Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Star Taylour Paige On That Chadwick Boseman Scene You Can’t Stop Thinking About

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.
Taylour Paige thought she blew her audition for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the new Netflix film, the 30-year-old actress plays Dussie Mae, the young lover and backup dancer of Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) who is also fooling around with Ma’s brash band member, Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final performance). It’s the kind of part any young actor dreams of landing, and Paige was in awe right from the moment her agent sent her the part. “I saw the names, [director] George C. Wolfe, and then [executive producer] Denzel Washington, and you see Viola, and you see Chadwick and you see Glynn [Turman] and you see Coleman [Domingo] and you're like, what?” 
But before Paige got the role, she had to do a callback over Zoom (“this is before Zoom was the hot commodity it is now,” she tells R29 Unbothered, fittingly over Zoom) because she was in Italy with her boyfriend, Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams. “I set my alarm wrong and I woke up—I'm not kidding— with maybe four minutes to hurry up and get ready,” she laughs. “So I just quickly washed my face, brushed my teeth, didn't wear any makeup and threw my hair up.” She says she got off the call and cried. “I thought I did terribly,” she says. “I just felt so awful. Then, a couple hours later I got a call and they said, ‘Well, you're going to have to get on a plane and come back.’”
Paige is on the verge of a breakout moment in her career and playing Dussie, a Black queer woman in the 1920s, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is just the beginning. Next year, Paige will star in the viral Twitter thread-turned Sundance darling Zola in the titular role. Then, you’ll see her in Boogie, the Eddie Huang film about an aspiring basketball player. But first, Paige holds her own opposite a cast stacked with industry heavyweights, including Boseman in a gutting final performance that is more than worthy of all the hype. 
Refinery29: Ma Rainey was a real blues singer. Dussie is not based on a specific real person, but you’ve said she feels like an ancestor. 
Taylour Paige: “I think of Dussie as an unsung woman who had a voice or had dreams, and we never heard about them because of where she was and when she was born and just her luck of the draw. Wrong place, wrong time. She lived when the mentality was that there can only be a certain number of Black people that can make it at a certain time, and we don't want too many of them.”
Dussie dances her way through a lot of this movie as a backup for Ma Rainey and her band. She has this very specific shimmy. Where did that come from? Did you research the hype girls of the 1920s and how they moved?
“I am a trained dancer and whenever I play a character I think about the way they'd walk first. I have to reel in being able to place [my body] a certain way, because otherwise it looks like you're a dancer or you look like Taylour playing the role. So, I had to bring it back to the fact that she's Black, she can move, and she's around Ma so she's around the music. It's more of an instinctual thing than a technical thing. 

Everything that comes out of [Viola's] mouth is a bar. I'm not exaggerating. It’s like, that's a bar, that's a bar, that's a bar. Where's my notebook when I need it?

taylour paige
“Then I found images of these women in the 1920s and the way they sit in their bodies and the way they sit up to overcompensate. I saw a lot of women who had really bad posture because they're probably walking around with their heads down. They're not looking up because we're in the Jim Crow era, but then I also saw some women walking around with their shoulders back to at least make them feel something, make them feel worthy, make them feel like, I'm here, I want to be seen, I've arrived. Dussie was performing so that she didn't have to sit in her reality, which was that she felt very disposable.”
As you’re talking about physicality, I'm thinking of the scenes where Ma and Dussie are walking through Chicago. They seem proud. They're taking up space that Black women especially Black queer women at the time were not told they couldn’t, but they're very much doing that.
“You have to think in the 1920s, what was that like? What would it have felt like to be, ‘Yep, I'm loud, I'm proud.’ It's illegal to be gay then, it's illegal to be Black. It's illegal to exist. It's damn near illegal to blink your eyes as a Black person. Physically, there's definitely a bit of  overcompensating so she could just feel like she deserved to be here. Dussie is like, ‘Okay, if I just do what Ma says, and I twist my hips just a little bit, and I speak the way she wants me to, and I go get her shoes, she'll need me on every tour we go on and every recording session— even though my contribution is really just my sexuality and stroking her ego.’"
Who would you say is the modern day equivalent of Ma Rainey? 
I just think of all of the amazing Black women icons that we know and love, and not because they were difficult, but because they, like Ma, probably had to upset a lot of people to be where they are. And they probably were made to feel like they were difficult, but they really just had to fight for their dignity and reclaim who they are. I don't really know. I'll flip the question and say I think that Ma energy lives in all of us, because to live in this country is to just constantly be angry and trying to figure out how to say it, but not offend. You're the one constantly having to deepen your empathy and understand how [white people] receive you. The hope is that with a [film] like this, this expands the articulation of this thing that we were fighting then, and we're still fighting now.”
I thought of Megan Thee Stallion. I think that Ma Rainey would put out the WAP of her time.
“Oh, I just got chills. Yeah, I like that. I love Megan. I love that hottie. She's bomb.”
Credit: Netflix
Taylour Paige and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
I can imagine that going to work with Viola Davis every day is like going to school. What was the most inspiring thing you took away from working with her?
“Everything that comes out of her mouth is a bar, and I'm not exaggerating. It’s like, that's a bar, that's a bar, that's a bar. Where's my notebook when I need it? I was just constantly taking in someone who lives her life on and off screen in such a way that’s big and unapologetic, but it's also humble and kind. She’s a mama, an auntie, a friend. I think what I learned, to be honest, wasn't so much her words, because everything she says is so profound, it was really just the clarity of her example. She's able to laugh. She doesn't take herself too seriously, but you can see that she gives a damn, she really cares.
“And she really cares about us (Black people). And I think she still is very much humbly taking it all in like, ‘Wow, this is my life, wow. I always knew I was talented, but I didn't think I'd be here.’ It's just that constant clear divine dance she does of knowing she's the shit, but also remembering where she's come from. I just hope to always remain grounded and kind like her, and to really just care about the work.”

He was soft, but firm. I'm in awe of him and what he did. I think this [film] is such an incredible bow out for him to graduate to his next journey.

This movie is already getting Oscar buzz. Are you paying attention to it? 
“ Everyone dreams of being at the Oscars. It would be really cool to be at the Oscars or, I guess, if the Oscars are in our living room this year, it’s funny because they've always been in my living room, but I’m hopeful. I love that August Wilson lives on. I love that Chadwick lives on. They already live on; it's not that something in the physical world has to validate, but I do love that. We are in a time when we can appreciate their work in different ways and [this film] can really penetrate our souls. We can sit with these words and the meaning of this story. It’s about Black existence and frustration, and what it is to be Black and what a miracle it is to just put one foot in front of the other and smile. I’m grateful for whatever platform can get August's words out and celebrate George C. Wolfe, who's a genius, and Viola and Ma Rainey. And even the Dussies and the Levees of the world; these fictitious characters who I feel like their energy is very much real.”
I want to be sensitive because I know that it's probably hard to talk about Chadwick Boseman, but as you mentioned, we also want his legacy to live on. Tell me about working with Chadwick. 
Credit: Netflix
Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
“I love the way you asked that because some people can be quite insensitive. I feel very lucky to have shared space with him, to have learned from him. He really encouraged my innate desire to play and feel free. There is obviously a lot of dialogue in this film, but Chadwick and I didn't really over-talk it because it was like we just knew who these people are. We know they didn't get the opportunity to really ever feel free. He carried so much old wisdom but in a way that felt young because [he was] able to make it feel like it was your first time doing a movie. He looked at everything like it was new. 
“He was just so respectful of my space [during] the intimacy [scenes]. I was just like, ‘Do what Levee does.’ And we had fun. He was just really intentional about his words. He was soft, but firm and I'm in awe of him and what he did. I think this is such an incredible bow out for him to graduate to his next journey. He'll be with us. He's another one of those people who just really loved us.” 
One of the scenes I have thought about every day since I saw the movie is Chadwick’s final one where he — spoiler alert — stabs Toledo for stepping on his shoes. The way Chadwick plays that ending and the message is just so gut wrenching. What do you think of that scene? 
“Levee is so just… I mean, can you blame him? You see him being such a little boy about his shoes. Some might say that's ridiculous, the shoes, and why do Black people get so [obsessed] with shoes. But think of it symbolically. It’s like, I'm not in the field anymore. I have shoes. I've been able to put one foot in front of the other. You know how hard I had to work to get these damn shoes? Also you have to think of what the society is that we've grown up in to have shoes carry such heavy weight? It's so sad. That anger is just coming from someone who is very wounded.” 
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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