Teyana Taylor, EBONY's April 2022 EBONY cover star, is living out her wildest big screen dreams. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, her film A Thousand and One—directed by a Black woman filmmaker A.V. Rockwell—won the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Having a film at the festival period really touched her soul. “To be out in Sundance and have a reason to be there and the movie be the talk of the town was emotionally overwhelming in the greatest way,” shares Taylor of her very first Sundance experience. “I cried a lot that weekend. I counted my blessings a lot that weekend.”
“That weekend was everything I ever asked for,” she continues. “It was just God telling me how proud He was, like ‘this is what you wanted, and you pushed through’ and it was me seeing the result of God's plan. It was me seeing the result of what was already written in the books for me. It was just up to me to get through it and get it done.”
In many ways, A Thousand and One is tailored made for the multitalented actress and singer. Set in her native Harlem, Taylor stars as Inez, a young woman who kidnaps her six-year-old son Terry from the foster care system and raises him into adulthood hiding in plain sight from the mid-1990s into the mid-2000s as gentrification slowly strikes. Loving strongly and fiercely, Taylor’s Inez, with an assist from her guy Lucky, played by Love Is star Will Catlett, beats the odds, successfully guiding young Terry, handled seamlessly by three different actors—Aaron Kingsley Adetola at age 6; Aven Courtney at 13; and Josiah Cross at 17—through childhood.
Taylor credits her ease in showing the nuances of Inez mothering Terry at different ages to being observant of her own family gatherings as a kid. “I always knew every single layer of an auntie, of a mom, of a grand mom so I think that's what made it easier to know how to even deal with [the different] ages. I grew up around a lot of my cousins,” she explains. “To be around and see how my older cousin is handled, versus how my younger cousin is handled versus how the cousin that's kind of in the middle is handled—I've been around that my whole life. So it was kind of easy to step in and just take all the different tools that I've learned from just growing up in Harlem.”
Romantic love, or at least the concept of it, is another important component of the film that is both difficult and real. “Inez and Lucky are, honestly, a roller coaster. And it's really sad and emotional, because they both try,” laments Taylor. “When Inez makes that comment ‘damaged people don't know how to love one another,’ it’s like they're both doing all that they can. They both have made their mistakes and they're both two people really trying to figure it out. They are on the same page about what they want for Terry. And I think that's the most important thing when it comes to family.”
“Lucky is madly in love with Inez. He just doesn’t always agree with Inez,” says Catlett. Creating that dynamic on the screen, he also shares, was not hard.
“Building chemistry with Teyana was easy. Usually, musicians are able to tap into the work pretty easily. But I remember one instance on set, she just ran up to me and jumped into my arms and it was a bond that we created really without words,” he discloses. “And I was there to support her in her journey, not just as Inez but as Teyana.”
Taylor also found working with Catlett a breeze. “Will would just give me what I needed so it was really easy to grasp those emotions and put our scenes together,” she says.
Being from Alexandria, Virginia, where he attended the actual T.C. Williams High School in Remember The Titans, wasn’t quite like being from Harlem, Catlett admits. So, to nail Lucky, he turned to his friend and Harlem native Amin Joseph who plays Jerome in the FX hit Snowfall and starred in the indie film To Live and Die and Live at Sundance.
"Well, don’t get caught up in that accent," Joseph told him. "Focus on the behavior."
That advice was a game changer for Catlett. “Once he said that to me, I understood because I understood Lucky's behavior. And that allowed me to fall into the accent easier, because then I started to get that Harlem bounce. Then I started to eat the chopped cheese sandwich and then I'm on a corner doing the barbecues.”
A Thousand and One, which Focus Features will release theatrically, is one Catlett feels will hit hard. “I think a lot of people will see this and it will remind them of themselves, and also allow them to have those tough conversations about moving forward. A.V. does such a great job with gentrification from the ‘90s to the 2000s. And even though we don't go beyond 2005, this is still happening all across America.”
For Taylor, who admits to gentrification pushing her from Harlem to the Bronx, filming A Thousand and One was both a trip down memory lane and, as she states earlier, God’s plan being manifested. “I remember we used to come to the movies at Magic Johnson and now I’m filming a scene in front of Magic Johnson,” she recalls feeling.
“Now I get to go to Magic Johnson and watch my movie when it comes out March 31,” she says looking ahead. “These are all things that hit home for me.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.