‘I Think That Book Is A Love Letter:’ Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor Opens Up About Portraying Grief In Origin, And How It Helped Isabel’s Research

 Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel in Origin.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Isabel in Origin.

Major spoilers for Ava DuVernay’s Origin are ahead. If you have not seen this film from the 2024 movie schedule, you can catch it in theaters now. 

In Ava DuVernay’s deeply emotional Origin, we follow Isabel Wilkerson on her journey to write the bestselling novel Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Inspired by a true story and the creation of the bestselling book, the film follows this author, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she researches her book while also going through major personal tragedies. So, when I had the chance to speak with the film’s star, I had to ask her about how she portrayed Isabel’s grief, and how it helped her character write and research this important book.

For context, Origin tells the personal and true story of Isabel Wilkerson as she wrote her bestselling book about the caste system. It flashes between the stories she’s telling in her book, the research she does for it, and her personal life. As she develops this massive project, she faces three major tragedies when her husband, mother and best friend die. So, as Ellis-Taylor’s character conducts her work, she’s also grieving the loss of the three most important people in her life. Obviously, that impacted her book, and the 2022 Oscar nominee told me how during our interview for CinemaBlend:

Yeah, I think her grief is really a catalyst for writing the book, at least as we are portraying it. She comes back from India, right? And she walks in [the house], it kind of mirrors my walking in that I would have had walking the dogs with Brett, coming in the door and feeling that loss, feeling that isolation. And then I come back from India, I opened the door and I'm about to start working. I started pulling the books out and you know, doing all the things to write the book.

As Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor explained, losing Brett (her husband), Ruby (her mom) and Marion (her cousin and friend) deeply impacted her work. However, it didn’t stop her, it fueled her. That seemed to be what her loved ones wanted too, as all three made it clear to her before their deaths that she needed to continue her research.

The actress then pointed to two parallel scenes that show Isabel’s drive to keep working. She noted that when she came home from India, right after she lost Marion, she didn’t let the loneliness take her or the memory of her loved ones consume her, she used it as motivation.

Capturing this tragic yet hopeful mindset Isabel found herself in was challenging, however, Ellis-Taylor did it beautifully. She continued to tell me about how Isabel’s grief impacted her work, noting that this book is “a love letter” to her husband, mother and cousin:

And I've kind of arrived here in this junket space of how do I talk about this? And I think it's a love letter to Brett, I think it's a love letter to Ruby, her mother, I think it's a love letter to Marion. I think that book is a love letter. And I think that love letter expands and it crosses oceans and time. We see it in the story about the Jewish couple. We see it in India with the men who clean themselves, the scavengers who clean themselves. So I think that that grief, that love and that love letter being the book is what drives it.

Read More About Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor on Jimmy Kimmel.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor on Jimmy Kimmel.

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This is such a beautiful way to perceive the tragic events Isabel went through, and it’s one of the reasons why Origin moved me to tears. Rather than letting these losses break her, Ellis-Taylor’s character harnessed it, didn’t let them fade away, and she wrote this book – Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents – for them.

I’m sure if you know anything about Ava DuVernay’s career, you are aware of her moving and important filmography, which includes the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary 13th and the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. Continuing her work of creating moving films centered around topics of social justice and civil rights, Origin teaches audiences about the caste system and the unjust hierarchy it creates through Isabel’s personal story and professional research.

And at the heart of it all is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s gorgeous and heartbreaking yet hopeful performance as Isabel Wilkerson.