Why Ava DuVernay is a 'different person' after directing “Origin”

The filmmaker previews her new movie, starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.

<p>Atsushi Nishijima/NEON</p> Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor on the set of

Atsushi Nishijima/NEON

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor on the set of 'Origin'

Ava DuVernay was frustrated.

The Selma director and When They See Us creator had just read Isabel Wilkerson's bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents for the second time following its huge release in the summer of 2020 but, as she tells EW, "still didn't understand it, really."

The next read, though, proved that popular idiom true: "It really started to sink in. I thought, This is information that people should know, and I should make a movie about it."

In her book, Wilkerson examines how it's not race or class systems that have, throughout history and to this day, oppressed people and cultures around the world but rather a caste system — made of up eight pillars — that ranks humans and their importance to each other. "I was really taken by the interconnectedness of all of these things that we feel are very separate in terms of a cultural phenomenon that keeps us apart," DuVernay says, "and the idea that, wow, the undergirding, the foundation of it all is the same."

Given the book's topic, she then faced a big question: "How do you communicate that in a way that's emotional, that's cinematic?" Wilkerson's book, after all, isn't fiction; it's a fact-based exploration of how the experiences of people of color in America are directly related to the caste systems in Nazi Germany and India. The book, in essence, comes to life thanks to Wilkerson's research in those countries (DuVernay & Co. filmed Origin in three countries in 37 days) with period-piece flashbacks.

<p> Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy NEON</p> Director Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Origin'

Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy NEON

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Origin'

Separately, though, there was the issue of finding a lead character. "There's so many stories in the book, it was impossible," DuVernay says of trying to find the right POV. "But who is in the book and who's very clearly guiding the way is Isabel."

Fortunately, it didn't take much to convince the author to share her own journey of writing the book, a period of time that included the deaths of several people very close to her.

"I had heard about her losses and was...amazed by it — I don't use that word lightly — by the ability of someone who's endured that much loss to create genius work," DeVernay says. "And so I was very interested in that, and I shared that with her.... She was gracious in allowing me to interpret her book and interpret the stories that she told me about her life and her family."

Helping bring the story to life is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Oscar-nominated for her work in King Richard (Jon Bernthal, her costar in that movie, here portrays Isabel's husband, Brett) and who previously worked with DuVernay on When They See Us. The decision to cast her was an easy one.

"She's a phenom and a superstar that for whatever reason has not been given the spotlight in the way that I feel she deserves," DuVernay says of the actress. "I'd worked with her once before, so I knew the depth of the ability and the commitment, and that's what I needed for this. I needed someone who was going to ride with me — who can be walking on the streets of Delhi in India, didn't need a fancy trailer and a bunch of people around, who was going to be ready to run and gun."

<p> Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy NEON</p> Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in 'Origin'

Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy NEON

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in 'Origin'

But beyond the physical aspects of filmmaking, DuVernay knew Ellis-Taylor could navigate the emotional complexities of Wilkerson's experience, something the director calls a "cerebral adventure, an intellectual pursuit of the mystery that this woman is unfolding." That means portions of her performance are lived in silence. "There was no scene where she had to be hysterical or a big [moment]; those scenes didn't exist in the film, so that showy work was not on the page," DuVernay explains. "It needed an internal depth to make the performance pop, and so you needed someone who could do that, and she can do all of that and more."

Together, they craft a story that relates complicated matters of societal hierarchies via a deeply personal journey, one that DuVernay says even changed her in ways she wasn't anticipating.

"I could not have prepared myself for the completely different person that I am than when I started," DuVernay, who turned 50 while making the movie, admits. "I felt in the flow of work and life in a way that I had never experienced before. I felt that I was in the perfect place doing exactly what I was meant to do and I knew exactly how to do it.... I have not been happier. I get emotional saying this, but I have not been happier than I was making that film and then the afterglow of making this film today."

Origin opens Dec. 8 in New York and Los Angeles for a one-week engagement before playing in select cities starting Jan. 19.

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