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Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor on Name Change & Playing Literary Indiana Jones



Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor has made some changes in her life.

We’ve all grown to know her as the two-time Emmy nominated actress from “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country” and her Oscar-nominated performance in “King Richard,” all of which came under her initial professional name: Aunjanue Ellis.

When the first promotional materials were released for her new film “Origin” from writer and director Ava DuVernay, a natural question began circulating regarding the hyphenated addition of “Taylor” to her professional name. What prompted the name change? Turns out, she wanted to honor the most important person in her life posthumously: her mother.

“The love of my life, my mother, gave me my Daddy’s name,” she tells Variety. “I was like, wait a minute, lady, I want your name. This past birthday, I said, ‘What am I doing? I want to carry her with me every day.’ So, how do I do that and not have to do that on a conscious level? It’s my name.”

And that is how she will be credited in all her future projects.

On this episode of the award-winning Variety Awards Circuit Podcast, Ellis-Taylor dives until her next role as Pulitzer Prize journalist Isabel Wilkerson in DuVernay’s masterful drama, working — once again — with Jon Bernthal and the pressure of landing one of her first major leading roles. In addition, we sat down with “American Fiction” star Sterling K. Brown, who talks about rising to the challenge to play a gay surgeon in Cord Jefferson’s satirical dramedy “American Fiction.” Listen below.

Courtesy of Array

“Origin” is an adaptation of Wilkerson’s bestselling book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It chronicles the author’s quest to unravel humanity’s divisions as she writes her acclaimed nonfiction work. Guided by a stellar performance from Oscar nominee Ellis-Taylor, the film artfully balances probing inquiries into prejudice with a profound human examination of love and grief as Wilkerson deals with her own loss.

Marking one of the first times Ellis-Taylor has been the lead of a movie, she says it was “a joy” to portray the famed author, who she cleverly describes as “a literary and journalistic Indiana Jones, who goes on a quest all around the world in search of a truth about who we are.”

She recognizes the journey and pressure to get movie-goers into seats due to varying hurdles by media and marketing efforts, in addition to the double standards in Hollywood. “When a lovely white man wants to tell a story about someone, all they need to offer is their filmmaking abilities,” she says. “When a writer-director like Ava, or an actor like me [wants to do it], there’s an expectation of us that we have to make it relatable and universal. We have to offer hope. And that demand is not made of our contemporaries and our peers.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

During the run for “King Richard,” she was used to following what the studio and the film’s star and co-producer Will Smith had planned for promoting the film. “These are things that I was completely unaware of,” she recalls during an interview for an upcoming Variety Awards Circuit Podcast episode. “I was having a conversation with my representatives, agent, and manager about promoting the film. I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about that. They just told me where to go. Will [Smith] did this and that.’ And they said to me, ‘Well, now you’re Will.’ And I couldn’t sleep that night. It’s another kind of responsibility because it’s not just about me — it’s about everybody.”

The actress has five projects on the horizon, some of which include RaMell Ross’ adaptation of the Colson Whitehead novel “The Nickel Boys” from Amazon MGM Studios and Tina Mabry’s adaptation of “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat,” co-written by Gina Prince-Bythewood from Searchlight Pictures. Both are due to be released in 2024.

For the time, she remains excited about receiving the words of praise and acclaim for “Origin” and people being able to learn about Isabel Wilkerson. “What’s great about it is that it democratizes her ideas. The spreading of her ideas and arguments. She says that we need a new language to discuss how we divide ourselves in this world, and cinema gives that access.”

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.


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