DeWanda Wise is a very busy woman. Over the last ten years, she has appeared in numerous TV series such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent, One Life to Live, The Good Wife and Boardwalk Empire, alongside frequent short and feature-length film projects. But it was the 2016 Sundance Film Festival premiere of How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, in which she plays the female lead, Rochelle Marseilles, that Wise credits as the catalyst for the roll she’s on right now. While that film’s iron was hot, she accepted major roles in three TV series: WGN America’s Underground, Fox’s Shots Fired and Netflix’s forthcoming She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s episodic adaptation of his 1986 film, in which Wise stars as Nola Darling.
To say that Wise is involved with several socially impactful projects suggests she’s putting her talent toward promoting awareness and creating positive change. That’s undoubtedly true. The deeper story is the discernment and care, hers and that of those projects’ teams, in developing inclusive stories that challenge audiences to think through their positions on feminism, race and truth. Paste sat down with Wise in Los Angeles to talk about her busy life, the relevance of the themes these stories take on, and the responsibility of telling them well.
Paste: You’ve been keeping yourself pretty busy, what has the last year been like for you?
DeWanda Wise: I like to compartmentalize, so thankfully there was only a little overlap with projects. We shot Shots Fired at the beginning of the year last year, like March though the summer. Then, I was working on Underground, which overlapped a little bit with She’s Gotta Have It. So, technically I finished filming at the end of January , and then I jumped into press.
Paste: How has the premiere of your last film, How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, at the Sundance Film Festival served as a catalyst for your career?
Wise: I went to NYU, and the filmmaker [Tahir Jetter] is out of NYU. I was that student who was doing student films when I was there, just trying to meet my tribe, so to speak. And also just to continue to create work. I believe that if you really love what you do, you’ll do it in a basement. I really believe that in my heart. So Jetter [and I], we’d worked together on one short, he’d assistant directed a couple others, and we were in the process of developing another one, which we’ll do in the future. But, [for How to Tell You’re a Douchebag], he said, ‘Hey, DeWanda, we can shoot this film over the summer, micro-budget, are you in?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ So, we work on the script and do some fine tuning and we came on as producers because at the time, my husband [actor Alano Miller] had just started working on Underground. So, we used one of those checks and contributed to the film and I had a hand mostly in casting and figuring out those components of the film. And we shot it over twenty-one days. And it was a prime, perfect pocket. We were in the Next category at Sundance [in 2016], because it’s an atypical rom-com, and really it just came from wanting to play an intelligent woman of color who looks pretty. That was it. It was very superficial! It was one of those things that I have no tape of this [type of role]. And I say it was the catalyst because two things happened. When you create your own work, it builds confidence. And, it’s empowering. When you go, ‘I don’t really need a system, if I want to create work I can just make it.’ When you accomplish something like that you’re like, ‘Oh, I got this. I don’t need an entire infrastructure, I can just make it and it will be great.’ That fall, I tested for a couple projects and that’s when I went in for Shots Fired. I went in with that ease and openness and it was right after Sundance, two months after I auditioned, when I got the offer.
Paste: You mention in an appropriately joking way that it was a superficial choice to play Rochelle in How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, but she’s not a superficial character. She retains power throughout the film, particularly when she refuses to provide a happily-ever-after ending.
Wise: We were astonished that no one had really tapped into what it’s like to date now. What it’s like to have all these options or to seemingly have all these options and to grow up, so to speak. And that’s really what we were interested in. And the humanity of Rochelle, of seeming one way online or being this feminist entity, this icon, but then really to get into her real life and the non-relationship “situationship” she was in. I found her extremely fascinating and familiar. My husband was so annoyed [laughing] because I was reading so much bell hooks! He was so annoyed! And he’s a feminist, he’s a great guy, obviously, but he was like, ‘OK?’ [Rochelle] definitely has some depth and we were interested in a real moment [at the film’s conclusion]. And [the male lead, Ray] doesn’t deserve [absolution] at the end.
Paste: Which is a beautiful way to leave a film. It’s a graceful but strong exit.
Paste: How would you characterize Rochelle, with respect to how you define a modern, American woman?
Wise: In the evolution of the conversation on feminism, we’ve always called into question the diversity of feminism. You know, allowing for both a Beyoncé and a Maya Angelou, and not having it be this thing that’s mutually exclusive. I find the contribution to the conversation in Rochelle is that her humanity [allows] us to see women who fuck up, where it’s not just this matter of having perfect icons, but allowing the fullness of that humanity and the fullness of what it means to be in the process of figuring shit out. Nola [Darling, Wise’s role in She’s Gotta Have It], in our manifestation, our iteration of her, is an extension of that exploration.
Paste: I was going to ask you about those connections.
Wise: It was a direct connection. The execs from Netflix saw How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, which is a huge part of how that came to be. It’s a very exciting time, because I’m finding more complexities and less hard-and-fast rules to what [feminism] means, if that makes sense.
Paste: That makes total sense. I think that you’re noticing and celebrating nuance rather than the insistence that feminism must be one certain way.
Paste: And if we all could more be like that!
Wise: Right, right, right! Yeah! If we could just spread that!
Paste: Since we’ve touched on your role in She’s Gotta Have It, share your thoughts on working with Spike Lee.
Wise: Here’s what’s crazy. I was at NYU when he did this Master Class with Denzel Washington, and I feel like it must have been at our director’s session when he was like, how have I not seen your work? And I was like, you have! I’ve been in so many of your students’ films [laughing]. I have a character actor background, so I never fault anyone for not recognizing me. But, it’s crazy when you grow up with an icon and then you’re like, we’re kindreds. To say that Spike Lee and I are kindreds is crazy, but two thousand percent true. We’re both very work hard, play hard—we’re efficiency snobs. On his set, the man has vision and he’s been doing this [for so long], it’s not that thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get all this coverage just in case.’ No, no, no, no. He knows what the shot is going to be and when you’re working like that and you’re working at that speed, you have to come correct, you have to come prepared. We both have that laser focus, but our days didn’t go beyond twelve hours. He’s a family man. He cares about people getting home to their families and he facilitated an environment of success unlike anything I’ve ever worked on before.
Paste: Speaking of kindred spirits, have there been other heroes or heroines that have lit the path for you?
Wise: I worked with two of them this year: Gina Prince-Bythewood [creator/director of Shots Fired]. I still remember the first time seeing Love & Basketball, speaking of nuanced women. That was the first time I’d ever seen a woman embody a tomboy instead of that rom-com construct where it’s like, ‘I’m such a tomboy! But, my nails are manicured and I’m wearing false eyelashes’ [laughing]. Like, ‘I’m just one of the guys!’ It was the first time where I saw it and it was really lived-in and you meet Gina and it makes perfect sense. Because it’s her cinematic doppelgänger, in a sense. She’s very unassuming. It’s very much like working with a coach as an athlete and that was another moment… when you meet someone and you’re like, ‘Oh wow!’ It’s crazy when your icons become human beings. We’re both introverts, so it took us a second to warm up. And our warm up, which is my preference, was through the work. She’s the kind of artist that’s like, ‘My work speaks for me.’ And I feel like you can get to know the core of who I am best by seeing my work. I can allow you to see it better than I can probably describe.
Then, right after that, Alano started working on Underground last year and he was telling me about his boss who would push his buttons, and push his buttons, and push his buttons. And I was like, Alano, it sounds like she is just messing with you. After a while mama bear wife comes out because I was like, ‘Who is this woman who is messing with my husband? Only I get to do that. It’s my job!’ So, I go down to Baton Rouge and I meet [Underground co-creator] Misha Green and I kid you not, we’re like best friends. We were immediate friends. They were out bowling and I hate bowling. I think bowling is so dumb ([aughing]. And she said, ‘Are you just going to come to the bowling alley and not bowl?’ And I said, ‘Yep.’ And that was it. We’ve been friends ever since.
Paste: Underground and Shots Fired both deal extensively with issues of race. What specifically in these projects has spoken to you and what would you hope to see outcome-wise by the conversation these series help an audience have?
Wise: It’s multi-faceted. With Underground, when people immediately hear about the show [Wise plays an enslaved Gullah woman named Clara], they have the response that’s like, ‘Ugh, slavery. Not another slave narrative.’
Paste: Do you find that everywhere?
Wise: Oh, yeah; for sure. It’s a natural response from people of color. I think it’s a shame response, because we’ve been conditioned to be ashamed… I won’t speak for other groups, but it is, it’s shame there, too. It’s this unprocessed moment of American history that’s actually the very foundation of our collective history. So, it’s a very uncomfortable conversation, but one that we’ve never really had. What I think [is] interesting about Underground, and I try to remind people, is that it’s about the turn of enslavement. In Season One, they always said it’s not about the occupation, it’s about the revolution. And it was the first organized civil rights movement across the board in this country. And to be part of a project like that that’s not only a feat in entertainment, because it’s really a phenomenal show, but they so seamlessly integrate those nuggets of information. We’re having so many people respond in Season Two about how they had no idea about the Gullah community. No idea about this phenomenal legacy of West Africaners who were able to retain their culture.
Paste: To this day.
Wise: To this day! It’s this full circle integration. It was important for them to incorporate that, too, because [the Gullah community] is an endangered species. Their land is being taken and so it was this really impressive, multi-layered, from-past-to-present purpose. And Shots Fired, it’s much the same. It’s where we see the news, we hear about these stories, we look at an image on Instagram or a headline on Twitter, but storytelling is very powerful and it’s a different thing to be in the lives of people rather than hearing a sound bite or a staged comment from a publicist.
Paste: In Shots Fired, with the reversal of the roles from what we’ve witnessed in places like Ferguson, Missouri, do you think that that choice gives the project access to the conversation of race and law enforcement in a positive and useful way?
Wise: That was the intention. The intention was one, to elicit [the natural human response] that it’s easier to empathize and understand when people look like you. Most of my followers on Instagram are chocolate girls. It just is what it is. But by the same token, and in the process of making that choice, you also get an examination of any disparities in the justice system. Which cases the department of justice decides to prosecute or involve themselves in, how the local government and local police respond. And then also, you get this sense, which is my favorite element of the show, working with Jill Hennessy, and Jill is a mother of two boys, but working with her, we became sisters, very much so. Many of the mothers of the movement, they always qualify it as a club no one wants to be a part of, but it’s a real sisterhood. And that kind of feeling where you experience a tragedy no one else understands except for the other people who have experienced that tragedy. It’s such a powerful image. I think that image of them together is special and it’s this instant visual of what it means to hold out your hand.
Paste: So often, in current events, we have these divisive singular incidents about which the truth spills down two different sides. Facts can be reported in ways that support competing conclusions to which factions in our society are predisposed to gravitate. In your perspective personally and as it pertains to your work, how do you grapple with that?
Wise: I feel like that’s exactly it. It’s really frustrating, and it is that thing where you also wonder, ‘Do we need to know the truth? Or do we need to heal this?’ I always bristled at these conversations about issues they always qualify as ‘controversial.’ Is it controversial, though? Is Flint [Michigan] controversial? Or do people deserve clean water and we live in the United States of America? Is police brutality controversial, or should people not die at the hands of those who are sworn to protect them? I think we cover that in the show, that sense of multiple truths. Because it is. That’s exactly what it is. [In many cases] everyone fully believes their own personal truths. And yet, how much of that is tied into other things? How much of the truth we hold onto is tied into ego or fear or shame?
Paste: When you seek what’s true and important to your core, fundamental beliefs, where do you go to find that in a post-truth world? That is, what is the essence of how you set your guiding principles as a human?
Wise: Man, that’s a good question. I’m Christian, and that’s at the core of everything… I’ve never been an evangelist, but it’s always been an intrinsic part of my life. I usually find that true guiding principles of Christianity [are relevant] across most faiths. One that’s often overlooked that I gravitate to really strongly is that aspect of social justice. I naturally have always had a heart for civil rights. In the practical needs of people in need. Whenever things don’t make any sense, I always go back to [this belief], it’s a salve, and a reminder that [the status quo] is not it. I could not imagine being alive in the world today if I thought that this was it.
Paste: Just that fundamental knowing that there’s better that can be done.
Wise: That there’s better. That this is not it. And it’s a balance between that, which obviously can be a cop out and be like, well, this is the news, so I’m just going to hold off, and the pursuit of heaven on Earth. And the inching [toward], ‘What is my mark, what is the contribution that I can make?’ [Early on in my career] I realized the revolution in how you live your day to day. I realized the power of the revolution of being a positive aspect or influence on set. Time and time again [through service], I’ve gotten these blessings from people. You don’t know what anyone’s going though; you really don’t. And if you come from that presumption that everyone’s going through something, because they are, and you treat them with that extra step and extra layer of kindness and love, it goes a very, long way.
Paste: For so many of us who take in entertainment, be it on stage, or film, or television, we see images that harden us, or soften us, or make us think of something revelatory. As an artist, what is your reflection on your role as a shaper and teller of stories?
Wise: It comes from the same guiding principles, but if you believe as an artist that it is your purpose to serve, it is your purpose to serve story, to represent for the characters you’re playing because you recognize that they’re humans, like real humans. It’s a little more clear, when your working on a Shameeka Campbell [Wise’s role in Shots Fired], who’s modeled after Wanda Johnson [mother of shooting victim Oscar Grant], and Lesley McSpadden [mother of shooting victim Michael Brown] and these women. Every time you are working in service of story, it makes for a better experience and it makes for better art.
Paste: You can see it in your eyes that you believe in that absolute truth. When in your life did you feel the gravity of the performing arts and the need to express the passion that you have?
Wise: Acting was the ‘Aha!’ moment. It was that thing where you grow up with a specific heart, a specific tool set and I grew up a super melancholy kid, very emotionally available. My boss, [Shots Fired co-creator] Reggie [Rock Bythewood], asked me how I go there for Shameeka so readily. And the better question for me is, ‘How do I prevent myself from going there everyday?’ ‘How do I keep myself out of there?’ is the better question. It started as something that was necessary and cathartic at [age] fifteen. I was like, ‘Oh, finally I’ve found this place to put all of my shit!’ [laughing], and now that I’m a little more emotionally mature and stable, it’s still that, but I have a better grasp of how to turn it off. Then integration of the service aspect, I come from a working class family and I grew up watching my mom have two jobs and my dad have three. And, my dad especially… he just retired from his second job [laughing], but hearing the way they speak about his work—if there’s a job to do, it’s worth doing well and with pride. It’s fascinating to me how often [I see dissatisfaction] in this industry specifically. I’m living the life of my dreams right now. How many people don’t feel that way? And that’s one of the saddest things to witness.
Paste: Was there a moment for you when you made that leap to chase this dream?
Wise: It was instant. I make these really impulsive [choices]. I married my husband after three months. I just knew. When I was fifteen, I started taking drama classes and my teacher gave me detention for being late all the time. Just late to every class, just socializing. My detention was to audition for the [school] show. Like any great ‘90s comedy! Like Dangerous Minds. He gave me detention and that was literally it. I hadn’t planned on going to college before I discovered acting. I was a very mature kid, but became super, laser focused on it. I went to public schools in Maryland, in Howard County, and I remember my senior year, my guidance counselor was like, ‘You don’t want to take math and science your senior year?’ I was like, ‘No, I’m applying to NYU for drama.’ And she was like, ‘You’re not going to get into NYU without taking math and science.’ I had that perspective from my mom, I’m sure, that the rules don’t apply to me. I’m just going to build my own fake curriculum like I go to an arts school already! I was doing mentorship, I was taking dance class, I was in band, I was doing all this stuff my senior year of high school. It all paid off. There’ve been challenges and extreme disappointments, but I’ve had this out-of-the-box perspective that’s like, ‘That doesn’t have to be my life, that doesn’t have to apply to me.’
Paste: Circling back to the values and work ethic that your parents instilled in you, what do you see in today’s young generation?
Wise: I see entrepreneurship in this generation. I think the times require that inventiveness. I see so much ingenuity and it comes in multiple forms. You see a lot of people developing apps and companies. The environment necessitates that kind of risk and that kind of thinking. There’s always that thing where we’re skeptical of the youngest generation. I think we’re super communal. My friends and I continuing to create and build and construct opportunities for other artists, which I don’t see a lot of in the generations before me. They had certain opportunities and they were comfortable with those opportunities. And now we’re like, ‘Let’s make room.’ It’s why Issa Rae is Issa Rae. She was like, ‘I need to create some space for myself.’ Now she has a show on HBO.
Paste: What do audiences need to learn from Underground and Shots Fired?
Wise: I’m super reticent to tell people what to take away just because I believe that art hits you when it’s supposed to hit you. You can watch a play, you can watch a TV show, and you might be closed at the moment. It might not hit you until years down the line… What I think is exciting about Shots Fired specifically and the conversation about where we’re at historically, I think there are issues and trials that unite us that we don’t realize should unite us. We’ve been sold this lie. Growing up in Maryland, which is, to be real with you, more class delineated than race delineated, I felt I had a front seat to see what that means and what that experience is. Since the beginning of our history, we’ve been sold on these themes of division and it doesn’t serve any of us. It gets people elected, but it doesn’t help anybody. I’m not one of those people that’s like, my shows will save the world, but I do think having the folks, I call them woke white folks, the folks that we’ve had on the show—they’re there for a reason. Helen Hunt is there for a reason. Stephen Moyer is there for a reason. Richard Dreyfuss is there for a reason. And we’re all united under this purpose. For me, I believe that police reform and gun reform serve us all. And the specificity and nuances of what that would look like, I do think that there’s a solution and there’s a way in which no one would feel like anything was taken away. I believe in celebrating our differences, but the division and the emphasis on these perceived differences have really fucked us up.
Shots Fired airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox. Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. om WGN America.
Gordon Hight is a writer, photographer, and fly fishing guide living in Teton Valley, Idaho. You can follow him on Instagram.