Why the timing was right for Teyana Taylor to take on a gritty drama

In writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s hauntingly powerful, Harlem-set family drama “A Thousand and One,” R&B star-turned-actress Teyana Taylor plays Inez de la Paz, a former convict — and force of nature — who kidnaps her 6-year-old son, Terry, from the foster care system to raise him herself. Although it took Taylor more than a decade of film and TV appearances in such lighter fare as “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” “Coming 2 America” and “Miracles Across 125th Street” before landing her first major dramatic lead, she says the timing was simply right.

“If [this role] happened right away, I just don’t feel you would have seen this version of Inez from me,” Taylor recently told The Envelope. “Inez came through some things, and my character and myself had been through some things. By the time I got to [play] Inez, I knew that I had a point to prove.”

The reviews indicate she has more than proved her point, along with nominations for a Gotham Independent Film Award and an Independent Spirit Award, plus an award from the National Board of Review for breakthrough performance.

The warm, lively Taylor had much more to say about her career-shifting part during a freewheeling Zoom call from her Miami home.

You’re no stranger to receiving attention for your work, but the acclaim for playing Inez must feel different. What’s it been like this past year?

Oh, my God, it feels amazing … especially when you’re coming from an industry [the music business] where it’s more of a popularity contest than it is an actual talent or skill situation. With acting, when you tap into a role, people feel that. It has nothing to do with who you are or how many followers you have. [Praise for acting] is all kind of new to me, so I’m so grateful.

A woman leans against a car parked on a gritty street in a scene from "A Thousand and One."

Teyana Taylor stars as a woman who kidnaps her son out of foster care to raise him herself in “A Thousand and One.”

(Aaron Ricketts / Focus Features)

How did you make the segue around 2010 from musical artist to actor?

Honestly, I’ve always been a character, so even coming into the music scene … I just always wanted a narrative, always wanted to be a character. [Back then] there just weren’t a lot of narrative-based videos, so I had to take matters into my own hands and started directing my own videos. Once I had that power, I started to make them more movie-like. Acting was like a natural next step. I was excited to step outside of me, because, you know, a lot of singers or rappers that become actors, sometimes it’s hard to separate them.

Most of your earlier acting was in comedic or more glamorous roles. What was your reaction when you learned about the part of Inez?

When the role came across my desk, well, first [like Inez] I’m from Harlem, so that was a good sign. Also, reading the script, I realized that Inez was like so many of the women in my life, including my own mom — including me as a mom. Inez is so many of us women as mothers in general, even if it’s not the same exact story. So, I was emotionally attached from the start.

Your character and the film are so vivid and intense. What was your emotional dynamic like over the weeks of shooting?

It was crazy, because I was dealing with postpartum depression — I just had my baby six months before. And then it was my first time spending that much time in Harlem, in my hometown, in a long time, and to see how different it was. Also, I lost a lot of childhood friends [around that time]. I was going to funerals during my lunch break. So every emotion, every tear, everything you see on Inez was real-life stuff. I think doing the role was therapeutic, because for once I was able to just be vulnerable and weak. I come from having to be strong. All the women in my life have had to be strong.

Did you find you took the role home with you each night?

When I got home, it was with the understanding that I was bruised up now, but I had to “put my cape back on” and be the perfect mom, the perfect wife, the hero. There were a lot of times when everyone was asleep, everybody was full and fed, and I would just bawl crying. And I would tell myself, let me take that image to set and let it out there. Let it out in a way that would be seen and heard and applauded.

Who are some of your acting influences? Whose career would you like to emulate?

I’m not saying that I’m even half as good as Angela [Bassett] and Viola [Davis] and Mo’Nique, but they’re what I aspire to be. They played a big part in me being able to tap into this role. I want to give an honorary mention to Julia Roberts, too. I love me some Julia Roberts.

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