‘Zola’: a conversation with Taylour Paige and Riley Keough about the dangers of being a woman
Opening with the dreamy sound of a harp evocative of a fairytale and cherubs, and the voice of actress Taylour Paige – who plays Zola, reciting the first lines of the now iconic Twitter thread; “Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this b**ch fell out? It’s kind of long, but full of suspense.” Zola (the movie) captures the attention and curiosity of the audience. Based on the now iconic Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King, and directed by Janicza Bravo, the film takes one back to where they were that night, as memories come flooding back.
On the night of October 27, 2015, a then 19-year old Zola, began to tell the story of how she formed a quick bond with a customer named Jessica, over their experience as strippers. Believing a friendship as developed Jessica, – whose name is changed to Stefanie in the film and played by Riley Keough – invites Zola on a road trip from Detroit to Florida to make money dancing in local clubs. What follows is a truly wild tale told through Zola’s distinctive narrative voice that effortlessly held readers’ attention from beginning to end, mine included.
‘Zola’ review: Taylour Paige gives a star-making performance in Janicza Bravo’s cinematic treatment of the viral Twitter thread
While on the bus making my way home from work, I, like many other passengers on the bus, was reading the thread as it was being created. As Zola promised, it was indeed filled with suspense as the stakes of the events in each successive tweet got increasingly higher for her. Initially, the reality of how dangerous the situation was for both of these young women wasn’t apparent, as the humor with which Zola spoke, in a way disguised the just how precarious her situation was. But through the billinat direction of Bravo, and tweet-to-screen script adaptation by her, co-writer Jeremy O. Harris and King, this all becomes starkly evident.
During a recent press day for the film, on behalf of AwardsWatch, I spoke with lead actress Taylour Paige, and Riley Keough about the ways in which the film shines a light on the many dangers women in sex work face, sex-trafficking, and using humor as a vehicle to tell difficult stories.
Carolyn Hinds: My first question has to do with the seriousness of this story, because the thing with the film is that it adds context to how dangerous the situation that both Zola and Stefani were in. Could you talk a bit about preparing mentally for playing these roles and the specific scenarios and situations that you would have to portray?
Riley Keough: “Yeah, It’s an interesting one because it’s dealing with very serious subject matters. Sex trafficking, and race, and all of these very profound topics, and under this guise of comedic adventure. So, that was something that I always loved about this piece. You’re touching on all these very serious things, but you’re giving it to the audience in this way that can feel like a fun time and an easy pill to swallow, and then hopefully you walk away thinking about these more serious subjects. And I think, in terms of preparation, I think it was very different for both Taylour and I. I think Stefani and Zola are in very different places when we start the movie, and in a sense Stefani is abducting her, and Zola is being abducted. So I think that we started out with very different mindsets.”
Taylour Paige: “Yeah, yeah. I mean, I fully agree with everything she just said. I think my prep was just in… I felt like just taking some of my experiences, my Black woman experiences, and my body and agency, and confidence, and my microaggression. And just like, even being in Tampa, the atmosphere, which is Confederate flag T-shirts and flags and just, an observation of the world that we live in, and Black women and what we internalize and what we feel we can carry. Being young, and also the systems in place that cause us to want to go on a trip in the first place to try to make $5k a night. Just all of it.”
When you read the tweets, the story is very funny because of the way Aziah phrases her comments. Her narrative voice is naturally comedic, but the film as I said, adds visual context, and one of the things that didn’t really occur to me as I was reading the thread when it first happened, which was the reality that was was taking place was sex trafficking. They were being trafficked as they were being taken across state lines, and in Stefani’s case, she was engaging in illegal prostitution.
As I sat watching the film one thought kept occurring to me; ‘Zola is a young Black woman surrounded by complete strangers,’ and every misgiving and sense of apprehension she had was translated through Paige’s fantastic performance. Every gesture tells the audience that despite her confident way of speaking, internally she’s uncomfortable with everything taking place. She’s acutely aware none of the people around her is an ally capable or willing to help. Zola knows she can’t push X (Colman Domingo) too far, lest he turn his anger towards her. Stefani, who claimed to be her friend, basically turned on the white woman water works to manipulate Zola into feeling sympathy for her, then showing none in return, and all Jarrett cared about was Stefanie and not feeling left out.
One scene in particular encapsulates this perfectly. As X and Jarrett decide what they’re going to do in their rescue attempt to save Stefanie from some customers holding her hostage, Zola asks, “Who’s looking out for me?” It’s the first moment where she verbally asserts how vulnerable and alone she’s feeling, and that one moment out of the entire film, really struck me because she’s in such a dangerous position, but her being the sole Black woman – surrounded by all of these people – no one is looking out for her.
I asked Paige about Zola’s vulnerability, and being a young Black woman surrounded by others who had no care or interest in her wellbeing, because with everything she had to contend with, racism definitely played a part in how dangerous things were for her.
TP: “I love that scene, I love that you brought it up And I keep saying, I felt… I found symbolism even in like, she physically, tangibly has all these bags. She packed all her bags, her outfits, her brush, dadada, whatever, and you’ll notice that Stefani’s character has a little trash bag and a really small bag that nothing can fit in.”
“I think often that it’s like, the Black woman is often expected to carry the bags, no one asks how happy they are. No one asks what’s in them. No one understands how they got there in the first place. But, she’s carrying them! And I think, just the presumption, and the projecting of a black woman’s strength and what she can take and the lack of empathy for… even from all walks of life, I think. Just like…how the Black woman is so deeply disrespected.”
CH: And Riley, for you, playing Stefani, who is very nonchalant and doesn’t seem to understand, or have some kind of empathy for Zola’s position, because Zola does express concern and she says, “I want to go home.” But Stefani is like, “Nah, we’re here to do what I want to do.” Could you speak a bit from that perspective as someone observing both characters as an actress.
RK: “Yeah, I think that the interesting… the thing I really wanted to do with Stefani, and I think Janicza wanted to do as well, is you’re not really clear on if she’s wanting to be there or not. I mean, there’s moments. Of course in the beginning, it feels like she very much wants to be there. She very much wants to be participating. And then we have these little moments where she cries to Zola and she’s like, “I don’t want to be here, I’m here for my child”, or later on when X takes the money, and treats her poorly, and you see them have a moment of her feeling like, sad and broken. And, I think when playing somebody doing sex work, I definitely am cognizant of not having judgment on the fact that they’re doing sex work.”
“And I think that with Stefani, it was like riding this line of if we can play with the audience, and make them question: does she want to be here? Is she being forced to be here? Is she sex trafficked? Is she in more control than we think? Is this manipulative? Is it not? And so, hopefully we can ride that line throughout the film. But, she’s definitely demonic and offensive and horrible and gets Zola into a very reckless, dangerous situation that Zola very clearly doesn’t want to be in.”
CH: I think it was very important that this film in particular, because of what’s happening in it, was done by a Black woman. So Just as we wrap up, could both of you address working with Janicza? Speak a bit about working with her, and having that process done with a Black female director in particular.
TP: “Well, she’s a woman that exists in a world where people don’t ask her how heavy her bags are. And, she’s expected to do more or be even better than her white counterparts or white men. Meaning like, just the constant having to fill in in-between and do other people’s work. But naturally I think that on the positive it’s like, the deep capacity for compassion and understanding and being specific. And she goes through the world the black woman, so she can completely identify with being in, maybe not as dramatic and tumultuous as this road trip, but the road trip called life where everything is stacked against you and you’re still made to… you live in a society that wants to…that kind of constantly erases you and yet you still have to work and be here.”
CH: And Riley? Just before we wrap up?
RK: “Well, firstly, I just wanted to say that when you’re doing a film where you have to be really vulnerable and have to be naked and have to be in a bikini and have to be on a pole and dancing and all these sex scenes, I felt so protected with Janicza directing. That I was … that allowed me to perform in the way that I wanted to. I didn’t feel like I had to look out for myself.”
“I felt like I had somebody that was steering the ship and it had me and my needs, and Taylour and her needs that would go first and foremost above everything. So, that protection was so necessary in this film that’s about sex work and about these two women in this horrible situation. And, I don’t think I would’ve done the film if that weren’t the case. And then all of the commentary she wanted… She made on the female body, and steeping in females and race and all of that. I don’t think I would have wanted to partake in those conversations, had it not been directed by a black woman.”
Whether or not you read King’s thread in real time, in any of the articles that gave details about that weekend, or becoming familiar with the story for the first time through the film, to paraphrase her, don’t get caught up in the sauce and lost in the game of the comedy, the magical dream like music, and dramatic antics of characters like Jarrett.
Both Bravo and Wells are asking audiences to pay attention to what’s actually being told and shown to you. Zola is about how common and easily perpetrated sex trafficking is in America. Every day young girls and women are taken and forced into sex work against their will, held hostage by men and women who only see them as a means to becoming wealthy. Their victims are abused behind closed doors and at times in public, and no one does anything as shown in a few disturbing sequences. If you think Zola’s story was just a crazy wild road trip, know that Z, was arrested, charged and sentenced for sex trafficking and kidnapping.
Zola is now playing only in theaters from A24.