As an R&B singer, producer, dancer, music video director, choreographer and fashion designer, Teyana Taylor is no stranger to the spotlight. She’s known for her sultry singing, sexy dance moves and edgy turns on the red carpet — at this year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party, it was a sheer dark suit with a metallic gold bra. At New York Fashion Week in February, it was an avant-garde suit by Thom Browne. To it all, she brings a touch of the theatrical.
But in the film “A Thousand and One,” Taylor gives an entirely different performance. Here, she plays Inez, a woman orphaned at a young age who is struggling to rebuild her life after a stint at Rikers Island. With an aim to be a better provider, she kidnaps her six-year-old son, Terry, out of New York City’s negligent foster care system.
Over the course of the film, which covers a decade in gentrifying Harlem from the 1990s to the early 2000s, Taylor, who is a Harlem native, strips Inez to her core: A single Black mother trying to create a quality life for Terry while carrying the weight of the city on her shoulders. It’s the first feature film written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, and it won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Taylor received acclaim for her unadorned performance, with The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis calling her “terrific” in a notebook from the festival.
“This is the story of a street woman, and I think you needed to feel her rawness,” said Rockwell in a video interview. “One of the things that I told Teyana in terms of preparing for the role was, ‘I hope you’re ready to forgo your glam.’”
Life transitions gave Taylor, 32, a head start down that road. During filming, she was six months postpartum after giving birth to her second daughter. “You don’t feel beautiful, you don’t feel confident,” she said of that time, in a video interview. She also attended the funerals of three different friends, all in Harlem, including one she grew up with as a child. “Having to see your friends lying in caskets. Going to wakes on my lunch break. I had a lot to cry about,” she said.
But in “A Thousand and One,” the character Inez hardly cries, despite her hardships. Even at her most vulnerable, when it seems the men for whom she has sacrificed have abandoned her, she cracks a smile. “She’s able to have this strength even through her tears,” Taylor said. “It made me respect A.V. on a whole other level.”
When Taylor watched the final cut, she remembered filming scenes of emotive crying. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, this is my Viola moment! Why are you not using the snot? I’m going in right now, I killed this scene.’ And A.V.’s like, ‘No, that’s just not who Inez is.’ She’s always in survival mode to people.”
Taylor understood what it’s like to be in survival mode. She drew parallels to her professional life, saying she suffered abandonment by people she trusted to protect her. With her mother, Nikki Taylor, as her manager, she entered the music business at age 15. She has choreographed music videos for Beyoncé and appeared in other videos by Jay-Z and Kanye West. Her single, “Gonna Love Me,” has been streamed more than 167 million times on Spotify, and her three studio albums all reached the Billboard 200 chart.
Then in late 2020, she announced in an Instagram post that she was retiring from music. She was signed with G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam at the time and had released “The Album” earlier that year. In her post, she mentioned “feeling super under appreciated” and “constantly getting the shorter end of the stick.” She also hinted at the time “that when one door closes another will open,” and the first opportunity that came along afterward was the role of Inez.
“I didn’t have that Inez role locked in before I retired, so it was a real-life faith walk,” Taylor said.
Now, she’s forging ahead as an actor, director and producer. She has roles in two other upcoming films, “The Book of Clarence” and “The Smack,” and said she has plans to direct her first feature, a project from the production company she co-founded, the Aunties.
Later this year, she’ll also release her own Air Jordan sneaker called, fittingly, “A Rose From Harlem.” It features a rose-colored, thorn-trimmed swoosh on the right sneaker, and a black swoosh with jagged stitching on the left. Taylor sees both herself and Inez as roses from Harlem. “This sneaker is a love letter to all the roses who grow out the concrete, from their own hoods, really making it out and putting on for their city, putting on for their neighborhood and really just making the hood proud,” she said.
According to her, the wait was long for her own Air Jordan, and for the collaboration to launch the same year as the release of “A Thousand and One” seemed predestined. Taylor felt at peace with the past, and with any feelings of frustration and resignation in her career.
“I always say, grace over grudges. Because what’s for me is already written,” she said. “So if it was meant for me to be abandoned or maybe mistreated, that gave me the strength to be able to tap into this character, Inez. It’s realizing that the things that I’ve been through and the amount of time that it took was not a punishment. It was preparation.”
In the film, Inez tells Terry she’ll go to war for him. She defers her dream to be a hairstylist, instead keeping a steady job as a cleaner to pay the rent. It mirrored some of the experiences Taylor’s own mother contended with.
“It was rough, but I had to do what I had to do,” Teyana’s mother, Nikki, said in a phone interview. She worked two corporate jobs and went to college while raising a young child mostly on her own, sometimes with the help of family members. “The way I looked at it, I’m going to always go above and beyond to take care of my kid. I always made sure she never needed for anything or wanted for anything.”
Taylor herself now has two daughters with her husband, Iman Shumpert, the basketball player who is also a winner of “Dancing With the Stars.” The children are Iman Tayla, nicknamed Junie, age 7, and Rue Rose, age 2 (“going on 22,” Taylor said). During the film shoot, Junie was the same age as Aaron Kingsley Adetola, the actor who plays the young version of Terry, and in real life, the two children became best friends. Junie wanted to be on set and part of it all. “They let her call ‘Action!’ a few times. She’s following in my footsteps. She’s literally a mini me,” Taylor said.
There’s no obvious trace of Taylor’s music and dance skills in her performance as Inez, but her background in these disciplines influenced her approach. For one, she was very in touch with her body, an important part of any performance, according to Rockwell, the director. “She has such a unique timber to her voice,” Rockwell said, so they played around with how Inez talks and moves as she matures in the film. “Teyana was able to dig into these parts of herself. To see her find those steps was exciting for me, and really inspiring to see this performer come to life in a way that I don’t think anybody was expecting.”
The way a musician records a verse or song 50 times to get it right, Taylor gave her performance the same level of specificity. “Detail is a skill, and I’m a very detailed person,” Taylor said. For her, the stakes were high. She didn’t want to continue making work in which she was just dancing or looking glamorous. She had entered a new phase and wanted to be taken seriously. “I had a story to tell,” she said. “In a lot of ways, Inez’s story was my story.”