David Lee / Netflix

Ma Rainey's Taylour Paige Acts For 'The Little Black Girl In Me'

Sharing the screen with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role, the breakout performer ends 2020 on a high note

By Ural Garrett

Inglewood, California, native Taylour Paige spent years honing her skills as a professional dancer, studying under storied actress and choreographer Debbie Allen in Los Angeles before working a few months as a Laker Girl in 2010. It was a seamless transition when Paige’s television debut came in 2013 on VH1/BET cheerleading sports drama Hit the Floor, cinching the role of the lead character Ahsha Hayes, who delivered high-energy dance performances as the fictional Devil Girls’s newest recruit. But since then, she’s taken on roles that have stretched her acting chops in new directions, including the title role in director Stella Meghie’s Jean of the Joneses and a supporting spot in 2018 drama White Boy Rick as real-life crime figure Cathy Volsan-Curry. However, 2020 has become a turning point for Paige, who closes out the year portraying the uber sensual Dussie Mae in Netflix’s adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, out December 18.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film sparked early interest for its A-list co-leads and Oscar-winning legend Denzel Washington serving as producer. Besides Viola Davis’s no-nonsense performance as 1920s blues icon Ma Rainey, the film serves as the final on-screen performance of Chadwick Boseman, who died in August. Paige's Dussie is there between them, an object of affection for both Ma and Boseman’s young trumpeter Levee. Not only does Dussie serve as a point of tension between the two leads, but the role also allows Paige to showcase her dance pedigree as Ma’s backup dancer.

“Though all these people aren't necessarily real historically, I just felt like these people are our ancestors who are all the many voices who never got to be heard or told they were loved,” Paige tells MTV News. “They never got to be told that they mattered or that they were valued. We know today, 2020, we're still fighting the good fight. But I mean, our ancestors in 1920, 1923, 1910 were direct descendants of the most tragic thing of humanity, in slavery. Like, are you kidding?”

Paige also plays the lead in the upcoming Zola film, based on the viral, winding Twitter thread from 2015, which dazzled critics during its Sundance run last January. Speaking with MTV News, Paige talks about the weight of her role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, acting alongside Boseman, and the ups and downs of being a Black actress.

MTV News: What attracted you the most to portraying Dussie Mae in Netflix's adaptation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom?

Taylour Paige: When George C. Wolfe calls, you answer. When Denzel Washington calls, you answer. When the Viola Davis calls, you answer. I had read the play. I'm a huge fan of August Wilson. He is a prophet. I truly just want to live a really colorful life. I want the roles that I play to reflect that, and I just felt like this was the next best step. The next biggest. This would be the next thing that would stretch me and that would challenge me.

It's honoring our ancestors, but also it's grounded and heavy in dialogue. The frequency of these people alone are so powerful, like Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Chadwick, George, and just everyone. Of course, I auditioned. I didn't think I would get that far necessarily, but I just tried to be as honest as I could with who I felt Dussie was.

MTV News: Can you describe the experience of working alongside Chadwick Boseman in his last role?

Paige: He was just extremely willing. We rehearsed a lot. We had the luxury, which is so rare to rehearse three weeks in advance before we started shooting. By the time we shot [in summer 2019], which was more towards the end of the film, and it was just a whole day devoted to Dussie and Levee, I felt like we were comfortable. He would check in with me to make sure I was comfortable. I was just like, you know, just do what Levee does. He had good ideas about it. We tried different ways of, you know, showing two people who just can not keep their hands off one another, knowing that this is so foul, because my lover is upstairs and she's the lead of your band, but like, I'm so attracted to you. You're so attracted to me, and we both want possibility and escape. We want to escape out of our situations. Dussie sees Levee, and Levee sees her.

MTV News: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom deals with various racial issues, including the idea of Ma Rainey constantly having to reassert her worth as a Black woman. What’s been the journey for you in understanding your self-worth as an Black actress, considering many feel this is a breakthrough year for you?

Paige: Being an actress was pretty psycho, ‘cause it's just ups and downs, but you can't tie your worth to what you book. I think only in really knowing that you are worthy and that's just your birthright as a soul, to me, as an extension of where we are and who we come from, which is God, which is love, which is eternity. This is the place where you figure out all the messy shit, but love isn't conditional. Our work in this world, everything about this world is conditional. So it feels like this funny dance of being like, I know I'm worthy, but then I do a job that makes me feel unworthy and I get talked to crazy. Sometimes I'm working and I'm feeling good and I'm making money.

Other times, not so much. Then I do a photo shoot where people try to make me into something that I'm not, and I don't want to say no. I don't want to be difficult. Then I also know that, like, OK, it's just clothes, or I also know, like, OK, I'm tripping. But I'm also so blessed to do what I love and to even have representation and to have people who care and to have people I can bounce ideas off of. Being an actress, I noticed that what I haven't healed in my real life and my personal life, my insecurities, trauma, childhood, all the things I've ever been through — those things that really glare at me that I have to still learn how to transmute come up in my work.

When that script comes through and it's right for you, maybe that'll be it. In the meantime, it's doing a movie like White Boy Rick and then going back to — I had a roommate who had me work this party, and it was, I don't know, maybe $300. One of the guys in my cast was at the party. I greeted him and took his coat. That's being an actor. It ain't that certain, but nothing in life is.

MTV News: Earlier this year, Zola did really well at Sundance. How do you feel about the buzz and praise behind your portrayal of the titular character whose story sent shockwaves through Twitter in 2015?

Paige: We're all hoping to, you know, figure out how to feel free and more relaxed in all of our respective jobs, or whatever you call it. So with Zola, I just hope for the little Black girl in me from Inglewood who feels like, damn, whose life is this? I just hope that the women, you know, on a heavier note, like sex trafficking and sex work and this patriarchy and this imbalance of toxic masculinity — I just hope that this is one part of the puzzle pieces and glue. And this is like a small story in that, you know, this girl Zola goes on and gets into some shit.

That comes from the same place I wanted to play Dussie. Being a Black woman and being alive is to constantly be gaslit. Your whole existence is gaslit. People expect you to be so much more dynamic and better and pleasant and nurturing and watch your tone and make sure you're not angry or blah, blah, blah. But to be Black and to be a woman it's to constantly be frustrated, it's constantly feeling less than. Black women, we're expected to handle it because we have for so long. So, you know, you have the world on your shoulders, but no one's really asking me if it's heavy. Both Zola and Dussie for me have a through-line with the characters that I'm trying to play, which is: How do people internalize the world that they live in?