Writer-director Ava DuVernay met author Isabel Wilkerson more than a dozen times while researching “Origin,” her movie based on Wilkerson’s book “Caste: the Origins of our Discontent.” Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, the actress who played Wilkerson, did not. Wilkerson is an intensely private person, and Ellis-Taylor instead watched the author’s TED talk and read and reread the book after winning the part.
“Ava said she wanted to do a story that explored the interior life of a woman,” Ellis-Taylor said. “A woman thinking. A woman in the middle of processing grand, huge, vast ideas, and dramatizing that. I thought that was rare. Rare to see a woman, Black or white, so that you are interested in the genius of the woman, not what her body looks like, not being an appendage to a man.
“That was incredibly attractive to me to do in any way at all.”
A veteran character actor with a dozen weighty performances to her credit, including DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” “Lovecraft Country” and a Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for playing Oracene Price in 2021’s “King Richard,” Ellis-Taylor carries the bulk of “Origin” on her shoulders. In her performance, she had to externalize the intense thinking that produced a theory around caste. She also had to portray the personal tragedy that Wilkerson endured in losing her husband, her mother and her cousin during the writing of the book.
“It’s become my bible — it’s still my bible, right next to me,” Ellis-Taylor said, explaining how she conveyed the swirling mental intensity in scenes where she is typing on a laptop, writing on legal pads or creating categories on a big whiteboard. “It comes through because I myself am trying to understand these ideas,” she said. “Trying to cross-reference with things I’ve read, with personal experiences I’ve had… What you see in me, you see all that stuff coursing through my brain, processing that in the moment. And I’m still processing it.”
A native of Mississippi, Ellis-Taylor has deep connections to the concepts in the film and the book. And emotions that still run high. “I’m from the South,” she said. “We had a national discussion (about race) that peaked in Virginia with that rally that resulted in a woman dying. That has not transferred into things changing in Mississippi. The Confederate flag was part of the state flag and the flag was changed. But the flag remains in non-official capacities. In your yard.
“It’s terrorism — that’s what it is. The brilliance of Miss Wilkerson is these are the words you need to say: This is terrorism. Call it what it is.”
Dealing with such explosive topics and painful history, the role required huge levels of trust between DuVernay and Ellis-Taylor. DuVernay warned Ellis-Taylor that it would be physically uncomfortable, an ambitious movie made on a budget, no star trailer. But beyond that, she gave Ellis-Taylor the space to create and live in the character.
“She took the mantle, she took that baton and she ran,” DuVernay said. “And she did it in every single scene.”
“The measure of that relationship was our discussions about the truths we were trying to convey on screen,” Ellis-Taylor said. “We were in constant conversation, sometimes argument, about it. For me, it was important that Ms. Wilkerson is a fighter. She’s not just a brain, not just a scholar — she’s a fighter.”
If the experience of making “Origin” was profound for everyone involved, it was more so for its lead actor, who has still not seen the film. “I can’t take it,” she said. “I had an experience that started in late November 2022 and ended in front of the camera in March 2023.”
Will she ever? “We’ll see,” she said, no commitment. “One day.”
This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.