Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor: The Mississippi Muse Behind Ava DuVernay’s ‘Origin’

Oscar-nominated actor Aunjanae Ellis-Taylor carries Magnolia, Mississippi, with her everywhere. 

That Southern Mississippi town with a population of less than 2000 was the fertile ground that helped birth her artistry and shape her sensibilities. 

“It’s everywhere in my work,” said Ellis-Taylor about Magnolia, “I was raised in a church. I was a church thespian, like every other kid that went to church. It was really my first understanding of art.”  

“Everything I listened to, whether it’s jazz, whether it’s R&B, whether it’s the blues, no matter what it is,” Ellis-Taylor said, “All of that experience in Magnolia, Mississippi, and New Home Baptist Church is threaded in everything that feeds me artistically now.”

Ellis-Taylor’s love for her home state was one of several revelatory insights she shared on Friday evening in a virtual chat hosted by Trinity United Church of Christ’s Pastor Otis Moss III. 

In “Film Notes with Pastor Moss featuring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor,” the actress, who has 83 film and television acting credits, spoke on her latest work, the Ava DuVernay-directed film “Origin,” based on the book “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. 

Ellis-Taylor opened up about how she got involved with “Origin,” the emotional challenges of playing the lead role, and the hurdles of bias and discrimination she has faced in the film industry. 

Ellis-Taylor’s ‘Origin’ Story

Her journey on “Origin” began when she heard that DuVernay acquired the rights to adapt Wilkerson’s New York Times bestseller.

At first, she admitted that her wish to be involved with the film was a long shot. Still, Ellis-Taylor was determined to be part of the conversation. Inspired by a photo of Wilkerson, whom she plays in the movie, Ellis-Taylor said she got a wig, ordered a dress, and bought pearls off Amazon for a picture she sent to the “Origin” casting director Aisha Coley. The photo eventually reached Ava DuVernay, which led to a conversation on a possible collaboration. 

At that point, she said, she didn’t read the book, which, at the time, was an act of self-preservation.

“I didn’t want to read the book until I had the part,” Ellis-Taylor said, “I didn’t really get my hopes up.”

But then her prayers were answered. When Ellis-Taylor learned that she got the part, she dove right in. 

Good Morning Heartache

In the interview, Rev. Moss delved into the themes of grief and empathy in “Origin.” 

Ellis-Taylor highlighted the constant condition of grief in Black life, drawing on personal experiences, including the loss of her mother. She described grief as an “unfortunate gift” that she brings to her on-screen portrayals, emphasizing the need to embrace and find joy in it.

Referencing Billie Holiday’s song “Good Morning Heartache,” she spoke of learning to think of grief as a friend.

“It is something that I’m going to embrace because it’s never going away,” said Ellis-Taylor, “So the question is, how do I make space for it? How do I live with it? How do I find joy in it?”

She brought that feeling with her to work every day on the set of “Origin,” she said.

The Caste in Casts

The interview took a poignant turn as Ellis-Taylor addressed the caste system prevalent in Hollywood. She discussed her experiences as a queer Black woman, revealing instances of bigotry and belittlement on sets. 

Ellis-Taylor called attention to the gender and sexuality dynamics within the industry, emphasizing the need to address and stop such behavior.

“The caste system is very active in the Hollywood community, in the film and television community, particularly with how women are treated on sets. Women who do hair and makeup, women period, our work is not valued in the same way that the work of men is valued,” she said.

In Praise of Ava 

The actress has worked with some of the most well-regarded directors in the industry, including Kasi Lemmons, Tony Scott and Barry Jenkins. 

Speaking of DuVernay, whom she worked with in the 2019 Netflix Drama Miniseries When They See Us, Ellis-Taylor praised her unique approach. In When They See Us, DuVernay made her a better actor in a structured and specific role. 

In “Origin,” the approach was quite the opposite. 

“With Origin, there was a lot more space for my own presence. She trusted what I was bringing, and then she would come in and say, ‘I think you need to go further. I think you need to think about this.’ But there was an openness that she allowed.”

Ellis-Taylor on the Art of Subtlety and Preparation

In “Origin,” Moss asked her about a scene in which she demonstrates her uncanny use of subtlety. She has become renowned for this, particularly in the film King Richard, which led her to snag an Oscar nomination. 

Ellis-Taylor explained that her use of subtlety was more of a byproduct of the real-life characters she had to play in “King Richard” and “Origin,” as Oracene Price and Wilkerson. In playing Wilkerson, she had to really highlight the writer’s real-life virtues of elegance and refinement. 

As the conversation delved into Ellis-Taylor’s preparation rituals, she shared how music gets her into a zone. One artist she made sure to highlight was luminous jazz vocalist Samara Joy, a response that elicited an “Amen” from Rev. Moss. 

Joy’s music was a constant companion while she worked on “Origin.” Ellis-Taylor even gave a shout out to R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan and the venerable Gospel group The Clark Sisters as specific inspirations. 

The Best Way You Can Support This Acting Force

Moss and Ellis-Taylor covered so much ground in this free-flowing conversation.

The actress shared the exhilarating experience of filming authentic scenes in India, including a nerve-wracking moment crossing a busy intersection where cars were coming from everywhere. She also mentioned the challenges of playing the reclusive Wilkerson, whom she has never met, especially as she endeavored to maintain an emotional authenticity in her portrayal.  

“Origin” has garnered acclaim from a litany of esteemed critics. 

Peter Travers of ABC News remarked, “How do you make a movie about an intellectual argument? By putting a human face on it, which is what Ava DuVernay and acting force Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor do in this stunning provocation about race and class.”

Richard Roeper, perhaps the dean of film critics, added that “Origin” “is one of the most thought-provoking movies in recent years — the kind of film you’ll find impossible to forget, the kind of film you’ll want to discuss and debate with friends and colleagues.”

Despite the flowers the film has gotten, it hasn’t received commercial support, a familiar dilemma for many quality films that dare to be different. 

When asked about the best way people can support Ellis-Taylor, her answer, much like everything she responded to on Friday evening, was apt and straight to the point.

“The way to support me right now is to go see “Origin,” she said. 

“If you go, post a video of yourself going to see it. Post pictures of yourself, take somebody with you. It probably is not going to be in a theater that much longer. So, we have to push as long as we can.”

“Origin,” directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, is in theaters. For more information on tickets, visit

See the full “Film Notes with Pastor Moss” chat below: 




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