Teyana Taylor went into A Thousand and One with something to prove: 'I feel like this was written for me'
In A Thousand and One, singer/dancer/all-around baddie Teyana Taylor delivers an unforgettable performance as Inez de la Paz, a single mother who kidnaps her son Terry from foster care and struggles to give him all the opportunities she didn't get in life, amid a changing and gentrifying New York.
This film isn't Taylor's first debut — she had a small cameo in Coming 2 America and other, rather forgettable, fare — but in her highest-profile role to date, she brings fire, intensity, and raw honesty to her performance, which audiences first saw in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the Grandy Jury Prize. Taylor's work will surprise anyone who knows her simply as that chick with the sick abs from the Kanye "Fade" video.
Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features Teyana Taylor in 'A Thousand and One'
"I was instantly just in connection with her. There was a connection there, there was an energy there," Taylor tells EW of Inez. "I've met her before and I've seen her before. I've met her through my mom, I've met her through my aunts. I've met her through a lot of the other women in my life. Including just seeing some of her in myself. And it was something that I felt like I wanted to be a part of and that was so beautiful."
She adds, "I almost feel like this s--- was written for me."
The movie is A.V. Rockwell's feature directorial debut, from a script she started writing in 2018. It took her about two years to finish it — and another three years later it's now in theaters. More than just "a love letter to Black mothers," Rockwell describes A Thousand and One also as "a farewell to New York" — covering a 12-year period in the life of the city, from the racial profiling of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's New York to the stop-and-frisk policy under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the steady gentrification of its traditionally Black, and traditionally poor, neighborhoods.
Maya Iman 'A Thousand and One' writer/director A.V. Rockwell
Having seen the city change firsthand, Rockwell wanted to speak to that and "the way that I felt like the Black community was being targeted."
"I think for our community, which has been fighting for so long just for a level of stability and prosperity in this country, I think neighborhoods like Harlem mean not only so much to New Yorkers but just to Black history and culture, period," Rockwell tells EW. "The idea that losing that piece of Black identity and heritage to gentrification just seemed devastating."
Before she had even read the entire script, Taylor says she stopped everything she was doing to self-tape an audition for the role. She knew she wanted to be a part of telling this story, and she knew this was her opportunity to show what she's got.
Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock 'A Thousand and One" star Teyana Taylor, writer/director A.V. Rockwell, and star Will Catlett at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
"Inez is just something that I felt and I knew that I had a point to prove," she explains. "So I wasn't going to go in and do anything less than be great. I didn't go in nervous or feeling like, 'Damn, I don't have what it takes.' I knew I had what it took, and I knew that I wanted to do the work, and I knew that I was willing to put in the work."
Taylor continues, "So I went in it with that mentality. I went into it to win the Super Bowl. You know what I'm saying? I went into it to be my quarterback's wide receiver. I went into it for [Rockwell] to trust me and to know that she chose the best person."
For her part, the writer-director recalls Taylor standing "out as a gem" and feeling the 32-year-old New York native's connection to the material.
"I was looking for somebody that had the pedigree, the talent, and the depth to take on what would be a really challenging role, but I [also] felt the truthfulness in her," Rockwell says. "As she was reading it, I could tell that, 'Okay, she knows this woman or she's been this woman at some point in her life, so she connects from a real place, a real position of empathy.' Versus somebody who doesn't relate, because this is not every Black woman's experience. And so she wouldn't come off performative, as if she was looking down at this person. And that was really important."
Focus Features Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in 'A Thousand and One'
A Thousand and One, co-produced by Emmy winner Lena Waithe, invites comparisons, favorably, to Moonlight and Precious: the former in how it divides the story into three acts, casting three different actors in the part of Inez's son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross) as he comes of age; the latter for Taylor's performance, which has shades of Mo'Nique's mesmerizing, Oscar-winning turn.
But while Mo'Nique's Mary Johnston is a portrait of a cruelly wounded woman inflicting further harm onto her child, Taylor's Inez de la Paz is fighting to prevent her wounds from dictating Terry's life trajectory, a reversal rather than a prolonging of generational trauma. She's tough, she loves hard, but through it all, she wonders — much like Mary Johnston — who's there to love her? Who's there to hold her down?
Will Catlett plays Lucky, Inez's on-again, off-again lover and eventual husband. While A Thousand and One rests squarely on Taylor's shoulders, Catlett provides an intriguing counterbalance. He initially resists becoming a father figure to Terry but forges a beautiful bond with the young boy. And while he constantly cheats on Inez, she finds in him the anchor her life needs in order to be the woman and the mother she wants to be.
Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features Aaron Kingsley Adetola and Will Catlett in 'A Thousand and One'
A Thousand and One highlights a unique story about motherly love, as well as Black motherhood and Black women, whose portrayals of strength in the media often belie their own complexities — and the toll that strength requires.
"I really wanted to honor the mothers and just the nurturing community of women and matriarchs that I felt like had often been misunderstood in society and overlooked, not celebrated," Rockwell says. "I wanted to celebrate them and honor them. So I felt like this movie was my love letter to them."
And yet, it's not a wholly uplifting picture, either. Instead, Rockwell makes space for a character who is complex and dynamic, who doesn't always do the right thing, but whose heart is in the right place.
"In the casting room, I was looking for somebody who felt like one of one," Rockwell recalls. "I was really looking for somebody that gave me that sense of individuality and charisma and vitality that makes [Black women] unique and special as a group. And I felt that in Teyana."
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