Dewanda Wise: “I think I went (to therapy) because there was an understanding and an acceptance that in some ways, the depression admittedly didn’t serve me. In the last 10 years, I realised happiness is fleeting, but contentment is a daily practice. It’s something that has changed my baseline.”
Alice Gee | 12/12/2023
DeWanda Wise enjoys her time off between a rigorous filming schedule as she tells me of her Christmas plans with family and friends over the coming weeks. Growing up in a working-class family in Maryland I listen as she tells me it’s good to be back on the east coast being closer to her mum and others who she cherishes as her support system. With an early childhood straddled between an urban and rural environment, being brought up primarily by her mother, Wise spent key moments of her childhood at her Grandfather, a Methodist minister, junkyard.
Following her parent’s divorce around age five, Wise often found herself at church, a community she attributes alongside her mother as a pillar of importance in her life. Full of insight, even at the tender age of five, Wise explains how she knew that her mother and father shouldn’t have been together. It’s something she’s learned, that awareness of others and her environment is crucial to her knowledge of herself. Having always had a sense of direction on who she is and what she needs for herself, a born performer, she laid down her creative foundations by singing in the county choir. In the choir, she tells me she discovered the language of love, something she often refers to when prioritising her mental health. As a self-confessed sensitive child, Wise describes herself as porous in absorbing emotions, sobbing while singing in the pulpit at church “No one there knew what to do with my emotions. It was kind of something I naturally understood about myself. People often don’t think about how to maintain their mental health, especially at a young age. It’s the same as thinking I should exercise. It’s the same process. I think it should be something you think of daily or at least a weekly practice.” Growing up, Wise’s mother was integral to this firm belief in prioritising her mental health. “My mom was such an integral component to that because there was no stigma or judgment around me environmentally. It just wasn’t in the house. She knew she had a sensitive kid and was always willing to figure it out with me. She was always listening.” Wise seems aware of how enormous that was for the time, as her mum continued to set an example of being open when taking care of her own mental well-being. “As a single mum, you can only hide what you’re dealing with so much from your kids. She struck as fine a balance as she could between being vulnerable herself but not making me feel responsible. My relationship with my mum is something that I really, really cherish.”
It’s these pivot relationships Wise has drawn upon all, be it juxtaposing for the relationships her character Sloane portrays in her upcoming role for Three Women. Based on the nonfiction bestseller by Lisa Taddeo, the adaptation is an intimate portrayal of American female desire with the characters trying to radically change their lives. It’s a role Wise undertakes confidently, solidified by her mental health journey. Wise opens up to me about the energy it takes when feeling like you have to advocate for yourself all the time, something her character knows all too well about.
“Where I’m not working, I love and need my breaks. I need seasons where I don’t have to constantly advocate for myself.” Playing roles where women are deeply misunderstood must be mentally tricky. “I think I naturally gravitate towards them. It’s catnip for me. I think the transparency stems from my desire to be understood, accepted, and loved for who I am.” As we move into the Christmas season, Wise questions the pressures women often find themselves in around this time of year. “I always question, especially right now when we’re in this kind of very punitive and petty season, where you can and must do no wrong.” It’s clear to see the curiosity Wise has about the boundaries of unconditional love, especially for women, bringing us towards the topic of shame and how we, as women, tend to move through it. Wise questions how badly can we fuck up or figure things out before we’re punished. “I’m constantly questioning what it means to live a life that might make people a little more uncomfortable, or that might not resonate with how they express themselves or how they live their life, but it’s not necessarily good or bad?” It seems she’s searching for the answer to ‘what does it mean to move through your shame or, at the very least, how do we live without that self-judgment. “What does it mean to live and feel free in and of yourself?”. She tells me that’s what resonated with her after reading the script for Three Women and how our portrayals of misunderstood women.
“I think Jenna Ortega, who played Wednesday Addams talked about this. Anytime you’re playing a character that makes people feel uncomfortable, you have to advocate for them every step of the way. Playing Sloane, a character that can come across in some respects as a mean, Wise feels for her “she’s automatically misunderstood and requires protection. That’s part of your job as an actor, but it’s also part of what comes naturally for me because I’m a voracious protector.” As a program that covers realistic aspects of life, I ask how those on set felt facing head-on difficult and triggering subjects while advocation for those characters.
As my character (Sloane) battles bulimia, I feel like it’s not something you get over forever, even if you have years and years in recovery. I understood my role required so much thought, which was one of the first questions I asked the consultants on the show.” Consultants, including intimacy consultants, are something I’ve started to hear more and more about, as we both sigh a sense of relief on the subject. “Whenever we were filming, they had consultants and counselors there. They weren’t just for those of us acting, but for our crew, to help them with what the characters are going through. What was beautiful about the process of Three Women was our intimacy coordinator was there as support so that every actor on that set felt like they had a soft place to land. A safe place, and that the environment is conducive to the work that requires that level of vulnerability.” What did that mean for you being able to feel safe? “What we were able to do in that respect was really inspiring. It’s one thing that I always felt is possible in Hollywood.” Myself, alongside Wise, struggle to understand what took so long for safe spaces to be represented in the film industry, “You have the resources. If you have stunt coordinators and all these other experts, why can’t they provide these safe spaces? It is perfectly possible. I’ve always been like, how are we taking care of this? What is the policy? What’s the formal framework? I’m thankful for it, the role is the heaviest thing that people have seen me do in quite some time.” I imagine that within the love Wise and others have for their roles, there must be moments where the characters’ trauma trickles through the script into reality. I wonder whether these are conversations she’s comfortable having? “I hope to have this conversation more. For so long I felt my timing had to be just right. I wouldn’t have survived as an actor in Hollywood saying this before. I would have been spoken to as ‘She’s difficult.’.” To see women having been silenced due to fear for the vocation is an uncomfortable truth, but to hear how it’s starting to be considered means Wise will continue to leave the industry better than she found it.
You need to be able to prepare for a role. I see it how I see character descriptions written in my contracts. I know I will need a trainer and a nutritionist to do this in specific roles. I can only really speak for what I’ve raised my hand for, but I hope that more artists in general, whether writers, directors, or whomever on sets, feel empowered to just ask.” To Wise, it’s undoubtedly a community of care that she’s relieved to see. “All these other people who have to hear or bear witness on productions that are already very hard and grueling on crew members, it’s a big deal. I can shout them out. Anthony Hemingway is a TV and film director who understands what it means to keep up set morale. He’s a master. He takes care of your crew and makes sure that they’re not run into the ground and that they’re physically safe. It’s truly commendable.”
Speaking of safe spaces, I’m aware of Wise’s childhood ambitions of becoming a therapist, all while being not entirely surprised, having seen her levels of compassion firsthand. “I was always one of those kids who always knew what I wanted to do at every point of growing up. At 11 I was a peer mediator, playing therapists to my cohorts, which is ridiculous. I don’t think I was very good, but I was just very earnest. Taking AP Psychology, I was very serious about it.” After following her passion for acting, Wise understands the role psychology plays in performing, which was part of her decision to choose her current vocation. But there was a deeper reason behind Wise turning her back on becoming a therapist.
“What kind of broke my heart as a kid was I recognised the lack of access. I felt only rich people could get therapy. Alongside it, I realised it’s not just a matter of having the resources but also the time to sit and talk to somebody.” She’s not wrong, as I tell her how so many employers in the UK struggle with the concept. Having not started therapy until a couple of years ago, Wise explains how over-identifying with her depression played a part in her not believing it needed to be fixed. “There was a degree of self-acceptance. I didn’t see it as something that should be fixed.” What changed your mind, I find myself asking? “I think I went because there was an understanding and an acceptance that I had that, in some ways, the depression admittedly didn’t serve me. In the last 10 years, I realised happiness is fleeting, but contentment is a daily practice. It’s something that has changed my baseline.”
Seemingly having an incredibly strong support system Wise tells me of the moment she realised she could marry her husband. “He has this capacity to uplift others. It’s a true gift.” The credit Wise gives to others is warming. The appreciation for others who play a key part in her being is admirable. Still, I’ve noticed the patience Wise advocates for when referring to her success, that it’s ok to let things come to fruition in their own time without being too hard on yourself. “I think so much of that is just we’re all swimming up a current. We’re all swimming upstream of ageism. We’re also made up of a status quo. Meryl Streep calls it the ‘still, small voice’. But to go to that place where you can access your inner knowledge and truth outside the realm of what you’re bombarded with is so important.” Her experience of peer pressure is different. Believing for most of her childhood it was just on tv, Wise only fully becoming aware of its true nature when working on the Creative Arts Program in New York City within the public school system. “It was then I saw peer pressure, and I was like, oh ok, that’s real. And then social media exploded. Even for folks who are their own selves, or they know their own mind and identity, it didn’t matter. It taps into our deepest fears of survival of being ostracized. So much of that practice of peace in my life is continuing to ask myself, is whatever it is true.” She pauses, starting to get tearful. “That’s why it’s more meaningful to... God,” she declares, “I’m getting emotional, but it’s more meaningful for me to speak to you and be on this cover than others.”
That’s done it now, as I get a little emotional at her sweet declaration. I give her a moment before delicately moving towards an uplifting topic, hoping to see her smile and to hear her laughter again. That topic is, of course, something I can’t bring myself not to ask, her evolutionary role in Jurassic World Dominion. Having met Colin Trevorrow in March of 2019 Wise explains how the film was due to start in March 2020, with a nightmare itself COVID’s rampage taking the priority with the set becoming home in July 2020.
“The fact I didn’t actually start until July due to COVID meant I had enough time to get these biceps and shoulders out of the water. It gave me time to prepare physically but also mentally in terms of like constructing her characterisation. It’s a real gift to have time for that.” With other fellow actors finding themselves getting in their own head with extra time DeWanda declares to me how she loves a homework. “If I had walked into that very high-pressure situation without feeling like I had the ground underneath me, it would have been incredibly hard. So it was all hands on deck.” With the film being shot at Pinewood studios in the UK, Wise shares how the cast was living together with her support system, her husband traveling to join her very early on.
“I was good with my full support system, Alano and Ruth. Ruth was the massage therapist, thank god, as working out for two hours a day meant I needed Ruth. But there’s so much more about massage. It releases the stress you’re holding. It has nothing to do with the weights you’ve been lifting. I remember I would get on this massage table and weep.” With the theme support, I wonder how the experience compared to others. “Colin Trevorrow is one of the most supportive inspiring buoyant, morale-boosting directors I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Not one toxic person could be found on set. Everybody was just delightful. It was an experience that likely won’t happen again.”
As Wise spends a moment to treasure the moment again, I reflect on a woman who is so inspiring. To have such insight into your own mind and what you need as a person when functioning is something we rarely get the chance to see, but not only that, Wise is a passionate individual so excited to boost others’ morale. In fact, it’s something so infectious there’s no doubt others will feel it, like so many already have.
Writer - Alice Gee
Photographer - Alano Miller