February 23, 2024

In “A Thousand and One,” Inez (Teyana Taylor) reunites with an old boyfriend, Lucky, but he hardly seems to be the best choice for a single mom on the run from the law. He’s coming out of prison, he’s a womanizer, and he initially expresses no interest in co-parenting her son, Terry.

But A.V. Rockwell’s fierce yet delicate drama continually subverts cliches and expectations in ways large and small, and Will Catlett’s quietly magnetic portrayal of Lucky breathes vitality into both the tempestuous romance with Inez and the evolving bond with Terry. “I was impressed by his original interpretation and the intensity of his presence,” Rockwell, directing her first feature, recalls of Catlett’s audition. “Inez is a powerful woman so we needed someone who was truly masculine — he is so hardened by what a man is supposed to be but also unafraid to show his vulnerable side —
and had a capacity for nurturing.”

Catlett’s riveting portrayal was inspired by his own father, who grew up watching James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in the movies and wanted to be an actor; instead, he forged a career in the military and government to take care of his family. The first time his dad saw him act, he gave notes. “He said, ‘You’re doing too much,’ ” Catlett recalls. “Just be relaxed and find the rhythm.’ ”

The actor, who seeks out movies “that connect me spiritually to the role,” responded to the way Lucky, who is trying to find himself, “feels like he gets a second chance with his younger self through Terry.”
But there were challenges. For starters, while Catlett hails from Alexandria, Va., Lucky is a New Yorker through and through. So Catlett hired a coach to nail the accent and learned to swagger — “that Harlem bounce” — and ride Lucky’s motorcycle. He spent time hanging around Harlem, stopping into local delis and walking the streets.

“New York has such a high sexual energy in the summertime but there’s also trash on the streets and all these smells, so I just had to embrace everything,” he says.

It also took a minute to find Rockwell’s rhythm. There were so many notes from the writer-director one day Catlett felt he was being “micromanaged,” so they talked it out. “What she wanted from me needed more real estate — if you want more beats, we need more time to walk, because you have to hit the mark at a certain time,” he recalls, adding he had to let his ego go, too. “Once we found our rhythm, we were locked in.”

He also discovered ways to lock in with each actor. With Taylor, “whose life has always been a fight,” Catlett would “try to poke her” to create the sparks that fueled their characters’ passion and fights. In one memo­rable near-brawl, he chose to go “as soft as you can be but also as stern as you
can be,” until Inez shoves Lucky into the oven. “Then I let myself get emotional.”

With three actors playing Terry at different childhood stages, Catlett sought various ways to bond. “Aaron [Kings­ley Ade­tola, as the boy at 6] admired his own father, so I connected to him through that,” says Catlett. “Aven [Courtney] was a little rough around the edges trying to figure out him­self, so there was a lot of both pushing him and hugging him. Josiah [Cross] plays basketball, so we connected through that. You just find those real moments, and then everything will resonate onscreen.”

The chemistry with all three actors mattered deeply to Catlett. Having mentored kids through his church for years, he felt Lucky’s relationship with Terry “could reach other kids growing up without a father figure. I think I’m the guy to tell something truthful that will resonate throughout generations.”

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