“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense”
Those are the famous first words of A’Ziah “Zola” King, the waitress-turned-writer-extraordinaire whose outlandish odyssey, which she documented in a viral thread of 148 tweets in 2015, has now been chronicled in a full-length feature film.
Directed by Janicza Bravo and written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, the long-awaited film, which opens in theaters Wednesday, tells the stunning story of a Detroit waitress named Zola (played by Taylour Paige), who strikes up an intoxicating new friendship with a customer named Stefani (Riley Keough). Only a day after exchanging numbers and bonding over pole dancing, Stefani convinces Zola to join her for a weekend of stripping in Florida, insisting that they can both make some quick cash. But what initially seems like a glamorous cross-country road trip quickly transforms into a stranger-than-fiction saga that includes a terrifying pimp (Colman Domingo), a high-strung boyfriend (Nicholas Braun), some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures that must be seen to be believed.
In a recent Zoom interview with Observer, Paige discusses the reason why she initially passed on Zola’s story, the extreme lengths that she went to prepare for the titular role, and her best memories of working with Domingo and the late Chadwick Boseman on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Observer: You have said that you felt like life prepared you for Zola. But from what I understand, you initially passed on the project because the script was originally written by two white men and had really sexist and racist undertones.What made you decide to reconsider this role?
Taylour Paige: I was actually auditioning for Hustlers and it reminded me about Zola. So I got the script for Zola—it was written by two white guys and it just didn’t feel like the authentic voice that I read in the tweets, period. The audition itself was just a monologue which was taken from the tweets and then an improv. My agent was like, “Just put it on tape. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” But I was like, “I don’t want to… the writing doesn’t feel authentic.” I put it on tape, they loved my tape, it went away.
[I was] auditioning for Hustlers, remembered Zola, but [my agent] was like, “You didn’t like it.” But I was like, “This character [in Hustlers] doesn’t resonate with me.” She was like, “Well, it’s coming back with different writers and a different director—a Black woman director.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s key.” Then, I read it and was like, “I want to do it.”
During the casting process, Janicza didn’t know your name but had seen you before, so when you accidentally bumped into her, she secretly took a picture of you and sent it to the casting director… and I guess the rest is history. What was it like to go through the whole production process with a Black female director who really paid attention to the small details like the nails?
Yeah, good observation! It was amazing. I felt so cared for and so understood and valued. I knew this was gonna be great because she knows what she wants and she knows what she’s doing, and she wants to protect Zola’s voice.
Well, you certainly protected her voice as well. You even trained for three weeks at Crazy Girls, and I heard that there were a few people there who were able to give you the lay of the land and really get you into that mentality of stripping in a more strategic way. What did you do to get into that “eat or be eaten” mentality?
It’s a circus in there. It’s a whole other universe. I got close with a couple women—my girl Tinderoni, who had been working there for some time, and this girl Savage, who was just really magnetic and I would always watch her. She would make so much money, and then she would run to her car, and I would be like, “Where are you going?” She’s like, “I got to take my baby to school in a couple of hours.” And she came over to my house a couple of times. We tried to put a pole in my best friend’s living room—that didn’t work out—but I wanted to relax my technical training in dance, so she just helped me get all bad bitch about it. (Smiles.)
I learned a lot. She’s just a really beautiful, confident, strong young woman who lives her way and is unapologetic about it. I think that’s fucking perfect.
Did you look at stripping in a different way after this entire experience?
Yeah. I mean, I never judged stripping, but I definitely have an even more keen respect. I always thought about it as fun, but that shit is not fun sometimes. You’re tired as fuck, and you have all kinds of energies and people touching you. You know, you’re upside down, you’re on the pole, you need to stretch. It could be cold; it could be super air conditioned. You got people just treating you like you’re a piece of cheese. A couple guys were like, “You ain’t gotta do this.” There’s just so much.
One of the most interesting things that I picked up on was the symbolism of bags. Zola has all of these bags that she’s carrying all over the place, and Stefani just has this really small one, but Zola is still expected to nurture and watch out for this woman who shamelessly appropriates Black culture. Were there certain parts of Zola’s character that you really wanted to highlight in your portrayal of her story?
Her strength, her compassion—even when she’s the most fucked up, she’s still like, “Ugh, alright.” Of course, it’s because she’s scared for her life, but there still is compassion there.
Do you remember when she’s walking down the hall [with Stefani], and she’s like, “You cold? You don’t have to do this. You have some money now. You can stretch that out.” There’s care there, there’s nurturing there. Even after all you’ve taken her through, she’s still making sure you’re good naturally. And also just how smart she is, how confident she is and her worth. I think she knows her worth.
Once you found out that you were going to play Zola, you thankfully got her blessing, and I heard that you have gotten extremely close in the last few years. What were you able to learn from playing a real person?
I learned a lot. She’s just a really beautiful, confident, strong young woman who lives her way and is unapologetic about it. I think that’s fucking perfect. I think that I got caught up and wanted to do it the way that she would, but it’s Janicza’s interpretation of her tweets. It’s hyperbolist and there’s nuance in the way that she speaks. I just learned to surrender to what is and, if anything, tried to be as honest as I could with the material and work from that place and allowed myself to not be so precious about it all.
The movie might be a hyperbolic interpretation of Zola’s story, but it is unfortunately a reflection of the outrageously sad world that we live in and leaves you to ponder all of these existential questions—and I heard that that’s something that you and Riley bonded over throughout production. How were you able to build that fiery chemistry with her where you might like her one minute and hate her the next?
Yeah, we got really lucky. I think it was just a divine gift, God given, because that girl is something else. She’s just one of the best people I’ve ever met and one of the most grounded, loving, compassionate, open, forgiving people—just the most purely intended person. And I think, because we both want to purify our hearts, we were both genuinely rooting for each other. Of course, you want the movie to be good. Of course, you want your performance to be good. But we were just cheerleading each other on, and she’s just so talented.
On the weekends, we’d go get a hotel and watch HGTV. Her grandma would come visit; her nanny from when she grew up would come visit with her kids. We’d order burgers and junk food. We just bonded and laughed a lot. It was a beautiful connection that I think just gave us the space to feel safe, to go for it.
In addition to Riley, you were fortunate enough to work with Colman Domingo—first on Zola and then on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Yeah, I’m so lucky!
What are some of the most valuable things that you have learned from him in the process of working on these two really different projects that show both the past and present of what it means to be Black in America?
He’s a legend. Give him everything.
But I will say I’m a really big over-thinker, like OCD. I have OCD, and Colman was like, “You got to set some of that shit free and let it go, like a balloon.” We always would giggle about that. He would say, “Set that bitch free!” But also, [looking] more macro, beyond him being really talented, Colman has such a zest for life. He’s genuinely like a life enthusiast, and he’s just like sunshine. Just seeing someone with that body of work—with his age and wisdom—he just has this profound, loving energy that’s just really infectious. I think, when we all take our last breath, it’s like, “What are we gonna leave people with?” It’s cheesy, but isn’t it Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you said, what you did, but they don’t forget the way you made them feel”? I just feel like he’s a really big energy that everyone will just feel better in his presence, and I want to do that. I want to leave that. I want people to feel better, lighter, more free, more seen because they were with me. Seeing someone who lives that way is just inspiring.
I have freak-outs, I think I suck, then I think I maybe could do this. But honestly, it’s my spirituality [that keeps me grounded]. I do feel so much of this life is so extraordinary, and I’m a part of it. That’s crazy to me.
I want to ask this sensitively because I can’t even believe that it’s been almost one year since we lost Chadwick Boseman, and I’m really sorry for your loss. As one of his last scene partners, what was it like to work with him and what sort of impact do you think he has left on the world?
I think we can touch people, and I think that we touch who we’re supposed to touch and then we go. And then, even in our death, we finish who we’re supposed to touch and it’s infinite. I think he was a man of integrity, of his word. He cared about the work, about Black people, about being an example. He was just a really loving, kind, grounded man. And even as I know he was battling this insanely painful, scary terrain, he lent himself in service of the truth, of Levee—which symbolically, to me, is our ancestors and August [Wilson]. Levee is an unsung person who probably existed and we maybe never heard from because his anger and his pain got in the way of that. Chadwick’s an eternal frame, and [he’s] graduated. (Smiles and looks up.)
It’s been quite a whirlwind last six months for you with Ma Rainey, Boogie and now Zola. And even if you probably didn’t expect to have all of these projects come out at once, there are a lot of people who are declaring you one of the breakout stars of 2021. Given that this industry is so unpredictable, how have you navigated the roller-coaster of emotions that you have felt as a burgeoning actor? What keeps you grounded in the difficult moments?
Oh my gosh, so much. I have freak-outs, I think I suck, then I think I maybe could do this. But honestly, it’s my spirituality. I do feel so much of this life is so extraordinary, and I’m a part of it. That’s crazy to me. I’m alive, in a body. I have eyes that can see and taste and smell and touch. I have ten fingers and ten toes, and I can dance and I can hear music. I have beautiful friendships and so much love in my life and two dogs that I love. I love the baby blue sky. There’s just so much—that shit keeps me going.
Honestly, when I play it out, I go, “Okay, so let’s just play it out. You do some movies—they’re good, some people like it, some people don’t, maybe you win some awards, maybe you don’t. Cool, and then you get older, or maybe you don’t. You get married. You have some kids.” We know how this is gonna go. There’s different ways to do it, but are you enjoying it on the way to getting there or are you just worried about getting there? You’re you on the way to getting there; this is your life right now. So I just try not to get caught up in it, because I don’t get these days back. And I try to ask and remind myself, “But to what end? Where you’re miserable all the time? You’re a stress ball, scattered? You’re not present for other people because you’re not on your phone?”
I’m just figuring it out. Just finding balance and kindness and grace to myself, and knowing what’s meant for me is mine, so I don’t have to rush. I could actually just act from a place of knowing that what’s mine will be there, and all I have to do is line up with it and line up with myself. Sometimes, I’m like, “This is crazy. I am crazy.” But just giving myself the grace—grace is one of my favorite words.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Zola will be released in theaters June 30.