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New Movie 'Zola' Is Based On A Long Series Of Tweets


A movie is hitting theaters tomorrow that may be the first of its kind. It's called "Zola," and the whole thing is based on a long series of tweets. NPR's Sam Sanders talked with one of the stars.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: In 2015, A'Ziah Zola King wrote a 148-tweet tweetstorm. It was a story about a weekend of exotic dancing gone really, really wrong - like, to the point of maybe human trafficking. But it was also really, really funny and well-paced. It had to be a movie. Flash forward to now, and it is.


TAYLOUR PAIGE: (As Zola) You want to hear a story about how me and this [expletive] fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense.

SANDERS: In this tweetstorm-now-movie, Zola is this waitress in Detroit, and this exotic dancer named Stefani comes into her restaurant. They hit it off, and Stefani convinces Zola to travel across the country for work.


RILEY KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Hey, last month, I went dancing at this cute spot in Florida where my roommate's girl made, like, five G's a night.

SANDERS: But the road trip gets much darker. And throughout this entire wild ride, Stefani kind of steals the show. She is played by Riley Keough.

KEOUGH: I remember thinking, how do you adapt a Twitter thread?

SANDERS: You may have seen Riley Keough before in the Starz series, "The Girlfriend Experience," or in the indie film "American Honey." But you have probably never seen her like this.

KEOUGH: Stefani is a - she's a demon. She's a...


KEOUGH: She's kind of just, like, a walking, inappropriate nightmare.

SANDERS: In the movie "Zola," Stefani is this white, blonde stripper, and she runs around talking like she's Black.


KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Sis.

PAIGE: (As Zola) Let me know.

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Sis.

PAIGE: (As Zola) Let me know.

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Yeah, sis.

SANDERS: Her entire objective the whole movie is to get Zola, a Black woman, to do things she does not want to do, things that will jeopardize this Black woman's safety. Riley Keough said she had no qualms taking all of this on, in part because of who made the film.

KEOUGH: In anybody else's hands, I never would have made this film. And I think this film - there's a million different ways this film could have been made. It just felt like I'm serving a purpose for Janicza's vision.

SANDERS: Janicza is Janicza Bravo. She directed "Zola" and wrote it along with Jeremy O. Harris, a playwright. Both Janicza and Jeremy are Black. They have made, in "Zola," a commentary about race where the very performance of Blackness, even by a white woman, is taken seriously. So much so that Riley Keough - for her role as Stefani, she had to get special training on how to play a white woman trying very offensively to sound a certain type of Black.


KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Same [expletive] that won't dance for money be the same [expletive] that be out on the block, period.

SANDERS: The team behind "Zola" paired Riley with a Black woman, Aris Mendoza, a writer and actress, to figure all of this out. And a big part of the work was loosening Riley's jaw.

KEOUGH: So she would have me sit in her backyard, and she'd put a cork in my mouth.


KEOUGH: And she would put - (laughter) like, a wine cork. Then she had me do all of my monologues with the cork in my mouth. And so I have all these videos of me with this cork in my mouth, like, going through my "Zola" monologues. And she - you know, it worked.

SANDERS: By the end of "Zola," you're not quite sure if you should hate Stefani or feel sad for her. But one thing is very clear. You will not forget her, in large part because Riley Keough fully committed to the bit - wine cork, blaccent (ph), demonic tendencies and all. Sam Sanders, NPR News.


CHARLI XCX: (Singing) I'm so fancy, you already know.

MARTIN: You can hear more of Sam's interview on his podcast, It's Been A Minute, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.