If you’re a movie buff like me, you are all too familiar with the character tropes that still plague much of Hollywood. We’ve seen them all before. The damsel in distress who trips over air in an action movie or the nerd who can never get the girl. But if you’re Black and love movies, then you are probably accustomed to a whole other set of tropes reserved for Black characters, usually ones rooted in stigmas, stereotypes, and harmful generalisations. And if it’s a genre like horror or action, y’all know we usually ain’t making it to the end of the movie. Well, no spoilers, but DeWanda Wise in Jurassic World Dominion is anything but a one-dimensional trope.
I’ve been a fan of the Jurassic Park franchise since I was a kid and so I was immediately sold on the latest instalment when I learned that Wise, an actor and filmmaker I’ve loved since She’s Gotta Have It, was joining the project. If there was anyone I had faith in to survive a murderous T-Rex, it would for sure be Wise. Y’all know Miss Nola Darling herself doesn’t play. The film may be getting mixed reviews but Wise does not disappoint. So I was thrilled when I had the chance to chat with Wise over Zoom and she spilled all the Jurassic tea, dove deep into her upcoming projects, and dropped countless gems.
I really love your character Kayla Watts in Jurassic World Dominion because there was so much Black Girl Magic and the je nais se quois of how we move and how we talk. You aren’t code switching. I’ve noticed that trend across all the characters that you’ve done in your work and want to know is that something that you’re cognisant of that you bring to each project?
DW: I absolutely bring it everywhere I go and I try to be as specific as possible about it. I worked on this project right after called Three Women and I joke about that because they kept trying to put me in headwraps and I’m like, “Nah, y’all don’t get headwraps. [My character] Sloane don’t wear headwraps. She is a silk pillowcase kind of woman, alright!” I try to be as specific. There’s no overarching rules. It’s Black womanhood, there’s no overarching anything. And I’m just super anthropological. I’m a Maryland girl. I know what that means. I know you can go from Baltimore to D.C. and from go-go to club [music]. I have this experiential understanding that goes into every role I play. I love us.
I’m from Virginia, so that really warms my heart. I would love to know what it was like stepping into a monumental movie franchise and playing a character that has a lot of action and grit we don’t normally see from Black characters?
DW: I always joke about the fact that they be putting us in the tower. We’d be like, “What’s happening down there?” Or we were the ones volunteering as tribute. [Laughs] I mean, it was a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to work in the [action] space. I like to play. I remember it was my first day on She’s Gotta Have It, and they asked me “Do you know how to ride a bike?” I said, “Yeah, I know I ride a bike.” I fell off the bike immediately. And everybody knows that character rides a bike all the time. So every role I play has some [action] element somewhere. For Nola I had to take a spin class to make sure that I had the stamina just riding a bike around Puerto Rico casually.
Every single thing I do requires preparation and training of some sort. And my job really is to make it look as invisible and lived in. In this case, that was putting myself through my own personal bootcamp so it felt like Kayla was a former Air Force pilot.
I love the commitment and it definitely comes through in the character. What would you say was the wildest scene that you had to shoot for this project?
DW: I mean it was all wild. She’s in most of the action set pieces. You can train all you want, you could prepare all you want, but it’s very different. The first thing we shot was the ice lake sequence, which is a ridiculous first thing to shoot. The first two weeks was the ice lake sequence, which not only was action packed but also my priority of course, because every character I play has to have a drop-in moment. So [this] moment where she’s essentially half apologising, half homecoming to herself — and doing that while also hitting the technical requirements of an action film — was the toughest thing. That was the wildest thing. And also taking up space and being like, “Nah [director] Colin [Trevorrow], I know we’re shooting on film, but I need to do that again.” Because I need it to be true. I need to believe me.
There’s no overarching rules. It’s Black womanhood, there’s no overarching anything…. I have this experiential understanding that goes into every role I play. I love us.
You spoke a little bit about how we’re always in the tower or removed from the action when we are in these genres. What is your hope for the future of Black talent when it comes to other categories like action, horror, or anime?
DW: I’m optimistic. I’m super pragmatic, but I am quite optimistic. And I think what was beautiful about when we were filming. You had both John Boyega and Ray Fisher essentially calling [out] bullshit [in Hollywood]. Boyega specifically was like, “You will not be able to create new Black heroes without giving them hero moments.” So that was a part of the bedrock upon which we were filming. I think blowing the whistle, calling it out, and then honestly, making sure that our actors are prepared to do the work. Meaning that they know that it requires, you know, preparation and training and all that stuff beforehand, but also that these studios continue to facilitate that. To pay for the training, to pay for the meal plans, and actually give us the resources and the support to continue to take up space and make the kind of impact that’s possible. So I’m optimistic. I am, like everybody else, a tremendous Jordan Peele fan. I had the great pleasure of working with him on Twilight Zone. It’s one of my favourite shows of all time. And I love that space. I went to theatre school [and] those genres give us the most to latch on to because it’s the equivalent to Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. Stakes are so high and it’s such a fun playground. I want it for us so badly. There’s so many Black women who are very clearly not only saying, “I want to work in this space,” but who are readying themselves.
In that same vein of optimism, are we going to see Kayla again in the Jurassic franchise?
DW:I mean, we’ll see. I’m going to sit down with Universal and be like, “What’s up?”
While we wait on that, what is next for you? I’ve heard you’re doing some really dope things with Audible like your new series narrating stories about the unsung Black women who led some of history’s major uprisings that we’re often not taught in textbooks. I’m curious if you can tell us a little bit about that?
DW: Yes, Wake [The Hidden History Of Women-Led Slave Revolts]! Over the last several years especially, it was really weird. Growing up it’s like, “Yay, Harriet Tubman, and yay, Rosa Parks.” You’re kind of latching on to all these civil rights icons. So growing up it didn’t feel like we had the stigma and shame about enslavement in America until the last several years. My unpopular opinion perspective is that saying, “Oh, I’m sick of slave narratives” is like saying, oh wow, white supremacy really won here.
Because statistically there aren’t really many [slave narratives]. And I think to be like, “I don’t want to hear that or see it like or we already know it,” it’s just not true. And this project is part and parcel of that. We don’t know the extent to which Black women specifically were really shepherding these uprisings, but [Wake author] Dr. Rebecca Hall does. The same extent that we talk about how Black trauma is passed. What else is passed?
I legit come from a family of brilliant, entrepreneurial-minded, small business owners in Maryland. I think about how my grandfather owned and operated the largest junkyard on the East Coast in the fifties and sixties. I’m like, let’s talk about that! Let’s talk about that blood that runs through our veins, because that’s a part of it. And for whatever reason, we find it very difficult to reconcile that our suffering and our strength are intrinsically linked. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
There seems to be this desire to remove ourselves from that part of history.
DW: And so much of that is still happening, which I think is the link between the past and Dr. Rebecca Hall’s experiences professionally in understanding those microaggressions and understanding how the stereotypes exhaustingly still make an impact on our lives. I understand that desire to want to say, “can we be done with it?” The real truth is we’re still contending big time with these systems of white supremacy. But for me, the past and knowing my history only emboldens me. It’s not about the fact that they suffered so that now I have it easier. It’s more about the global Pan African experience of Blackness. There’s more that joins us.
I’m unbothered about scarcity mentality. I’m unbothered about living beyond my means. I’m not trying to keep up with nobody.
With all those things in mind, on a personal level, who are some of the women warriors that you pull inspiration from?
DW:I was very blessed. I was thinking about the grace I had when I was at NYU. Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell was still there. Sandra Bowie was the managing director of Tisch School of the Arts and Dori Smith was the financial aid lady. And that triangle of women got me through, literally. If there was a master class, Dean Campbell had me in her office as one of, like, 15 kids every time. Every single moment of my life, at any time period, I could list for you a community of Black women who just tangibly wrapped their arms around me and spoke into my life. I was working on this device theatre project called Rewrites and Sandra Bowie came up to me afterwards and she just nodded gently and said, “DeWanda, you don’t have to do anything.” So if my work feels effortless now, that’s because Sandra Bowie, essentially, in that one phrase, was like, “Trust.”
And this is why you listen to Black women! How does that mindset factor into your overall mission and the work that you do?
DW: I’m an actor and I’m a filmmaker, but my purpose is healing. That’s my purpose in life. You know, one of my closest friends said to me a month ago, “You just want everyone to know that they’re made in the image of God so that they can stop it.” All this shit that people do. All the hurt people [who] hurt people. My bigger picture purpose is healing for us.
For my last question, I want to know what are you unbothered about right now?
DW: Oh! I have been unbothered about [being] booked and busy for a very long time. It was a year between Jurassic World and Three Women. It kind of loops back to your earlier point, which is I put a lot of a lot of work and thought and energy and effort into my roles. And I plan on being Cicely Tyson. So I’m unbothered about scarcity mentality. I’m unbothered about living beyond my means. I’m not trying to keep up with nobody. I’m just not.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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