The 32-year-old singer and actress is often described as a sex symbol. Her body has been a focal point for several moments in her career, from being the video vixen in Kanye West's 2016 music video "Fade" to her captivating 2021 cameo in "Coming 2 America."
"A Thousand and One" (streaming Friday on Peacock and available now to buy/rent on Apple TV and other on-demand platforms) is a metaphorically stripped-down version of Taylor and the "most serious role of my life and of my career," she says.
"I've always wanted to prove myself," Taylor adds. "There was a time where everybody was like, 'OK, cool. Yeah, she's hot, (has a) hot body. But does she have the acting chops?' "
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The film is set in 1994 Harlem and chronicles the life of 22-year-old Inez (played by Taylor) over a 10-year span when she kidnaps her 6-year-old son, Terry, from foster care.
"I can connect to Inez as a daughter and as a mother," Taylor, who shares daughters Junie, 7, and Rue, 2, with husband Iman Shumpert.
Inez and Terry's mother-son duo face adversity from the criminal justice and foster care systems amid the rapid gentrification of their neighborhood.
"There's no real change," says Taylor, a Harlem native. "Honestly, everything that we was going through then in this movie is the same thing that's happening now, times 20."
Director and writer A.V. Rockwell, a Queens native, says despite Taylor's New York upbringing, it was a "huge leap of faith" to cast her, and the two had to establish trust. "I encouraged her to remember what it was like living life at that street level as a Harlem girl," says Rockwell, adding that she told the "Bare Wit Me" singer early on, "If Inez can't get a facial, Teyana can't get a facial."
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Taylor earned praise and the film gained early acclaim at Sundance Film Festival, where the drama won top honors – validation, Rockwell says, that the story touched people in a way that is "universal."
USA TODAY film critic Brian Truitt called Taylor an "emotional powerhouse." Screen Rant applauded Taylor's portrayal of Inez as "a breathtaking character study of perseverance in Black motherhood," while Deadline called "A Thousand and One" "a love letter to mothers, sons, daughters, the poor, displaced and the hustlers of NYC."
Filming was cathartic for Taylor, who says Inez is her "mirrored soul."
When the project started in 2021, Taylor had been "bottling things up" to the point where she was ready to explode. "Inez came in a perfect time to let out everything that I was going through and me not feeling like enough," she says. "(Inez) never folded and I feel like through my life and my career, I never folded. I always kept pushing."
There are moments in Taylor's career when she has seemingly "folded." The multihyphenate – who spun out three albums from 2014 to 2020 with hits "Wake Up Love," "How You Want It?" and "Gonna Love Me" – announced she was retiring from music in 2020 because she felt "underappreciated" by her label. She also wanted to focus more on her family. The "Rose in Harlem" singer set out on a farewell tour in 2021 and 2022.
Fans who were skeptical that Taylor would quit music forever were right. Music is one door of many that are still open, she says. Among her career ventures are music video directing and creative directing for other artists. "When I'm opening these other doors, they're staying wide open," she says.
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Taylor's tenacity to push forward against resistance is something she learned from her mother and longtime manager Nikki Taylor. The artist says she connects to her "A Thousand and One" character's strength, but her hustle is something she saw close to home.
"I see that young lady in my mom," she says. "I've always appreciated my mom, but it built a whole nother level of appreciation for my mom and her being a single parent." Nikki has cried "every single time" she's seen the movie, Taylor says, because she views it as a "thank you" for the work that went into raising her daughter.
Rockwell's goal with the film is to "tell a story that speaks to the experiences of inner-city women that feel not only misunderstood and somewhat invisible in society, but even within our own communities. So I wanted to use Inez's journey to speak to that and make those women feel loved and seen and dignified."
Throughout "A Thousand and One," priority is placed on the needs of Terry (played at 6 by Aaron Kingsley Adetola, 13 by Aven Courtney and 17 by Josiah Cross) and Inez's boyfriend Lucky (William Catlett). Rockwell intentionally framed some of the focus on the two male characters to raise the question: "Who really shows up for Black women?"
Rockwell says she hopes viewers realize women like Inez "want to feel loved and not just needed."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A Thousand and One': Teyana Taylor on most serious role, music future