“I Run This” is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Mel Mitchell interview here.
Teyana Taylor and A.V. Rockwell found a unique chemistry with “A Thousand And One.” That may be because the film is a pivotal first for both of them. For Taylor, it’s her first starring role in a feature film. And it is Rockwell’s first directorial feature film.
Set in the ’90s and moving to the early aughts, Taylor plays Inez, a Harlem woman fresh out of prison who kidnaps her 6-year-old son, Terry, out of the foster care system. Yet, just as much as the mother-son duo is faced with growing pains, inequality and a rapidly gentrifying New York, they embody a familial bond that’s real, raw and full of love. The moments of beauty hit just as hard as the painful ones, and it appears critics agree, as the film won the Dramatic Grand Prize Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
As much as “A Thousand And One,” which hits theaters March 31, is a family drama, it’s also a love letter to the energy of an ever-changing New York.
For Taylor, originally from Harlem, Inez was a departure from the more comedic or sexy roles she’s played in films like “The Trap” or “Madea’s Big Happy Family.” Instead, it’s just “Teyana stripped down,” the actor told HuffPost. Taylor, who was dealing with postpartum depression and a few deaths when they were filming — on top of dealing with the pandemic — said playing Inez was one of the only times she didn’t have to be strong.
“I just would pour everything into her,” Taylor said. “Inez was the only time that I was able to actually be weak for once and then put away my cape, hang it up for a few hours a day, and just cry out loud and kick, scream, holler, just pour all of that raw emotion into Inez. And I think that that’s why it was never really a dull moment with Inez because every single emotion was so real.”
For Rockwell, a Queens native, her first feature-length film is personal on several levels.
“I really did want to tell a coming-of-age story,” the director told HuffPost. “And I wanted to tell a story that was about the time and the place and the people that got me here to where I’m at now, that part of that huge chunk of life that made me who I am today. Obviously, as I go on, I’m going to make so many movies, and I want to show all the different parts of me, but I was happy that I was able to honor my foundation in a very personal way.
For “I Run This,” Taylor and Rockwell discuss what it took to make “A Thousand And One,” the pain in seeing their home gentrified, and the lessons they’re walking away with.
HuffPost: Congratulations on “A Thousand and One.” A.V., I saw you mention that you weren’t quite sure if Teyana was going to play Inez initially. What made you reconsider Teyana for this role? And then Teyana, what made you go out for the role of Inez?
A.V. Rockwell: I think what made me reconsider her, or consider her in a serious way, was her stepping up. She read for the role like everyone else. And it wasn’t even the answer was no for me. I was just like, well, I don’t know what she can do. So I think she really did have to put herself on tape for me to even be open to the idea.
I just knew that I didn’t want to do anything that would be cliché, and casting her just because she was from Harlem would’ve been cliché. I think there’s so much more to a human being and to Teyana and to this character than to do it just for that reason. So I mean, I was so grateful that she did. And I think that one thing that nobody can take away from her is the very fact that, no, she really fought for this role and earned it through and through.
Obviously, all of it comes through her performance as well.
Teyana Taylor: And me, I’m always willing to put in the work. It is crazy that it wasn’t even a thing where it’s like, “You got to read, they already said your name.” [The opportunity to audition] came across my desk, and I immediately put myself on tape. I’ve always been that person. I don’t allow anything to fall in my lap. So before I even knew what anybody needed me to prove, I had a point to prove to myself. And I had a point to prove to the world because of things like this. I lost a lot of opportunities from people just not even willing to give me the chance based off of the little bit of work that I had done, which had always either been funny stuff or just being sexy or being a dancer. It was always stuff that wasn’t a challenge for people to say, “OK, well, show me something different.”
If you didn’t know me, you didn’t really know what I was capable of doing. But nobody ever really seen Teyana stripped down and just raw. And it was a role that I had always dreamed of. I would beg for those kinds of roles. And people like, “Oh yeah, that’s cute. All right, maybe next time.” Connecting with Inez in a way that made me put myself on tape without ever even reading the script, it was just something that was a match made in heaven. It was an energy, it was a connection that was just so raw.
And even just that day, I remember I had just started growing my haircut out, and my hair was kind of like a mess. I was super stripped down and had my own makeup, and I didn’t go to put on a brow. So I think that that also helped a lot, too, that I didn’t come on this tape as like, “Oh, I’m Teyana Taylor, look at me. I’m from Harlem,” and all that.
I came on there knowing who I was, and I really treated the audition as if it was mine to lose rather than just, “I hope I get this part.” It’s like, “Nah, it’s fine. If I lose, it’s because I lost that shit.” I was willing to put in the work.
And we felt that rawness. Not only from what you were able to put into and bring out of Inez but A.V., the way that the film is shot and the script is written. How important was it for you to tell A.V. this specific story of a gentrifying New York for your first full-length feature film? And Teyana, how important was it for you to tell this story as your first feature film in this starring role, being as raw as we’ve ever seen you?
Taylor: I think it was extremely important because I feel like we didn’t know each other from a can of paint, but we both had kind of the same heartbreak and the same heartache when it came to what was happening to New York City. Both our childhoods were kind of erased. So for a number of reasons, she wanted to tell the story. For another reason, I wanted to help bring her to life. It was because we both were aching, we were yearning for the same answers and just the same research and just trying to wonder why a lot of these things were happening. We were really, really young, so for her to approach this as an adult and do her research as an adult and for me to attack this character as an adult was also eye-opening.
And I think that we all learned so much just from the research that had to get done to even make this movie happen. And to really dive into Inez’s journey. It was a lot.
Rockwell: I think it was such a personal story. And I think for me, as somebody who is transitioning now into my career in feature-length filmmaking, I really did want to tell a coming-of-age story. And I wanted to tell a story that was about the time and the place and the people that got me here to where I’m at now, that part of that huge chunk of life that made me who I am today. Obviously, as I go on, I’m going to make so many movies, and I want to show all the different parts of me, but I was happy that I was able to honor my foundation in a very personal way.
But I think there was also an urgency that went far beyond me and my own journey as a human being. In the way that gentrification was reshaping New York and particularly pushing Black communities out of it, it felt like erasing our imprint and especially weighing the impact on neighborhoods like Harlem that mean so much not only to New Yorkers but to just the Black identity in general and our heritage. To me, it’s devastating, and it’s devastating to see communities that have fought over generations just to get any level of stability. When you think of neighborhoods like Harlem, back in the ’80s and transitioning into the period where the movie starts, we were overcoming a lot, and we had been through a lot. So to see us re-find our footing again and just to see another new obstacle come in, I’m like, that is the story of our experience. It isn’t just, oh, slavery and civil rights and then we’re here and complaining. It’s like, no. There’s always some new obstacle that each generation has to overcome. But I just felt like I wanted to not only acknowledge that but also give people tools, give people a level of self-awareness of this being our reality.
And then, obviously, I also wanted to just speak to what Black womanhood is in the midst of all this and the way we have to carry our communities, especially inner-city Black women, just to feel like nobody is thinking about us in return. And I think that I wanted to tell a story that celebrated us in a way and celebrated the women that have nurtured me in my upbringing in a way that I just hadn’t seen yet, and humanized them, but also presented the questions of who is fighting for us, who is rooting for us, and who is fully loving us in the same way that we do for everyone else?
A.V., was there a moment or a scene that you, in directing, felt like you just had to get right? Was there that scene that was that challenging or that you were especially passionate about?
Rockwell: I don’t know, maybe the last major blowout that Terry [portrayed by Will Catlett] and Inez have. It’s interesting because it’s a very long scene, that moment of conflict that they have. But it’s also a very simple scene. And I think that that was interesting for me because I felt like it was such a critical scene that we all had to get right. And I know that Teyana and Josiah [Inez’s son], they were particularly stressed about it, and I said, “Stop overthinking it,” but I had to make sure I wasn’t overthinking it, too.
And so, I think it was this scary thing about: What is the right way to capture it? And I did settle on capturing it in a very simple and straightforward way because so much of that scene, it really just needs to play out in the performances. And it really just needed to be about these two people who were just dying to find out: Do you love me? And did you ever love me? Despite what they have gone through and where they are in their journey by that point. So yeah, that was scary. But ultimately, I feel good about that.
Teyana, how much of your own journey through your motherhood, through your Harlem roots, and even the unfortunate deaths you were dealing with while filming did you pour into your performance? How did you pull from your different experiences to inform who Inez was and what you were going to bring out on screen?
Taylor: I think Inez was an outlet. I think Inez was therapy for me. I think dealing with the postpartum and dealing with different funerals during the lunch break, I just would pour everything into her. Inez was the only time that I was able to actually be weak for once and then put away my cape, hang it up for a few hours a day, and just cry out loud and kick, scream, holler, just pour all of that raw emotion into Inez. And I think that that’s why it was never really a dull moment with Inez because every single emotion was so real. It was almost like I felt every single pain and trauma that Inez felt, and she felt everything that I felt, and we just were just one soul split into two bodies, but into one body for the film.
It’s like I connected with her in so many different ways to be able to go on set and be praised for your moment of weakness, which reads beautifully in front of a lens. But in the outside world, your strength considers you as difficult, or your strength considers people to want to minimize you or to want to use that against you. It’s the craziest thing in the world as a Black woman because we deal with it. And we’re only allowed to be strong for others. When we’re strong for ourselves, it’s a problem. When we’re strong, I mean, being able to get in front of that lens and just let it all out, whatever secret or quiet battles, I don’t want to say secret, whatever quiet battles I was fighting, quiet pain or trauma I was fighting, I was able to release that through Inez.
And y’all were shooting through the pandemic, weren’t you?
Taylor: Yeah, everything was heavy. So every emotion was raw. If anything, it was a matter of really knowing when to dial back or so.
It felt so real. And I love how detail-oriented everything was, from the door knockers to literally even the dash being missing on the front door. Was there something that working on this film taught you about your creative processes that you plan to carry on to your next projects?
Taylor: I already started. It’s just living in whatever it is, grabbing whatever you need to grab to stay in that moment. I think because I had never got the opportunity before to play a role like that, even though it was a lot of emotion there, I feel like I learned how to navigate any other dramatic role going forward. It’s just what my process is, and realizing that I come from a world of music where it was actually hard for me to put my anger and go into the booth. That’s never been me. I have to be stable. Everything I need to be structured. I need to be in a happy space to get my work done, or I shut down.
So to now go into this acting world where it’s like, no, now really use that anger and that pain and that trauma and whatever, and put it into this character because this character is you. This character is your mother. This character is your aunt. This character is all these different women that you got to represent.
It’s one thing to go in a booth and sing, but it’s another thing to go in front of the lens and leave it all right there. And I think that that’s what I learned, and it’s helped me better navigate my emotions and how to attach everything. But you don’t even have to be going through it in the moment. You could be dealing with years of people not believing in you, years of feeling like you’re not enough. So now you got to go and grab and pull from that space and that time and put it toward this energy. So it’s taught me how to navigate my emotions and allow the things that I’ve held in and bottled up, just allowing my top to unscrew and explode through these characters.
Rockwell: I think I’ve grown so much across the board in making this movie. I think it challenged me on a number of levels, and it definitely made me stronger and tighter at my craft. And I think that the ways that I had to show up for this film and the way that I had to show up for myself because I think it pushed me in new ways, but it made me feel that much more limitless because I think in the way that it just fortified my level of mental strength and then my ability to just see outside of whatever storm is in front of me and just really being laser-focused and laser-sharp and maintaining a vision. I think that the fortitude that it gave me is something that I’ll definitely take with me moving forward.
And I think you have to be so strong to be a filmmaker in general and definitely a filmmaker who looks like me, as a woman, as a person of color, and I think that it definitely sharpened me in all the ways that I need to navigate what can potentially come at my way in general, in addition to just continue to just learn and grow from every new project that I’m doing as an artist. I think obviously I’ve grown tremendously creatively, and I’m so excited because of that. I’m so excited to take everything, all the ways that I grew, and I can just continue to master my craft through the making of this film. I’m excited to apply that as I continue to grow moving forward.