Taylour Paige Is Finally Realizing Her Power
The actress opens up about her new film “Boogie,” the loss of her co-stars Pop Smoke and Chadwick Boseman, and coming into her own with “Zola” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Taylour Paige is on the cusp of stardom—even if she may not know it herself. The 30-year-old actress starred as Dussie Mae in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opposite Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. She was the talk of Sundance last January with the titular role of Zola, a buck-wild viral Twitter thread spun into the hotly anticipated film by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo, out June 30. And just hours before our interview, Paige was announced as one of the stars of Lena Dunham’s new shot-in-secret film Sharp Stick that was presented to potential buyers this week.
But for now, Paige is Eleanor in Fresh Off the Boat producer Eddie Huang’s feature directorial debut Boogie, a coming-of-age film about a Chinese American basketball player from Queens, New York, with his sights set on the NBA. It’s a story that weaves together cultural pressures, societal flaws, self-realization, navigating love, disappointment, and of course with Huang, a healthy dose of self-deprecation.
Paige features opposite newcomer Taylor Takahashi, who worked as Huang’s personal assistant after the two met when he joined his local league’s basketball team in Los Angeles. It also marks the acting debut of the late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, who was killed at the age of 21 in February 2020 during an armed home invasion in L.A. four months after filming had wrapped.
Paige initially turned down the part, worried she’d be “dragged” by social media for playing a high schooler. But she was eventually won over by the film’s theme of cultural empathy, plus Huang straight-up offering her the role. With four high-profile projects coming one right after the other, Paige confesses she had to overcome feelings of unworthiness to accept these opportunities.
The timing of the movie’s release this weekend is almost “divine,” according to Paige, coming amid growing calls to condemn and bring attention to the surge of hate crimes being committed across the country against Asian Americans. For Paige, Boogie is a chance to help showcase how Asian Americans make the U.S. a “beautiful, diverse” country, calling the racist violence “horrific.” That’s why she decided to become an actor in the first place, she explained, to help reflect society and challenge it to be better.
Here, Paige discusses battling imposter syndrome and why she’s grateful for her moment now.
Talk to me about Eleanor—what drew you to her?
I just love playing complicated, nuanced women who have something to say. I gave [the script] a read and thought this was a different kind of coming-of-age story. It has a lot of cultural empathy, connection, frustration, and it’s actually quite heartbreaking. And I love New York. I have a regret that I didn't go there right after high school, so the little 17-year-old in me that hasn't forgave myself for that is like, “Go back to high school.”
You previously said in order to play Dussie in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom you needed to play Zola. Do you think Eleanor fits in with these characters?
I think it’s been really amazing as I step into these roles, I continue to deepen the relationship I have with myself. I’m someone who’s been quite shy, apologetic, hard on myself and a perfectionist, a people-pleaser and stayed in relationships that were hard on my soul, and a fixer and not very nice to myself sometimes. So, I feel like these women have inspired me to rise to the occasion and to be good to myself and not lie and fake it.
Throughout Boogie there are microaggressions and slurs directed toward Asian Americans. This past year there’s been a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans. How important do you think this movie is and the timing of its release?
I’m happy we are generating a spotlight on the humanity and spirit of this beautiful culture of Asian Americans and how they contribute to the fabric of variety that makes this country an interesting, beautiful, diverse place to live in. I would like to think that the goal is for all of us to exist and to be understood. So, it’s divine timing in a way because there is something that is very sad and disgusting going on and this [movie] is coming out.
Sometimes there needs to be a conversation-starter about an issue. Do you think this movie could perhaps be that?
Yeah! The arts have a way of reflecting the things that you don’t want to look at. Reflecting truth, reflecting a different way of looking at things, reflecting what makes us all the same, reflecting the world we no longer want to live in. I just hope [the movie starts] a conversation that it’s an infinite one, until people are treated kindly.
This was Pop Smoke’s first acting job. How was it working with him, and how bittersweet is it that he can’t share in the excitement about the release of his first film?
I feel really sad. It’s hard for me to even look at pictures of him because he’s a baby. I think outside of the tragic way that people are taken from us in this life, I think we touch who we are supposed to touch. Sometimes we touch people even more in our death. I hope that the killing of him inspires people to look at themselves and how we hurt our own community. I think where he is in the great beyond, he is excited and celebrating. He was very much a young light but also felt like an old soul. He had a maturity, an awareness, and a drive. He would tell me, “Yeah, I was at the studio till 5 a.m.” and we were each sitting in the chair at 7 a.m. He didn’t even get sleep. He was hustling, he was getting ready. I hope we will always speak his name and celebrate him. Wherever his soul is, he needs to be celebrated.
Your Ma Rainey co-star Chadwick Boseman also passed away and over the weekend he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor. Again, that’s kind of a bittersweet moment. What was your reaction to him winning and his wife [Taylor Simone Ledward] accepting the award on his behalf?
I think his wife is just beautiful and her strength… I saw her in the flesh. I witnessed a woman serve and give love and bring a smile. I saw beauty in their love. I was touched that she thanked all of us. I felt very much like he was speaking through her. It’s still very hard and sad, but I like to think of death as taking off your shoes. I’m forever inspired by his integrity and the way he lived his life and what he gave us, in again, such a short time. He did so much and gave it all, and I hope to live my life that way.
Boogie is this coming-of-age film, and in regards to your career, with Zola, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now Boogie, do you feel you are entering into a new phase, too?
I’m very thankful that everything is starting to move for me now. I thought in my twenties that I needed to rush. If I could go back, I’d just tell that girl to relax, to learn and absorb. I’m glad I have that consciousness now. I just hope to continue to live a good, colorful life. I feel really thankful that it feels like it’s happening now, but I also don’t feel like any of that is indicative of my worth.
In your Teen Vogue essay there was one line about playing Dussie and feeling unworthy. I think a lot of women can relate to having imposter syndrome in the workplace. Is that what you were feeling?
Unworthy of everything! When you strip it down, people act the way that they do because they feel unworthy: stay in relationships, don’t try, self-sabotage. There’s this little voice that’s like, “I’m not worthy of those things.” I was at this place in my life where I didn’t know how to receive love, and receive light, and receive opportunities. I felt like, “When is everyone going to find out that I suck?” and it’s all bullshit. Sometimes it’s a voice in your head that’s not even your own. It’s your parents or your grandparents.
I just realized recently in the last couple of years, like, she gotta sit down! I felt that Dussie Mae was a big responsibility. It’s my ancestors, it’s ancestral, it’s [playwright] August Wilson, it’s relevant today. So, I had to get out of the way. My external world is presenting me with opportunities and somewhere out there in the spirit world or wherever, someone thinks that I can do this. So, how do I rise to the occasion?
Your new project with Lena Dunham was just announced. Lots of information is still under wraps, but what can you tell me about it?
I love Lena and she has been an amazing sister and friend and force in my life. We met over Zoom in July or something. She was like, “I only want you to play this,” and that just felt really good. She saw me and thought I was capable. I had the best time shooting this and it’s a very nuanced, complicated role, too. It was so collaborative and she’s so loving and so fucking funny. I can’t believe we were able to do this and not get shut down. We were so safe and shot it with a very small cast and crew, and it was pretty much all women. It was fantastic and I had so much fun. I think it’s a really special film and I’m excited for everyone to see it.