Nineteen minutes into the film “Zola,” the actress TS Madison delivers a devotion that becomes a kind of mantra for the rest of the film.
“Dear heavenly father, we come to you thanking you today for all the bounties that you’ve bestowed upon us, Jesus,” her character, a stripper named Hollywood, recites with her head bowed and her hands linked with several dancers backstage. “We are asking for a special prayer today,” she says repeatedly.
The prayer — in which she begs for God to send Black men who are cultured, have good credit (“840!”) and are well endowed — was not in the original script.
“It just flowed,” Ms. Madison, 44, said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s just like all of my energy, all of my personality, all of my self flew into it.”
On the call, she summoned that spirit once again. “We are asking you for a special prayer!” she exclaimed, pausing before repeating, with a half-smirk: “A special prayer!” Getting Noticed
Ms. Madison, a transgender woman, had her first taste of fame in 2013 after a Vine she posted, called “New Weave 22 Inches,” went viral. In the six-second clip, Madison shows off — what else? — a new, 22-inch-long weave. At the end she dances in front of a chair in the nude. Soon after, Ms. Madison was being interviewed by magazines and was invited to host L.G.B.T.Q.-focused events.
“I had no idea that those six seconds were going to change the trajectory of the way my whole life was going to go,” she said.
Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote “Zola,” said she watched the Vine, “maybe 20 times in a row.” Afterward, she couldn’t stop laughing, “I became kind of obsessed with her,” she said.
At the time, Ms. Bravo was working on a multicamera sitcom-style web series for Vice — a cross between John Waters’s 1972 film “Pink Flamingos” and the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters.” Ms. Madison was to play the matriarch of the family, and Alia Shawkat was going to play her daughter.
“It was experimental and totally absurd,” Ms. Bravo said. “I think it was a little too radical for them.”
The series fell apart, but the women stayed in touch. In 2017, Ms. Bravo began to write “Zola” with the playwright Jeremy O. Harris. The first draft of the script did not have Ms. Madison’s role in it, but after Ms. Bravo saw a YouTube video of exotic dancers holding hands and praying before their performances, that changed.
“I thought it was a really beautiful detail,” Ms. Bravo said. “I felt that was something that fit in this world.” Ms. Madison was the only person she could imagine playing the part of the dancers’ spiritual leader.
“I remember saying to her, ‘You know what’s supposed to happen, and you know what you’re supposed to do here, right? You’re supposed to rally the women, and so wherever the dialogue doesn’t fit in your mouth, make it yours,’” Ms. Bravo said. “She opened it up and she made it beautiful. She brought […]