Taylour Paige Breaks Down Her Breakout Moment in 'Ma Rainey,' 'Boogie' and 'Zola' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Focus Features / A24 / Netflix
What does it feel like to break through? To have one of those moments actors dream of, where any number of her projects hit one after another and there's a sense that -- finally -- she's made it? Is it something an actor only realizes once it's passed and she's told by the press or her peers that she was, in fact, having a moment, or can you feel it happening, maybe only hopefully at first but then all at once?
Born and raised in Inglewood, California, Taylour Paige earned her first acting credit as a "Featured Dancer" in High School Musical 3. A guest spot here and a few seasons there followed, but the stars aligned at the end of 2018 when she booked Zola. In 2021, she is having her moment, with the consecutive releases of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Boogie, and soon, Zola.
"I hope I can infinitely break out," Paige tells ET over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. "That would be the goal. Like, I can break a ceiling and bridge the gap and I can be a beacon of possibility for people who look like me and people who don't think they can make it. I just hope I can shine a light on everything that's in all of us. It's a little bit of belief and a little bit of desire and a little bit of working hard and a little bit of humanity and a big part is spirit."
"I hope I can always break out," she reiterates, "and just when you thought you understood me or had me, here I am doing something else. Because I have so many things I want to do."
This is an anatomy of Paige's breakout in three acts:
I. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
In the summer of 2019, Paige was cast in director George C. Wolfe's adaptation of August Wilson's stage show as Dussie Mae, the girlfriend of Viola Davis' Ma who strikes up a fling with a member of her band (played by Chadwick Boseman). It was a set she will remember for the rest of her life.
"I remember I had this moment at the table read, like, 'This is my frequency now. Look at this table. Look at these souls. Wow. If this is any reflection of where I am and where I'm growing, I'm doing something right. Like, please use me as a channel in whatever story you need me to, angels, ancestors. It's a pretty immeasurable gift. It feels just divine. I still can't believe it.
"I'm so deeply in awe of every single person that made that movie. August Wilson and Chadwick. Like, frickin' Chadwick, you know? And Viola is such a chameleon. I learned from the clarity of her example. She always had questions. She always had insights. She's so interested, and she loves the work. There's a willingness and humility, but a power with her. If I can have a career that echoes the kind of integrity and humility that she does -- She's just an incredible soul, an incredible artist, one and the same, and she's as amazing if not more amazing than you can imagine."
That fall, she headed off to film chef-turned-filmmaker Eddie Huang's feature debut, about an Asian American basketball player from Queens who dreams of playing in the NBA. She plays his girlfriend, Eleanor. Coming off of playing a grown ass woman in 'Zola' and 'Ma Rainey,' 30-year-old Paige initially balked at playing a high schooler.
"When I first got the audition, I turned it down, because I was like, 'Guys, I'm not in high school.' But I'd auditioned for something else for the casting director and I didn't get it, but the audition was good, so she sent my tape to the director and they offered me the role. I had two days to decide if I would do it, because it came in on Friday night, they were shooting that Monday and I had to be on a plane the next day. And I was like, 'Listen, I've been 17 before. I'm going to do my best to bring the youth and awareness that I have.' I just tried to be as honest as I could with the lines and the story and how I could lend myself to it.
"Eddie was really open to my interpretation and what I wanted to do to make her feel real to me. It was important for me to just feel like New York was in my mouth. I decided that she's a Scorpio and created my own little backstory. I think this movie is about cultural empathy, and kids to me are a very big part of the world. These kids have real issues and traumas and stresses and things they think about. It just wasn't that out there for me. I am friends with these people. Or I was friends with these people. I've been these people, you know what I mean?"
The first film Paige shot -- back in 2018 -- will be the last to hit theaters. Based on the infamous 148-tweet Twitter thread by Aziah "Zola" Wells, she stars as the titular stripper on the craziest trip to Florida ever. The script for 'Zola' actually came to Paige at the same time she auditioned for 'Husters.'
"I did a tape for it. And I am a big believer in rejection is protection because I read the script and I have to be honest, I wasn't as inspired by it, but it did trigger me to ask my agent, 'Hey, whatever happened to that Zola script?' She was like, 'Actually, they got a new director and writer.' And I was like, 'That would have been interesting information!' Because the original script I read, it was inherently racist and sexist. Like, very much they took the tweets and just made up some B.S. So, by the time I got the new script, it was Janicza [Bravo] and Jeremy O. Harris, and they're just geniuses, so yeah.
"I learned so much. It's so nice to be in awe and inspired by the people you work around and feel like they illuminate what's already in you. I felt like Janicza did that for me and Riley Keough is I feel like the Meryl Streep of our generation. And Colman Domingo can do anything, he's just, like, a freaking force, and Nick Braun is a gentle, beautiful giant. I felt really lucky, happy to be alive and present. Zola has agency and knows who she is, and I felt like I had to shake off anything that was in opposition to that. I couldn't be apologizing anymore. I had to cut out the, 'Sorry! Sorry! I'm so sorry,' because Zola ain't playin' -- it's survival-- and step into my divine feminine, my woman, my body, my deserving to be here."
Paige now finds herself at the point in her career where new opportunities -- she just wrapped a film directed Lena Dunham -- come in tandem with a transition from actor to star. New demands on her life -- public interest in her relationship with boyfriend Jesse Williams, but also her past, her spirituality, her beliefs -- requires new boundaries. Already an actively conscious person, Paige doesn't have to police how much she gives of herself.
"I still save a lot for myself, but I think that living a life of service and creating a better world, I don't know. We all know how this is going to go," she says. "You have a good career and make some money, you have a house, you have some kids -- or not. But what are you leaving behind? What are you even doing it for? Are you having fun? Are you any good? Are you kind? Do you make people feel good? Do you make people feel like sh*t? I've been in a dark place before where it felt like there is no coming out of it. And to be swinging from one side to the other is just, like, I would like to leave it all and give it all."
"I want to live a life where, like, by the time I'm done and I take my last breath and I graduate to the next classroom, I've given it all and it can echo and inspire, but also you can feel I'm no different than you," Paige muses. "I have lessons and karma and all the bullsh*t and insecurities and 'I'm not good enough' and all that. We all have that little voice in us that's like, 'You ain't sh*t' and we all have that voice in us that says, 'Actually, you're pretty dope.' I hope that I can help generate the latter, because you are actually kind of dope."