Taylour Paige isn't one for empty niceties; she'd rather jump into the conversation at the same rhythm you'd share with an old friend. I’m gearing up to ask my first question when the raspy-voiced star of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom interjects with a query of her own: “I love your little dimples,” she exclaims, pointing at one on her own face. “I have one too! Do you only have one?” On any date, this is the kind of moment that helps you breathe a little easier—a sign you’re in the presence of someone eager to make a connection.
As I quickly learn, Paige thrives on these kinds of bonds: it’s one of the things that led her to acting in the first place. “It really deepens your capacity for empathy and understanding humans,” she says. “Where did this person come from? What are their insecurities? What happened to them when they were a child? It reminds me of how connected we all are.”
With Ma Rainey’s, Paige is set to become something of an overnight sensation… 20 years in the making. The trained dancer got her start with the Debbie Allen Dance Academy as a child, and worked on projects such as High School Musical 3 and Ballers before landing the role of Dussie Mae, alongside Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, in the big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play. “Everyone should read August Wilson,” she says. “He’s as important as Shakespeare or Eugene O’Neill; he is such an incredible part of the fabric of literature and Black literature. He just gets us, bridging the gaps between our past, our present, and our futures.”
Things won’t be slowing down any time soon for Paige either. In 2021 she’ll portray the titular Zola in the film adaptation of Aziah “Zola” King’s viral Twitter thread—a far cry from Dussie Mae, who navigates her world through observation, not assertion. Which is exactly how Paige likes it. “I just love learning. And with acting, I love how it’s constantly an ego check, and a vehicle for your soul’s expansion.”
How are you holding up in the pandemic?
I’m feeling pretty good! One minute I’m like, “You know, I’ve got ten fingers, I’ve got ten toes, I’m fine,” and the next minute I’m ready to cut my bun off.
I want to break the ceiling, but I also truly want to bridge the gap.
I think that’s how we’re all feeling! Have you made any drastic beauty decisions?
I did a chemical peel on myself and that was a disaster, as you can see. I really burned my skin, so that was fun. No bangs or anything—I haven’t gone that far yet!
What has self-care looked like for you during this downtime?
I feel like I’ve been such a scattered person since I was a little girl; I just care about so many things. I’m like, “I have to read this, and I have to read that, and I have to finish this!” So I’m trying to do just one thing at a time and being present and intentional about it. Telling myself, “if you’re going to read the Ram Dass, read the Ram Dass; if you’re going to read Toni Morrison, read Toni Morrison.” And giving myself the grace to be like, “you’re doing the best you can; the intention is to learn and be better, so don’t be so hard on yourself.” That and cleaning my apartment, and drinking hot water and lemon throughout the day. When I’m drinking a gallon of water a day, I’m thriving.
You look so glowy! What is your skincare routine?
Oh that’s just the lighting girl! But I do think it’s because I’ve been drinking a lot of water lately. I use the Rejuvi Facial Cleanser—this is from my facialist Nerida Joy, she’s really amazing. She told me to use it, so I use it. I also love the Fresh Black Tea Instant Perfecting Mask; my friend Shannon Pezetta, who is a makeup artist, gifted me this. You can stick it in the refrigerator and it feels so good. I also got the Soy Face Cleanser. And then I just moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. I don’t really wear makeup; I might wear some mascara, but that’s it. And sometimes I just massage my face going up, kind of stimulate it. I’ll sit in bed while I watch a movie, going up, up, up, up, up!
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom you’re rocking a great flapper hairstyle, and in Zola you’ve got long locks. How do you keep your hair healthy between projects?
I don’t! [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I’ll do braids one month, then I’ll get a trim and flat iron it or press it out. But honestly, I’ve been regrowing my hair out for the last few months. I’ve been wearing my hair really short for the last five or six years because I got a keratin treatment in 2014. I had been getting them done by someone who was amazing, and my hair was doing great; it would rinse out and my hair would go back to normal. But then she stopped doing keratins, and I started going to different people—and that’s a big no-no. I think someone over-processed the keratin; it was a mess.
I had a similar thing happen with keratin. Everyone thought I was crazy, but it really wouldn’t wash out.
Yes, mine didn’t rinse out! I think if I do one more big cut, I’ll have my hair back.
I really loved Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. How did you prep for that role?
I had already read the play, but when George [C. Wolfe, director of the film] said I got it, I started with my body. I’m a dancer first, so I kind of work from the inside out—what are the conditions, what are the circumstances. Okay, it’s the 1920s; slavery was practically yesterday. So kind of working from the outer conditions, my body, my posture. I, Taylour, am a dancer, so then I have to rework that since I, the character, am not a dancer. I’m just a young lady trying to survive. I also looked at a lot of images of women in the 1920s. And George doesn’t miss a beat; in my relationship with him, I can ask anything and he has an answer for it. The beauty of George is, I was left with even more questions when we wrapped. I just love that in our art, there are still infinite possibilities and infinite discoveries for yourself. I also prayed to our ancestors, and I prayed to August Wilson. I said if this role is meant for me, then please let me know what you need of me and of my spirit to tell this as truthfully as I possibly can. To take Taylour out of it and help me lend myself in service of the truth of Dussie Mae. Though Dussie wasn’t a real person, I treated her as someone we’ve never heard of, but who may have very well existed.
That’s so beautiful. That whole experience must have been great for learning, because that cast is stacked.
A master class! I still can’t believe I got to be a part of it. I’m really proud of it, it’s so incredible.
Has dancing been part of your quarantine fitness routine?
Not like it should. One of my resolutions is to get flexible again. I have such a love-hate relationship with it; it was my first love and how I made sense of the world. I couldn’t stop moving as a child. But there came a point where I was so tired and I just wanted to take a break. Now I’m pursuing other interests, but I do want to keep up with my dance. Dancers are some of the most intelligent people on the planet, because you’re constantly learning and re-learning. It’s such a wonderful skill, and I really need to get back into it.
I devoured the Zola Twitter thread, and I thought it was really great when they announced that the director of the film was going to be a Black woman (Janicza Bravo). How does having a Black woman in the driver’s seat change the experience and the set?
It changes everything. There’s an understanding, there’s a knowing; sometimes it just has to be a look. A purse of the lips. It’s just a different care and nurturing. And the details! Like hair—not having to explain edges or moisturizing or that my scalp is dry. Or the nuances of code-switching. The real Zola, who is very much alive and is brilliant, is maybe not what some would assume from the Twitter thread. She’s not just one thing. All three of us—Janicza, Zola, me—we are women who exist in multiple spaces at once, and switch depending on who we’re with. I think Janicza wanted to honor that.
Self mastery is the only thing you need to worry about—loving oneself, loving others.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how there’s been an important, and kind of recent, development in our culture of having projects about Black people that incorporate our experiences, but aren’t just about trauma. Movies where our Blackness is celebrated and is part of our experience.
[Zola] has agency and she knows what her body is, and she knows her power. Just watching Janicza navigate how to run a set… I noticed how she had to politely assert herself to get the things she deserved. Janicza really wanted to honor this multifaceted person. Zola processed her trauma by Tweeting about it, and that’s what a lot of us Black people do—process our trauma through humor. Meme life culture, Black Twitter; we have a collective trauma, a thing that sits on us no matter where we’re at or how far we go. We’re always waiting for the shoe to drop.
Between Zola and Ma Rainey’s, your most recent projects have definitely been for the culture. Do you want to keep doing more of that kind of work?
Of course! I want to break the ceiling, but I also truly want to bridge the gap. I want to challenge people to truly be able to see Black people as diverse human beings that everyone can relate to. Of course I want to tell our stories, but I also want us to be able to be Black people that also just… exist. And not always have to be responsible for teaching some large lesson, because there are other people who still don’t get it.
When we were kids, we always knew a character was Black because they were coded as Black in the book or the screenplay—if they weren’t coded as a Person of Color, you knew they were White. The goal is that you can go into the same audition as any other actress and you have the same shot.
Exactly! That it’s just the best person for the role.
Well you are definitely at the beginning of your career, which has got to be really exciting.
Thank you! What I realized, and what I wish I knew almost a decade ago at 21, is that there is no rush. We’re all hurrying up to go nowhere. Self mastery is the only thing you need to worry about—loving oneself, loving others. My favorite Ram Dass quote is, “Treat everyone like they’re God in drag.” Every day you have an opportunity to try to be a little bit better. That helps me relax more, and from a more relaxed state, the roles that are really meant for me come to me.