, you’ve got flyers to hand out. You’re ready to go.
I’m “Origin” all day, every day.
A Neon release, “Origin” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 19.