If it weren’t for the pandemic, Taylour Paige, originally a dancer by training, would be taking a victory lap for her breakthrough performance in Zola, Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of a viral Twitter thread about two exotic dancers’ misadventures in Florida. That film has now been postponed until this summer, but in the meantime Paige landed the role of Dussie, the love interest of both Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Paige reflects on working in an actual strip club to prepare for Zola, playing opposite the late Boseman, and the commonality between the two characters.

How did Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom come into your life? How did the audition process with George C. Wolfe go?

When I auditioned for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, they told me that they really liked my audition, but could I change my sweater? I was wearing a thrift shop Chanel sweater, but it just wasn’t right. So I ended up wearing this black, tight, formfitting thing.

I happened to be in Italy with my boyfriend [Jesse Williams] for a couple of days for something he had to do, and I found out I was having my callback there. I had accidentally set my alarm with four minutes to get ready. I was jet-lagged. So I woke up with four minutes to quickly brush my teeth, wash my face, and throw my hair up. Did the audition [through an iPad], and George was like, “Okay. All right, let’s do it again.”

We got off the call, and I just broke down in tears. I was like, “I just fucked up. There’s no way I got that.” I felt terrible. And I remember texting my manager, like, “I suck. I don’t even know why I do this.” And then she was like, “Well, you’re a sucker because you got it. And you have to be back in New York, like, now. So we have to figure out your flight.” And I just sobbed again and was just so happy.

You got to do a love scene with Chadwick Boseman, and another with Viola Davis. Was it scary? How did you react on the day of those shoots?

It was overwhelming, but honestly, both Viola and Chadwick lend themselves to the truth of what we’re doing. And George had us rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. George doesn’t miss a beat. Every minutia, every detail. Where are we going? What are we eating? What are we drinking? Where did we just come from? We had every specific in and out. I just feel like you have August Wilson’s writing, and then George is the white part of the page. He fills it all in.

So by the time we shot it, it was playing. Chadwick and I just played. He was such a gentleman and made sure I was comfortable. I was like, “Just do what Levee does.” And it felt like this knowing, this divine alignment.

In Ma Rainey’s, you play a bit of an opportunist but, in a way, very innocent, kind of naive. And then you go to Zola, where there’s nothing that’s new to that girl.

It’s interesting because I did Zola before Ma Rainey’s, but Ma Rainey’s came out first. But I felt like the agency that I had to internalize, and the apologizing, I had to cut that out to be Zola. The through line between both of them is survival, and Black women and what they carry, and how heavy the bags are. In Zola, you’ll notice she has all these bags the whole time, and then Riley [Keough]’s character has one little trash bag and a small, little bag. Even with Dussie [in Ma Rainey’s], she just doesn’t want to go back to wherever the hell she was.

Tell me about your prep for Zola.

I worked at Crazy Girls, on Sunset and La Brea. Honestly, it was harder to get a job than you’d think. It really is about who you know. So what happened was, I have a best friend who went to community college with a girl who worked there. She introduced us; we clicked. She brought me in to meet the owner, and he was like, “Stand up, turn around. All right, come in on Monday. We’ll see how you do.” And I’m like, “I don’t know how to do any of this.” And I’m not telling him that I’m doing a movie… Also, I really did need the money.

At first, when I tried the pole, I was terrible—like Bambi on ice. But I got better. I learned to be smart and strategic. The girls teach you—look at his watch, look at his shoes. He’s not spending any money. He’s been standing there all night. It’s a business. And I really did need the money; I was in the lowest low, sleeping on friends’ couches. My car blew up, and I could barely afford my stripper’s outfit.

Was Zola your first nude scene?

Yes. It was scary, but also liberating. We all have boobs. We all take showers. We all have sex. We all want to thrive. And we all want to survive. Those are my characters!

When you read the script, did you get nervous?

Originally, when I read the script, it wasn’t by Janicza and it wasn’t by Jeremy O. Harris. It was extremely racist and sexist. It’s like they took the tweets, and then they made it some story that wasn’t nuanced. It was just like typical clownery of Black culture, and not the nuance of code-switching.

Then Hustlers came into my e-mail to audition for. I read the script and I was like, “What happened to Zola?” And my agent was like, “Well, you didn’t like it.” And I was like, “Well, I feel like I have a different perspective.” She was like, “Well, actually, it’s a new director and different writers.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s important information.” So I read it, and it was completely different.

Paige wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress and sandals.

Hair by Bryce Scarlett for Moroccan Oil at the Wall Group; makeup by Emi Kaneko for Fenty Beauty at Bryant Artists; manicure by Michelle Saunders. Produced by Emanuele Mascioni at MAI USA Inc.; local producers: Wes Olson and Meghan Gallagher at Connect the Dots; local production manager: Jane Oh at Connect the Dots; photo assistant: Trevor Pikhart; digital technician: Brad Lansill; retouching: Catalin Plesa at QuickFix; special projects editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; fashion assistants: Sophia Martin, Alex Assil, Tara Boyette, India Reed, Abigail Jones; production assistants: Cameron King, Jeremy Sinclair, Alison Yardley, Kein Milledge; hair assistant: Christopher Farmer; makeup assistant: Rose Grace; tailor: Irina Tshartaryan at Susie’s Custom Designs, Inc.

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