Tate Taylor is one of the hottest emerging talents in Hollywood right now.
He is the epitome of the total 'Hollywood' package. Movie star good looks, an acclaimed writer, director and producer with a breakout Oscar nominated hit film under his belt, a new release that is already generating award buzz and a stream of film and television projects in the works. However, he's as far from a Hollywood cliché as you're likely to find.
I met Tate after a brilliant Q&A session with KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond and the stars of Taylor's new film Get on Up, Chadwick Boseman (electrifying in the role of 'Godfather of Soul' James Brown) and Nelsan Ellis (stunning in the role of Bobby Byrd).
Following our screening, I exited the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see Tate standing discreetly behind a van waiting for his car to arrive and wiping his eyes. Concerned that he was upset I asked if he was ok. "No really, I'm just rubbing my eyes," he said. I nodded reassuringly "It's ok - I have that effect on grown men". Ice broken, I asked him if he would be up for a conversation with me to follow up on the Q&A to share with our Red Carpet members. He said "Sure" and told me to contact his press rep. This is where you would expect our exchange to have ended - surely that is the typical and polite 'Hollywood brush off' you always hear in this town. Not to mention that this is a man who has already been so generous with his time for our KCET Cinema Series members and is about to launch head first into an aggressive and exhausting promotional schedule for his new film including practically every media outlet on the planet.
Nevertheless I reach out and find myself on the phone with Tate the day before the film's release on August 1 - he'd made it a priority to maintain the promise and ensured it was kept in his schedule. Respect.
On the phone Taylor tells me that Public Media like KCET played a big role in his childhood in Mississippi and that the family of James Brown told him that Brown was also a big fan of Public Media and would only ever listen to NPR when driving his truck. Tate went on to say that Public Media is essential to allow people to have a voice - something that resonates very strongly with him as a storyteller.
Born and raised in Jackson Mississippi by his "broke single mother" and an African American domestic Carol Lee who he adored, a career in the film industry was not his original path. Taylor received a degree from Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) and scored a job with a Fortune 500 company... "And I hated it," he tells me. It was a chance encounter with a film crew that inspired him to make the big move. "I was around when The Firm was shooting nearby and saw what was going on and just wanted to be a part of it. I saw a PA on the set with a walkie-talkie and decided I wanted to do that. I went off to New York and my first job was as a PA on the Nickelodeon channel on a show called The Adventures of Pete and Pete for $200 a week." His first wide theatrical release The Help took nearly $220 million dollars worldwide.
Taylor pursued an acting career and made appearances in various TV shows and small roles in films including Romy and Michele's High School Reunion and more recently a stand out performance as Satterfield in Winter's Bone opposite Jennifer Lawrence who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. He also shared another acting career highlight with me, "I'm actually Matthew McConaughey's butt double in A Time to Kill." - I make a mental note to swiftly add A Time to Kill to my Netflix queue.
Although Taylor is now taking on responsibilities on the other side of the lense, you can still see Tate making 'blink and you'll miss him' appearances in his films. It's not unusual for directors to appear in their own movies but Tate tells me that is not his plan. "I hate making cameos. With The Help I'm in that scene because we were in Jackson Mississippi and it was pretty tough finding someone who could pass as an early 1960's, white middle class New Yorker, so my production manager and me jumped in to that shot. Then with Pretty Ugly People we just had no money, so I just did that last scene with my buddy. I had no intention of appearing in Get on Up but, and this is an exclusive - I haven't told anyone else this... You can hear my voice in a scene in the film...that scene with the shot gun and insurance agent - that's my voice."
After 15 years of pushing and struggling in LA and New York and finally getting the go ahead to take the helm of his good friend Kathryn Stockett's story which was to become a feature film, Taylor returned to Mississippi to film The Help. Tate was often alone in his childhood - playing in the woods, making up games and really engaging his imagination. His homecoming liberated him. "I felt so free... In LA there's always noise, always a helicopter over your head..." Now based in Natchez in the Magnolia State on a 70 acre property, he has found the space and quiet he needed to focus on his writing and to really reconnect with his imagination and spirit.
Following the enormous success of The Help you would naturally expect Taylor to feel a great sense of pressure with his next project but Taylor insists "The biggest pressure for me really was making sure that I came in on budget and on time." With Get on Up, Taylor returns to the South and like The Help there is also a story unfolding against a backdrop of historical moments of significance. But Tate says that he is never motivated to use his films as a way of commenting on these moments, "I have never set out to be a messenger for social consciousness - I just wanted to tell great stories with great characters." He has certainly done that again with Get On Up. The character of James Brown is widely represented in popular culture but Taylor manages to bring enough of the familiar along with a large dose of the surprising and even shocking to present Brown in a way we've never seen before.
Unlike most biopics that tend to follow a pedestrian linear chronology to show a central character's life from birth to death, Taylor strays from conventions, inspired by his subject. James Brown defied convention and it is his spirit that dictated Taylor's choices. "If you went to a James Brown concert - he never sang one song just after another. He might start with one song and then after a chorus move in to another and then finally at the end of the concert he might circle back and finish that first song he started." This directly influenced Taylor's non-linear approach to the story line in Get On Up. He also at times invites the character of James Brown to break the 4th wall and address the camera - another nod to Brown's relationship with his audience. Although it runs at 138 minutes, it moves seamlessly and at a cracking pace around James Brown's life from 1933 - 2006.
When it comes to making a film Tate prides himself on being a true collaborator. "I think people like working with me because I just get the people who are the best at what they do and let them do their job." He's also obviously very loyal. Octavia Spencer was his roommate for years and has appeared in his first film Pretty Ugly People, won an Academy Award in the role of Minnie in The Help and appears as Aunt Honey - a brothel madam who takes James in when his father decides he can't care for him. It's another sensational performance. Viola Davis who was also nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Aibileen in The Help appears as James Brown's mother. One scene Boseman and Davis share as mother and son in particular is absolutely breath taking.
When Taylor was asked what it was that resonated so strongly with him about the character of James Brown he mentions Brown's determination to "not go backwards in life." A concept Taylor clearly needn't fear. He is now attached to adapt, produce and direct Bob Kealing's Tupperware Unsealed starring Sandra Bullock as Brownie Wise the original 'Tupperware lady' who created the 'Tupperware Party' model for selling the ubiquitous plastics product. "Another great story, another great character" says Taylor. He also has another adaptation and a Netflix series with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the works.
After seeing Taylor's 2011 release The Help which garnered 4 Academy Award nominations and now Get On Up I can see Taylor is undoubtedly developing his own signature style. He treads a beautiful line. His work has flair without flamboyance, grittiness with prettiness and can have you laughing out loud through tears of pain with the way that he presents his characters, their stories and the worlds that they live in.
Get On Up is my favorite film of the year so far - although I haven't seen that new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flick yet... Yes I'm kidding. Safe travels Tate Taylor - your star is well and truly on the rise.