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The director of Zola isn't the only one eager for her movie to finally be out in the world. "Do you know how many people will be like, 'Hey, can I get a [screening] link?' " asks Janicza Bravo (2017's Lemon) over Zoom, joined by her stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough, who play Zola and Stefani, respectively. "I'm like, 'Literally don't have one. If I want one, I have to ask' — [and] I directed and co-wrote it!" Adds Keough, 32, "I've never had so many people asking for links in my life."
Anna Kooris / A24 (L to R) Director Janicza Bravo, actor Riley Keough and actor Taylour Paige on the set of ZOLA, an A24 Films release.
Adapting a viral 2015 Twitter thread by a stripper named A'Ziah "Zola" King about a demented road trip to Florida with her treacherous new friend has proved to be no easy task. A behind-the-camera shake-up (James Franco was slated to direct until misconduct allegations led to his departure) and the global pandemic delaying the film's release made things even harder; the first time the creative team got to witness its unique magic was at the table read. "I was stressed out," admits Keough, who plays Zola's malevolent travel companion. "It was the first time I was going to try Stefani's voice." Paige, 30, who plays the film's hero, picks up her thought: "…In front of a bunch of Black people!" Bravo jokes, "It was pretty immediate that we were like, 'And yes, we like this probably more than we should.'"
Bravo, 40, sees her two leads as distinct yet complementary "classic" film archetypes. "Riley's character is very much the buffoon," she says, "while Taylour's character is the center. She's the heart of the piece." The two roles couldn't be more different, with the director likening Keough's to a minstrel show, and Taylour's to "a silent-film character. So much happens in her face, and how she processes what is happening."
"The pair's relationship is a chemical connection that can be perceived sexually or nonsexually," Bravo continues. Paige took her note that Zola and Stefani's meet-cute should evoke the steaminess of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. "Their introduction was always supposed to feel like the fish-tank scene. 'I see you, you see me. Ooh, this is hot, this is sexy, this is fun.' And that's where the romance begins."
Anna Kooris/A24 ZOLA (L to R) Nick Braun as "Derrek", Riley Keough as "Stefani", Taylour Paige as "Zola", and Colman Domingo as "X"
The relationship is doomed from the start; it takes just 20 minutes for Stefani to knock the light out of Zola's eyes. Bravo hardly needs dialogue to tell the story, given her galaxy-brain-level of attention to detail. "Janicza thought of every single thing…. Even our nails: Mine were rounded and Riley's were sharp. If she touched you, you could get hurt," Paige recalls. "There was a very clear road map as to where the f--- we were going."
Take a simple "piss scene at a gas station," as Bravo puts it. She insisted to co-writer Jeremy O. Harris (Broadway's Slave Play) that they include it because it "tells the story of who these two women are." Even through their different hues of urine, the scene becomes "the second act, where we get the audience to see that it isn't going to work out. They are moving through the world totally and completely, diametrically opposed."
When their conflict escalates, the film gives an unflinching look at sex work without judging those who partake in it, which Keough appreciated. "There are moments where you're like, 'Does [Stefani] love this? Or is she a sociopath, or is she abused?' " she says. "I loved how complex her relationship is to the work she's doing."
Anna Kooris/A24 Riley Keough (left) stars as "Stefani" and Taylour Paige (right) stars as "Zola" in director Janicza Bravo's ZOLA, an A24 Films release.
Even with Stefani being the more dubious figure, Bravo recalls how in 2015 many still questioned Zola's tangible narrative, an inequity that she takes the most liberty with conveying. "[Stefani] is in literal blackface and there's still the question of, 'Oh, but I like her,' and I wanted to play with that. I wanted to play with our own experience of whiteness and the gentility and the permission that whiteness is given whereas Blackness is not," explains the director. "You can present Zola as together and with it, tip to tail, and there's still a question of how they move through the world."
Zola premiered at Sundance in 2020 to strong reviews, with A24 already lined up as its distributor. Then COVID-19 hit. Unlike most indies from last year, it held out for a wide theatrical release— which is finally here. "Nobody watches Zola and doesn't have some kind of strong reaction," says Keough. Both women have been eager to see the public's reaction to the film on the big screen. "I feel like we've had so much time to prepare for this moment that I just want to celebrate us," Paige says. "I'm ready, though. Have at it, everybody."
A version of this story appears in the July issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.