"I really want people to see this film," Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor says of the new drama in which she stars, Origin. For her, that is not wishful thinking; it's an action plan. The day before our Zoom call, the Oscar-nominated actress stood outside of a movie theater in Los Angeles handing out flyers for the film. "I got recognized maybe twice," she says. "It's funny because there's a big billboard [at the theater], so it really looks corny or whatever. I'm on the billboard, and I'm like, 'Hey, go see that movie!'"
"But I'm going to be going back at some point this afternoon, passing out more flyers," Ellis-Taylor adds. "Because when you don't have millions of dollars to promote it, and you don't have billboards on Sunset Boulevard, you have to do other things."
Origin is filmmaker Ava DuVernay's unconventional adaption of Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. Wilkerson was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism; her thesis rethinks race in the 21st century, attempting to move beyond the blanket term of racism to explore hierarchies of hate and draw a connection between the oppression of Jews in Nazi Germany, Dalits in India, and Black people in the United States. The lofty ideas might seem better suited to a documentary; DuVernay crafts an artistic interpretation of the academic text that at once unfolds like an adaptation of the book and a biopic of its author.
Ellis-Taylor (who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in 2021's King Richard) plays Isabel Wilkerson. The film follows the author as she works on her magnum opus, traveling to Berlin and Mumbai to research their respective caste systems, while grappling with the grief of numerous personal tragedies. Origin was shot in 37 days across three continents, and mere months after wrapping, had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where DuVernay made history as the first African American woman to have a film in competition. Less than a year after wrapping, Origin is now in theaters.
"I'm not ready for it, I guess. It just happened so fast," Ellis-Taylor tells A.frame. "I think I wanted a little bit more time with it. But I am hoping that the film has longevity, and we'll be talking about it for a while."
A.frame: You worked with Ava on When They See Us. Was this a case of her reaching out to you, or a more traditional audition process? How did this come to be?
Well, I had heard that she was going to adapt the book. I was familiar with the book — I hadn't read it, but I was aware of Ms. Wilkinson being a brilliant writer — and when I heard Ava was going to adapt it, I said, 'That's going to be incredible. I wish I could be in movies like that.' Literally, that was my thought. I think Ava was probably far into the casting process, but I said, 'I want to be somebody that she at least thinks about.' I sent Aisha Coley, who was the casting director, a picture of me with a wig, with pearls, with the sheath dress — things to make me look like Isabel Wilkerson — and Aisha sent it to Ava. And Ava, I heard, was very confused when she saw the picture. She thought that someone was trying to tell her that there's already going to be another movie about the book. That's what she thought she was looking at.
But anyway, she called me and we started talking. I went to go meet her in Savannah, and we talked some more. I left there and I went home, and I just started taping, and taping, and taping, and taping, and taping, because I wanted to prove to her that I could be believable saying Ms. Wilkerson's words. This woman is a genius, do you know what I mean? So, I had to be believable to myself. I had to prove it to myself. And then, ultimately, prove it to someone else. So, I tape, tape, tape, tape, tape, tape, tape, tape, and in the middle of that rash of taping, she called me and said she wanted me to play Isabel.
At this point in your career, having the resumé that you have and getting the Oscar nomination, your putting yourself out there and campaigning for yourself like that, is that just indicative of your passion?
I see it as my passion. And honestly, I like auditioning, because it might be the only chance I get to play the part. I don't take these things for granted. I think to me, that's a respect for who the character is. I don't presume I could play anybody. And this woman is a really particular person. She's a particular kind of human being. She's a brain and she operates in a very cerebral way, and there's a way to convey that. So, I don't mind that. But listen, if anybody want to just offer me a role, go ahead, please, ma'am and sir!
You also played a real person, Oracene Price, in King Richard. In terms of your process, do you approach them in the same way?
It's interesting to play Ms. Oracene Price and play Ms. Wilkerson back-to-back, even though I did a lot of things in between. They are very similar in how they are very, very reserved, very quiet, they're very intentional with how and when they speak. Ms. Isabel, particularly, is a little shy. You see that scene when she has to deal with the plumber, and you see her struggling with these things in a way that I wouldn't struggle at all. I'm, 'What are you doing!' [Laughs] Both of them are like that — very reserved, very intentional, very poised, very elegant women, and that was real character work for me.
People think character work is, what do you call them? The Method people? But for me, relaxing into a depth of feeling that is not outward, that's hard work for me. I had to embrace that as character work, because I couldn't put on a prosthesis. It's not an accent that I could do. It's none of those physical things and exterior things that you can hook into to help you be convincing. It's all interior. It's all interior work. So, I went from Ms. Oracene and then eventually to Ms. Isabel, and I was like, what's happening here? What's going on? I'm not that chick at all. To hear that someone saw it and didn't feel defrauded by my attempt, that feels pretty good.
Ava said that your collaboration was 'the most intellectually rigorous collaboration' she's ever had. What were your conversations like?
One of the initial conversations that I had with Ava was, Ava was trying to be as respectful to the book as she could be, and I told her, I said, 'Caste is the book. You have written a movie, and it's a very different medium, and you're going to reach very different people.' Caste was a New York Times bestseller, but there is a particular kind of person who even knows about the book Caste, right? But a lot of people know who Ava DuVernay is. Ben & Jerry's has an ice cream named after Ava DuVernay! So, people will come to a theater because she directed it. She's a superstar in that way. So, how do you reach those people? How do you reach people who aren't readers? How do you reach people who are not engaged, who have no interest in engaging in social issues at all? How do you reach them? And I said to her, 'You have to free yourself. You've got to reach the people who just want to come to a movie theater on a Saturday night and have a good time.' I would push her, push her, push her. She would bring her own ideas and I'd say, go further. Put it out there. Insert yourself into this. We would have those kinds of back and forths.
And then the other thing is, there are things in Caste that I bump up against, so I would have conversations with her where I would say, 'I can portray her. I can hopefully convey the ideas that are in the book effectively. But I don't necessarily have to agree with everything, right?' I would say to her, 'I need us to talk about those places that I don't agree with, so when I say them, I can say them as Isabel Wilkerson. And I don't want us to assume that everything that's in this film, everything that's in the book is going to be agreed upon by everybody who sees it.'
These ideas aren't even agreed upon by everyone in the movie, which I think makes it interesting.
Exactly! Exactly. And if we did our jobs here, hopefully, people will come out of the movie talking about it, arguing about it, and that's exciting.
The movie demands a lot from you, emotionally. On those most demanding days, what do you need to get through and get the performance that you need?
The first thing is having a director like Ava, who tries to give me the space I need to do my job. Sometimes that can be time, sometimes that can be physical space, but just having a director who honors that, that's the first thing. The second thing, for me, is music. Because the way actors have to perform their jobs, you're essentially having to work on a construction site. Seriously! Somebody's banging and moving around equipment at all times, and you have to have some depth of feeling in the middle of this. It's absurd, right? So, I have to block that out. I have my headphones and I have to create my own space.
Just for one second. But so many people have been talking about how grief is so central to the story, and they feel seen by it. [She begins playing the song on her phone, as Samara Joy sings, 'On lawns, we laughed, we played. Sweet smiles along the way...'] The lyrics in this is someone talking about, we sat on the lawn and we did all these regular things together. It's an accumulation of memories that you have with someone who you share a life with, and it's just so beautiful. So, I would listen to that every day. Every day.
Is it a song that you've listened to since Origin? Or does it take you right back?
I played it so much that I was concerned that my neighbors were going to complain about me. I played it so much and so loud. I was just waiting for the day that somebody would knock on my door and say, 'Would you please at least change the song?!' [Laughs] You know, 'Play something else!' I played it so much that I can't hear it anymore. I needed a month-long break. But every time I listen to it, it brings me back there.
You've said you didn't want your performance to be 'indulgent.' What would an indulgent performance look like? And how did you know if you were verging on that territory?
Well, I know this is going to sound really basic, but it's a lot of crying. It's a lot of crying. And as someone who was living with fresh grief, I know the course of that. There was a point in my life where, before I lost this loved one, and then after, for two years I was crying every day. Every day. I'd go into the hair and makeup trailer on my jobs, and I would have to leave out, because I was crying every day. And then I stopped crying as much. I thought, naively, that tears were the only expression of grief, and it's not. There are other expressions of grief that are even harder. Because it's not an expression of grief, it's a response to it. It's a physical response to it. So, you can do that, and it is just about the physicality of it. It is the body's response, but it's not necessarily tied to anything that's real. It's not necessarily tied to a feeling.
Whenever I felt like that, I would say to Ava, 'I have to stop.' I'd have to stop. Because even though my tears were real, they were not real for Isabel. There were times when I was like, 'Okay, I'm just going into my own stuff right now.' We had to make sure to modulate this, to make sure that I'm being honest to what's happening in this moment with this woman.
In addition to all of the emotional work and character work you had to do for this, this is your first time leading a movie in this way. Did you also think about how you wanted to show up as number one on the call sheet? What did that mean to you?
Yeah. I have been number one on the call sheet, but even though I was number one, it was more of an ensemble. This had another kind of way to it. I think the higher you are up on the call sheet, the bigger your responsibility is. To me, if you're doing it the right way, you don't look at it like, I'm high on this call sheet, so people need to be of service to me. The higher you are on the call sheet, the people who do it right — and I've seen people do it right — you are being of service to everybody else. That is a responsibility. It is another kind of job, because you have to make sure that the production is not waiting on you, that you're making it easy for everybody, that you are making sure that the actors around you are protected and taken care of, that you know what you're saying. You know what you're doing. You know your lines. All of that. It is a service job. It is not for someone to be of service to you. It's for you to be of service to other people; that's what leadership is. And I've seen that. Being the person who's not been number one for a very long time, I've seen it done really well, and I've learned from people who didn't do it particularly well. But the ones who did it well, that's what I observed.
Who were some of those people that did it well?
Will Smith did it well. He really did. He looked out for people. There was an AD who spoke poorly to someone one day, and he said, 'No, no, no, no. Don't talk to her like that.' He was so angered that this person would talk to someone and felt empowered to do that, because this person was a background artist. And he had no tolerance for that. I witnessed it firsthand. Because I was about to say something! And before I could, he was like, 'Nuh-uh, do not talk to her that way.' In that, I saw it being done well. I saw it being done the right way.
How do you personally judge the success of a project like this? Is it in the experience itself? Is it in how you see your performance?
I feel that has already happened. My personal experience of working on this film was one of the most important times of my life. I've had a couple situations where I've talked about the year of 2023 and didn't mention Origin. I didn't mention the movie. I said to someone, 'I've only had one job this year' — this was during the strike — 'and I've got to live on that check.' And then I said to myself, 'Well, what have I been doing for the rest of the year?' I had another job, and it was Origin. I was not thinking that I had done Origin, and I said, 'Why is that?' And I realized that I'm not associating the experience of that movie with time — it feels out of time — and I think the reason that it feels out of time is because it felt like a miracle to me. And with miracles, there's no ticking clock to it, because it's unexpected. You don't know where it comes from. There's no measure for a miracle. So, it's already a success for me. The next phase of this is just trying to get people to go see it. So, I appreciate you talking to me to help with that.
By John Boone