We talked to the FORCE that is DeWanda Wise about acting, activism, and her artistic mission statement. What does that mean? It means staying committed to her cause(s) and spreading and LIVING that word. Doesn’t sound so easy, does it? No surprise to us that her SBJCT is RISK. Here’s to, ahem, getting wise with DeWanda Wise.
BY ERIN WALSH
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Erin Walsh First off, tell me a bit about your beginnings and how you originally got involved with acting.
DeWanda Wise I’ve told incarnations of my “origin story” before, but what I’ve never spoken about is how I became an actor through years and years of quitting. I think the only things I was interested in consistently were singing, writing (mostly poetry,) and studying humans through psychology. Everything else—playing piano, percussion, volleyball, cheerleading, being in JROTC, working with the NAACP Youth & College Division—it all came to a satisfying conclusion for me. So when I discovered acting, and realized I could just dabble in interests for a living I felt like I found my calling.
EW What does your role preparation process look like?
DW My role preparation is different every time. Recently, I’ve been reading scripts that are more experimental, and I’ve had to find new ways of working because my classic character form won’t cut it. In general, I’ll read at least one book, usually an autobiography, and ingest any number of modes of research: Articles, works of art, documentaries, films in the same style, video clips for accent/dialects…It’s vast and varied, but learning is one of my favorite parts of the process.
EW I know physically you definitely get into the process of preparing for a role, like an athlete it seems to me. Can you tell us about this? How does the physical help you mentally?
DW I feel compelled to confess that acting has made me an athlete. I had negative zero drive for working out or participating in sports before. In fact, I clearly remember pretending to pass out in High School because I didn’t want to run a mile. A MILE. It seems so wild now, but it was never a part of my identity. My work keeps me motivated, and not just because I prefer my arms to have a certain muscularity, which should not be discredited either; but because the demands of the work require a level of fitness. For She’s Gotta Have it, Nola bikes as her main mode of transportation and dances both recreationally and through her African Dance Class. Besides wanting to be physically prepared for those things, the long hours on set require stamina. Working out in the mornings before work helps keep my immune system boosted, and also levels my emotions and hormones so that I can do my best to be a delight on set.
I remind myself that even in fiction, I’m representing someone’s actual life & it’s my responsibility to come correct.
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EW Tell me about the beginnings working with Spike. Has the process of working with an icon changed from the beginning? What is a day on set with him look like?
DW I think my very first thought about Spike was how much he reminded me of my Grandfather. So that was the beginning in a way. For context, before I understood what re-runs were, I’d always thought Sanford and Son was based on my Grandfather and my uncle. So that degree of familiarity was the foundation of our working relationship. I also think something clicks in me when I’m working—I don’t think of status or resume; all I care about is telling the story in front of me. As for what it looks like on the ground, every day working with Spike is as unpredictable as the previous one. Some scenes are choreographed for cool camera moves, and others are largely improvised. You can imagine how Spike operates by watching him courtside at a Knicks game. He keeps you on your toes.
EW Any crazy situations come up filming on the streets in NYC?
DW No crazy situations have come up filming on the streets of NYC. I think for the most part, New Yorkers are the cool kids and are pretty accustomed to production. The most surreal, I’ll say, was working on a scene for Someone Great and having 20+ paparazzi behind the camera. Or that one time we were setting up camera, and Jeffrey Wright casually rolled down the block & chatted with Spike like he’s not Jeffrey Wright.
EW Do you feel you need to protect yourself from outside attention at times, living a life in the spotlight?
DW I thought I would feel a need to protect myself from outside attention, but the reality is far less invasive than it was in my imagination before I landed here. I was actually pretty terrified to lose my autonomy in a way. There are things I’ve learned in the last few years—very basic things like post your location on Instagram after you leave, but nothing has felt impossible to negotiated. (So far.)
EW What do you consider your role as an artist to be?
DW I consider my role as an artist to act in service of story. That’s it. Sometimes telling a truth that’s not my personal truth is actually preferred because it grows my art in a way that could not happen if I played characters “just like me.” To that end, I’m ferociously protective of living my personal like in a way that facilitates my evolving artistic mission statement.
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EW What is really moving you these days? I know you have some serious passions. What causes would you like to bring to our attention today?
DW I’ve been a lifelong advocate for mental health access, particularly for communities of color. It’s not just a matter of seeking therapy either; the stress of being a person of color in this country statistically impacts our mortality rates. We’re also disproportionally criminalized, when really mental health care could prevent a great number of things we’re incarcerated for. It’s an issue that intersects with so many, including homelessness, social services, our foster care system; and I proudly partner with NAMI in pursuit of real change at the policy level. I have a fundamentally grassroots approach when it comes to causes I believe in: I like to pass the mic. Unfortunately, so many activists have to ride the ebbs and flows of when their cause is “en vogue,” which is infuriating and heart breaking to say the least. This notion that you must wait until something truly horrific happens for people to remember your fight still exists.
EW How do you unite your roles as activist and artist?
DW It’s always been organic uniting the two. I think that applies to most actors from historically marginalized communities. Even when I’m working on something characteristically more commercial, or something that has less social or political implications, there is always a statement in there somewhere. It’s just natural when you’re building the presumed history of a human being. I always start with my own journey, and knowing all that had to align for me to reach this intersection fires me up to build the same nuance and specificity for the characters I play. I remind myself that even in fiction, I’m representing someone’s actual life & it’s my responsibility to come correct.
EW What does your “off” time look like?
DW I love my free time. My “real life.” I think it actually helps bring clarity to the projects that are for me and the ones that are not because I’m never trying to escape myself. I go on adventures with my partner, Alano. (We’re always looking for the next adventure, so suggestions are recommended.) I spend a ton of time with my phenomenal friends and have my family come visit. I cuddle with my cat, Rascal. I read. I write. I cook. I self-care. I serve. I meditate. I ingest art. I reflect. I grow.
EW You will be working with your husband! What is it like when home and work collide? Is this a “normal” thing for you?
DW Now that we’re ten years in, the question of navigating life being married to someone in my field has become a lot like inquiring what it feels like or means to be a Black Woman in my industry. That is to say, I have no point of comparison, really. I went to a conference where Valerie Jarrett recounted how Michelle Robinson insisted on bringing her boyfriend Barack Obama to dinner to consider a job opportunity. I’m not saying we’re Michelle and Barack, but I am saying that’s our marriage in an anecdote. We’re partners in love and in art. We began our lives together with nothing physically and financially, so the success of one of us is the success of both. Even when we were dating for the brief spell before we were married, it was always so interconnected. It’s difficult to describe to people, and we are very different individuals, but when you’re around us together it’s very clear how we operate.
EW What do you find most challenging about being an artist?
DW The most challenging thing about being an artist is fighting to protect your art. Sometimes the fight is navigating the business side of the industry alongside “my part.” (You know…the actual acting portion.) Sometimes it’s learning to filter the voices around you, even the well-meaning ones. Often it’s not allowing the rejection into your heart. The other challenges—the stamina required, the chronic uncertainty, navigating personalities—carry a very positive connotation for me because they are such major growth opportunities.
I read. I write. I cook. I self-care. I serve. I meditate. I ingest art. I reflect. I grow.
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EW What do you hope your legacy to be?
DW I don’t think about it. Sincerely. I think in 100 years, no one will have a clue who I am, and I am a zillion percent ok with that. I find it liberating. I feel free to live by instinct, to do what feels right and true in the moment, and to choose my path unencumbered by an invisible responsibility to hypothetical strangers in the future. It feels so stark to admit this, and perhaps if I have children I’ll feel differently, but I wish more artists had the freedom to ask themselves what they truly want if they could be completely selfish with their lives. My parents subconsciously gave me that gift. They always just wanted me to be happy, personally and professionally, and I cannot understate how it’s impacted my capacity for risk-taking and fearlessness.
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EW Favorite meal? Also, tell me about being Vegan and why.
DW My favorite meals these days is pizza. I know that’s not a proper meal, but it was my favorite food growing up and now that folks have mastered vegan cheese I am so hashtag blessed. As for being plant-based, it started a bit by default because I’ve always been severely lactose intolerant. I became a bit more educated in college about how meat is manufactured in the US, and have dipped in and out of following a plant-based diet ever since. It’s both an ethical and a personal decision. Ethically, the worlds’ resources are scarce, and often meat processing facilities adversely impact poor communities. Personally, I feel better when I eat a lot of salads.
EW You have serious style cred. Do you enjoy the process of red carpet and press rounds?
DW Thank you!!! I learned to love press and carpets when I reclaimed my agency in it. When you’re starting; carpets can be really hard and intimidating. I love to play dress up though, I always have, and when I began to consider it an extension of my artistic expression, I was able to find joy in it whether I “nailed” a carpet or not. The truth is, when you really believe that there will always be another shot at it, it becomes less precious and high-stakes. You can continue to take risks and allow your team to play because there will be another vibe for another day. I knew I found my stride and hit a turning point when I was on a carpet in front of Kerry Washington once. A photographer yelled, “Move out the way, I don’t want to miss Kerry!!!” And it made me laugh so hard. I mean, right there on the carpet. I just thought: Same dude. I don’t want to miss Kerry either.
EW Favorite LEWK you have worn…
DW I couldn’t possibly choose, they’re all my babies. 😉
EW Who most inspires you these days?
DW I think what inspires me today is what’s always inspired me: my friends. Being in close proximity to their victories and lessons keeps me motivated to continue fighting the battles before me. I’ve also been reading the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza on Quantum Physics recently, and it’s really got me considering the ways in which my thoughts and feelings materialize in concrete terms.
EW Dream collaborator?
DW There are quite a few, but for now I’ll say Janicza Bravo, Joon-Ho Bong, and Ryan Coogler.
EW DeWanda Wise, WHATS YOUR SBJCT?
DW My SBJCT is RISK.