DeWanda Wise is proving to be one of the most charming and adroit young talents out there today.
Casting relative unknowns in a starring role is somewhat of a rarity in the entertainment industry. It’s often touted by suits as being unnecessary, cumbersome, and precarious. Why bank on the idea that a newcomer might bring in the big bucks and glowing reviews when there’s an established character right around the corner who’s all but guaranteed to do just that? It’s an understandable financially-based sentiment that unfortunately pervades much of Hollywood’s casting hierarchy. After all, like any other business, the entertainment industry is just that—an industry. It is primarily driven by profits. The entertainment part comes after that.
But what about the diamonds in the rough that have the capacity to bring in the big bucks? What about those that are waiting to be plucked from obscurity and made into the shining star they’ve always been destined to become? Those are the artists that art-driven directors frequently rely on, ensuring that casting not be based on bankability, looks, or even connections—they are wholly based on talent and talent alone. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman and many more are renowned for having launched the careers of numerous triple-A Oscar-winning actors. From Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to Dustin Hoffman and Cybil Shepard, the careers of many actors were launched by a persistent auteur that had a very specific casting decision in mind—a casting that they would not and could not compromise on.
The same can be said of the incendiary Spike Lee who has launched (or relaunched) the careers of numerous actors including Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Tracy Camilla Johns, Denzel Washington, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, and Giancarlo Esposito. Lee has always had a penchant for finding actors with an insatiable artistic hunger, working harder than they had ever worked before. Whether it’s due to Lee’s hands-on directorial style or his socially provocative narratives, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has always brought out the best in his young, unproven actors, turning them into household names seemingly overnight.
And it seems that the filmmaker is set to continue that trend with his first television series, She’s Gotta Have It, a televisual remake of his seminal directorial debut of the same name. Telling the story of Nola Darling and her trio of rotating sexual partners, She’s Gotta Have It provides whip-smart commentary on social sexual norms and practices: while men are often seen as “studs” for bedding numerous partners, the same viewpoint is seldom bestowed upon women, who instead are often branded a derogatory sexist noun. And no other time does a narrative such as this seem more appropriate than today, when male heads of states and other powerful industry executives proudly tout their sexual conquests (consensual or otherwise).
Starring the effervescently talented DeWanda Wise, She’s Gotta Have It continues the tradition that Lee had established years prior by giving up-and-coming actors an opportunity to showcase the talent they so obviously have. From her scene stealing moments in Underground to her monumental performances in Shots Fired, Wise has slowly been making a name for herself in the entertainment world. And now with her first starring role coming up in Lee’s much anticipated first foray into television, Wise is set to show the world why Lee’s penchant for handpicking up-and-coming talent has never been stronger. But it wasn’t all Lee’s handiwork that found Wise cast in his new show. At the end of the day, smart people tend to surround themselves with smarter people, a point that proved crucial to Wise’s casting.
“Lynn Nottage, who’s an executive producer on the show, and Lemon Anderson, who’s a story editor, Radha Blank, and Eisa Davis [who are staff writers], had all seen me in this play in 2014 called Sunset Baby. I was playing a very different kind of Brooklyn chick,” explained the jubilant Wise. The actress went on to describe that, “then all the executives from Netflix had seen me in this indie film I did called How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, which I also produced. So literally everybody was in Spike’s ear being like ‘we know the girl, we know the girl, we know the girl.’ Plus, I think part of the reason I was cast is because I’m a bit bossy.”
And it seemed as though the writers and executives around Lee had found out another commonality between him and Wise: they both operated at a frenetic speed. “It was a good mesh. After all, we’re both indie filmmakers. That comes with a certain speed and efficiency which I appreciate a lot. It’s why I love working in film and TV,” said the focused Wise. The actress was quick to point out that while she adores theater, she admits that the stage is “super slow,” countering that she “just loves the pace of working with Spike. It’s definitely the energy he had when he’s watching a Knicks game. It’s literally like that in director form.”
And while Lee was blown away by Wise’s work and her audition, there was an uncanny feeling that Lee had actually met Wise before. He just couldn’t recall how. Turns out, it was during their time at the Tisch School of the Arts, where Spike Lee continues to teach a graduate-level course on filmmaking. “Spike has tunnel-fucking-vision. He says to me, ‘how have I never seen you before?’ I responded, ‘you have. You have Spike. You’ve seen all my work’ [laughs]. To his credit, I never look the same in anything. I have to cut the man some slack. But I was definitely there. He did this Master class with Denzel once when I was there. I’m in the front row, eating it up.”
It seemed to be an artistic match made in heaven, with both Lee and Wise complementing each other’s work ethic and eye-blistering pace on set. It wasn’t long before the collaboration between the two gained a new sense of interpersonal confidence, one that allowed a free exchange of ideas and rewrites. “There was a lot of trust I would say on both of our parts,” explained Wise. “Bringing Nola to life, there were plenty of moments where I’d be like ‘can I say this instead? And he’d be like ‘What does that mean?’ And I’d be like, ‘what you wrote, but in 2016 lingo.’” It appeared to be a natural partnership, one that seemingly never ruptured, which so frequently happens between actor and director. But that’s not to say that Lee and Wise immediately saw eye-to-eye with one another. On the contrary, it took quite some time to find that elusive middle ground.
“He was super cool [but] it took a couple of week to feel each other out,” revealed the actor. “But at the end of the day, when you have a shared vision and you both know the story that you’re telling and you have that trust, it flows naturally.” As Wise very astutely pointed out, “it’s like, I’m not here to sabotage you’re shit.” And it seldom ever seemed to be the case as Wise effortlessly embodies the character of Nola Darling—fierce, sensitive, beautiful, strong, outspoken, charismatic, friendly, touching, and everything in between. While Wise may have been inspired by Tracy Camilla Johns’ original performance of Darling, make no mistake of it, Wise makes the character her own, or as she put it, “we just made a lot of it ours.” As she explains, “Tracy Camilla Johns was phenomenal. But her Nola was also [financially] super established, you know what I mean. She had kind of settled in her career and was very successful. My Nola isn’t nearly as self-assured. A lot has changed. And a lot has changed in Brooklyn, so we had to definitely adapt.”
What we really began talking about at that point was Brooklyn’s double-edged sword and inescapable buzzword: gentrification. The days of Lee’s Brooklyn are all but gone, particularly in neighborhoods like Fort Greene, where much of the television series and film of the same name are set. While safety, real estate prices, and quality of education are on the rise in these once predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, the same individuals who have lived in them for generations are being driven out in droves, seldom being able to afford the astronomical new rents that seem to only be affordable to yuppies and other upper-middle class people.
It’s a particularly heart-wrenching topic for Lee, who cannot help but shine a light on the sociocultural evolution that is occurring right before his very eyes, particularly in today’s ultra-divisive America. And that light never seemed more prevalent in Lee’s rhetoric than the last few years. Infamously going on a so-called “rant” about gentrification in Fort Greene during a speech at the Pratt Institute in 2014, Lee disparaged the new neighbors, saying that “so why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!” It’s an astute rebuttal to the New York Times’ rather culturally tone-deaf piece that listed the reasons why gentrification can be good for a neighborhood, one that Lee has now begun fighting back against even more pervasively than when he did it in his magnus opus, Do the Right Thing all those years ago.
Lee decided that before they would start filming the series, he would introduce the cast and crew to the neighborhood he knew and loved—and what it has turned into. “There’s a lot of fun and subtle allusions [to gentrification]. After all, Lee grew up in Fort Greene,” explained Wise. “There was one day before we began filming where we just walked around Fort Greene. Which is funny, walking around Brooklyn with Spike. Even in the park. The park in Fort Greene, like most parks in New York back in the day, was unsavory at times. You couldn’t go there a certain time at night, it was unkempt or and never updated. Now it might as well be a fucking dog park. Fucking consumed and ironed out, with how many damn dogs there are in Fort Greene Park.”
But beyond focusing on the contentious issue of gentrification in Brooklyn, Lee also asked Wise to confront another new territory—nudity. “They gave me all 10 scripts before I accepted, so I knew what I was in for, and how naked I would be.” To which the actor responded, “great, fantastic, I love nudity.” The actor went on to counter saying that, “beyond that, I’m a huge nerd. Ordinarily, I’m really into reading books,” to which she credits having helped prepare her for her Nola Darling role, something that she barely had any time to prepare for. “I had to finish Underground over two weekends. There was no the time. Thankfully, a number of things aligned, making it easier. I majored in urban studies in college so I know a ton about Brooklyn in general and the issue of gentrification. On top of that, I had all the work that I had previously done and all the research I’d done on those projects that I’d mentioned before. It was in my DNA. It was that kind of thing where it was almost just destiny in a way. I was already ready,” proclaimed Wise.
It was that academic and artistic background that she credits for preparing her so intimately with the role of Nola Darling, something that allowed the actor to realize early on that she had no time for butterflies or self-doubt. She needed to jump head first into this. And that’s exactly what she did. “Whenever anybody was like ‘Were you nervous?’ I said no. I had no time to get nervous, and I really didn’t have any time to second guess or get insecure because it was time to work,” said Wise. The actor went on to explain “beyond shoots and rehearsals on the weekdays, my weekends were then spent working with Tatiana, who does the work for Nola on the show. Or in dance class, because Spike loves dance sequences.”
But beyond the dance sequences and fiery self-confidence, Wise credits her upbringing and work outside of entertainment for having ignited the flame in her to perform in front of audiences. From linking a DACA support page on her Instagram account to writing a chapter about teenagers and young adults doing mission trips in a book entitled World: Faith, Hope, Love in Action, Wise has multiple moments in which she demonstrated that in order for her to find her acting chops on stage, she first had to create a foundational element of empathy. Wise elucidates that “very early on, I was super aware, just super aware, of a major disconnect in resources, and really confronted with the invisible. I think it’s why I’m consumed or why I’m constantly cast in roles of communities that we don’t see on TV a lot. Part of it is, I’m a black woman, so there’s that.” Wise also mentions that she “was completely inconsolable about world events. It’s really a space in a selfish level to channel that sort of internal response in me. Whether that’s in anyone dealing with depression, or anyone in a compromising or precarious living situation, I find it very easy to see myself in other. It’s just that baseline empathy.”
It was that intensely inherent sense of empathy that led Wise down the path of acting, a profession she had seldom thought about pursuing in her youth. Instead, Wise believed she would work in some other compassion-based profession. “Before I wanted to be an actor I wanted to be a therapist or a psychologist. I probably most likely have become that or maybe an urban planner.” The actor went on to explain that had she not fallen in love with acting, she would have seldom pursued a college degree. “Before acting, I hadn’t even thought about college honestly. It wasn’t because I wasn’t ambition—I’ve always been ambitious, so it wasn’t that. It was because if I don’t see the purpose in something, it’s harder for me to maker the leap. I remember being at school and meeting those kids who would say, ‘yeah, I haven’t chosen my major yet.’ And I was like ‘what does that mean?! how are you not having a break down?!’
Thankfully, that poise, determination, and ambition is exactly what drove Wise to be in the shoes she’s in today. From the onslaught of new projects that are sure to come her way to the inevitable critical and public praise the young actor will be set to receive upon the release of She’s Gotta Have It, Wise seems ready to pursue her artistic goals to the end. And with a contract in place for Wise to star in Lee’s show for another three years, it appears we’re only beginning to get to know the charming, kind, beautiful, eclectic, and highly talented DeWanda Wise.
She’s Gotta Have It is set to premiere on Netflix November 23.