Teyana Taylor is ready to be taken seriously as an actor — which is good because the dancer/singer-turned-screen star gives a seriously profound, potent performance in the Sundance-winning drama A Thousand and One.
Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, the film stars Taylor as a recently paroled hairdresser who kidnaps her 6-year-old son from foster care as they start a new life together in quickly gentrifying turn-of-century New York City. While three different actors play young Terry as he ages, Moonlight-style, Taylor’s Inez is in nearly every scene of the heart-wrenching drama.
“I was ready to take it on cause it was something that I always wanted [after] all the other roles that I’ve done,” says Taylor, 32, who’s had smaller parts in Madea’s Big Happy Family (2011), The Breaks (2016), Star (2017-2018) and Coming 2 America (2021). “I always wanted to just be taken more serious, you know what I’m saying? I feel like this put me in a position for a person to never second guess when they hear my name. That I always used to feel like [it hurt] me, [people] within the industry not really taking me serious because they didn’t really know what I could do.
“This role is something that I prayed for, something I was willing to work for. It was something I was willing to fight for. And that’s exactly what I did.”
As much of an opportunity as it was for Taylor, anyone who saw Coming 2 America knows her acting talents weren’t exactly put to the test opposite Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes and company. She had few lines as Bopoto Izzi, though she did perform the Prince track “Get Off” in one especially memorable sequence.
“It’s a legendary movie,” she says of Amazon’s sequel to 1988’s Coming to America. “It was something that I wanted to be a part of, but it was definitely the last bit of ‘Not too much on her. Teyana’s the dancing girl, she’s the hot girl.’ You know what I’m saying? I knew that that would definitely be one of my last roles in that lane. And I knew from there that I wanted to be taken more serious and I did not want to get stuck in the box… But I’m grateful for every role I’ve ever gotten. Cause it’s led us up to this point.”
Rockwell admits she was among the second-guessers when Taylor’s name came up for A Thousand and One, even though the “We Got Love” singer shared the same Harlem background (and accent) as Inez.
“It was hard for me to even consider it because I didn’t really know what her range was as an actress, and I hadn’t seen much examples of that,” says the director, who makes her feature film debut with A Thousand and One. “And so I really just had to anchor myself on, on who I could see and did have access to, and that was all the women that were auditioning and reading for the role. So I’m really grateful that she did make the decision to join that group of women. And by the time I got to her tape I had seen such a volume of women, and I had such a specific sense of what I wanted, she really stood out beautifully. She stood out like a gem.”
As a parent of two children herself with husband and former NBA star Iman Shumpert, Taylor admits the subject matter of a mother struggling to make a better life for her child hit close to home.
“It was definitely emotional,” she says. “I was actually six months postpartum when we started working on A Thousand and One. So I was dealing with literal postpartum depression. And in the midst of dealing with postpartum depression, I lost a lot of my childhood friends. [I was] back home to film and then come to find out that a lot of [my] childhood has been erased. That was a lot, emotionally.
“That made Inez very therapeutic for me because I was able to cry out loud for once. I think I hadn’t been able to do that because when you’re a super mom, that’s all your kids see you as, you’re a superhero all day, every day. So going to the set every day, I was able to put my cape to the side, have my therapy session and just cry out loud. Any type of quiet battles I was fighting or struggles, I was able to pour it all into Inez and really give my all. And I think that’s what made it so real and authentic because every single emotion was real. Every single tear was real. Every single scram was real. Every single emotion was real.”
A Thousand and One opens in theaters Friday, March 31.
Watch the trailer: