In promotion of A’Ziah “Zola” King’s The Story, the hardbound print edition of the Twitter thread that inspired Zola, A24 includes the author in the company of undisputed greats like Homer, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. As anyone who followed along with @_zolarmoon’s 2015 account of a Florida “hoe trip” gone awry would agree, that’s no winking hyperbole. Like The Bard, King is an exceedingly clever wordsmith (introducing phrases like “lost in the sauce” and “pussy is worth thousands” to the lexicon) and a keen observer, a storyteller who can spin gold out of the everyday and the overlooked. And like all three of those literary forebears, King’s work has now been the subject of adaptation and interpretation by other artists: Director Janicza Bravo, her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, and a skilled troupe of actors all breathing life into King’s chronicle of that fateful road trip in Zola.
At Zola’s core is Zola, of course, played with a perpetual side-eye by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Taylour Paige. It’s an undeniable breakout role for the actor, her presence a magnetic anchor as things spin deeper into madness—in watching her process what unfolds around her, the film offers up a brilliant meta-commentary on the art of storytelling. But Paige’s performance wouldn’t function the same way without Riley Keough’s Stefani (and vice versa), the yang to her yin. As Zola’s guide on this dark odyssey, Stefani is persuasive, vivacious, and the walking personification of cultural appropriation. It’s a brazen role for Keough, who’s proven herself a fearless chameleon of indie cinema, and one that’s sure to inspire many a think piece. In conversation with The A.V. Club, Paige and Keough discuss how they approached their inextricable dual performances and the instantaneous chemistry that made it all possible.
Taylour Paige: I couldn’t have done it without [Riley]. I think that the challenge, at first, was [that] naturally her energy is so high that I wanted to match it. And Janicza was really, really clear about wanting—you know, Riley’s character is the buffoon, she’s in blackface the whole film, and Zola is the straight man. Just like Lucy and Ethel, it’s a reciprocated effort where I have to have something to react to, but if we’re both too high, I don’t think it would land. So, for me, I think I was an engaged observer.
The A.V. Club: Yes, there’s so much that we get from just the quick glances that you make—
TP: And the deep sighs, yeah.
Riley Keough: Yeah, and she is sort of like the whole audience being like, what? [Laughs.] Like, how everyone’s feeling is Zola, you know?
AVC: So, Riley, how did you play off of what Taylour was bringing—how did you calibrate your performance to that?
RK: I mean, I think our natural chemistry and our friendship was really helpful, in that we were very comfortable with each other and able to play around, ask each other things, and try things. Having that space to be able to play and perform is a luxury—it doesn’t happen often. And I think that is because all of us got along really well, we all were on the same page. We were all kind of able to have fun with this content—even the darker stuff—and there was this [feeling] that we all just loved being there.
From the moment we got there, I really felt that everybody was so grateful to be in this film, we were so excited. And even the ones of us who had been more jaded—you kind of can get jaded and go, like, “Okay, I’m going to work.” And it’s so frustrating because it’s actually the most fun job ever. And with [Zola], I felt all of us were just like, “I’m so happy to be here.” And I think that that environment created this fun [atmosphere,] almost like a theater camp or something like that.
Like any good acting troupe, the talent in Zola’s cast stretches beyond its central stars. Equally important to (and guilty of) the chaos that ensues are X, the congenial but menacing pimp played by the reliably great Colman Domingo, and Derrek, Stefani’s hapless boyfriend played by Nicholas Braun—best known as Succession’s Cousin Greg. They bring a natural charm to their roles, while imbuing each with a distinct sense of caustic danger. If Zola and Stefani are two sides of the same coin, then X and Derek are polar forces, pulling the pair in different directions. Even as things go to shit, it’s Domingo and Braun’s performances that help maintain Zola’s cosmic balance.
In separate conversations with The A.V. Club, both Domingo and Braun share how the found empathy in characters that aren’t always easy to root for.
Colman Domingo: With any character that I play, I’ve got to find what I love about them. And I knew that that was going to be the challenge: taking on a character like X, that is based on a real guy, who did some real volatile things to women. I’m such a staunch feminist, [so] I really thought it’s a great challenge for me to look into the soul of this person and see what makes him human, what makes him tick, what his dreams are, what he cares about.
Once I understood him being an immigrant, as well, I took it from the point of view of an immigrant story. It may seem odd, but I thought, “This is what this guy has.” I don’t know if he had his papers or not, but, what he has—he’s trying to get agency, and he wants what everyone else has. He wants the American dream. He even appropriates African American colloquialisms and really sort of blends in, until [he] reveals himself in some weird turns, or when he’s angry. So I really thought that was a great challenge, to find what I love about this guy and what keeps him grounded.
So that’s what I found; I found his charisma. All the things that he knew he could use—being charismatic, being able to look ahead five steps—[those are] all really amazing things, actually. You know, he knows how to make money—although he apparently didn’t know how to price things properly until Zola came along, [laughs.] But, you know what? He was doing what he could. So that’s what I looked at to help me find love for this guy, and to make sure that he was human. He’s just a guy who gets caught up in things like everyone else.
Nicholas Braun: [Derrek] doesn’t know how badly he’s off of the track that he ought to be on. He’s so far from what would make him happy—which is like a nice girl who says, “Hey, you know, you don’t have to look cool; you’re good.” But, instead, he thinks he’s got to look cool. He thinks he’s got to talk a certain way and kind of front like he’s some version of X, maybe. And I think we empathize with that.
You know, people that are caught in relationships that—in a way, it’s like an abusive relationship. When you’re on the outside of it, you’re like, “Man, that is not good, I wish both of them could just not be together. That guy is in bad shape.” But when you’re inside of it, you’re like, “Well, today was a bad day, but maybe tomorrow will be better.” So, I think you empathize with the guy that’s more the victim of the relationship, and the victim of the movie in a lot of ways. Zola is as well, in a big way, but Derrek suffers some consequences, too.
Zola hits theaters nationwide on June 30. The transcripts of these interviews have been edited for length and clarity.