DeWanda Wise is deep in thought. There’s a dramatic pause on the other end of the line. “Wow, I'm sorry, I'm super cerebral I'm going to have to think on that one,” Wise finally says on the phone from New York City during a press day for season 2 of Spike Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. Wise plays Nola Darling, a self-described “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual,” who, aside from being an ambitious, free-spirited painter, is also juggling a complicated love life. The question that has Wise stumped is about what song Nola would dance to that would inspire viral gifs, like the ones dominating your Twitter timelines of her character Erin in Someone Great dancing to Lizzo. “A track for Nola… a track for Nola...” Wise is repeating this phrase out loud, more to herself than to me, as she contemplates her answer. After more silence, she launches into a detailed explanation of her thought process:
“Nola just covers so much ground. There is obviously an element of strength and resilience and she has a certain edge that feels very Rihanna, but there is also something that's very like fancy free and carefree about her that feels more like Solange.”
Wise settles on Solange over Rihanna but can’t remember the name of the song in her head. So naturally, she starts singing. “What's the one that's like, ‘I tried to drink it away.’” I try to sing along with her but both of us are blanking on the name. (Google will remind me later that it’s “Cranes In The Sky.”) It’s during our awkward warbling/giggling back-and-forth that I realize this exchange is exactly why Wise is having a significant moment in Hollywood right now — one that we’ll look back on as the time that catapulted her from sidekick to superstar.
The reason Wise forgetting Solange lyrics epitomizes her meteoric rise is because a) she immediately makes me want to be her best friend, b) she’s being her unapologetic, unfiltered self, and c) she’s approaching the question with the same painstaking care and effort she puts into every project. Wise’s confidence and magnetic relatability are why she steals every scene she’s in in Someone Great. Her ability to connect to her characters in a “super cerebral” way is why Nola Darling feels so real amidst some sometimes-unreal circumstances. Wise also shines in a standout episode of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone and as an almost unrecognizable Valley girl in Stella Meghie’s indie rom-com The Weekend. These roles show off Wise’s versatility and foreshadow a long and successful career. This is just the beginning.
Here, Wise tells Refinery29 about Season 2 of She’s Gotta Have It, why there’s no dick pics in her DMs, and the Captain Marvel role that got away.
I want to start with Someone Great because I've watched it more times than I’m willing to admit out loud. Erin is one of my favorite rom-com characters of all time. She's not your stereotypical gay, Black best friend that we usually see in rom-coms. Is that what drew you to her?
Oh yeah, a trillion percent. Erin is based on one of [director and writer] Jenn Kaytin Robinson's friends. There are always arguments to be found on who has the right to tell our stories and to write characters who are coming from a specific point of view. In this case, Jenn Kaytin Robinson wrote Erin relatively neutrally. She's speaking in a wonderfully direct, grounded, sarcastic voice that her friend speaks in, and then any of the nuances the additions that feel racially specific, [Jenn] empowered us to add them in. The same thing was true of Gina Rodriguez’s character which was obviously based on [Jenn] herself. It speaks to the possibilities of representation that there are artists who don't look like me who are wise enough to know that they should collaborate. It's not just an equation where actors are meant to be dolls in a dollhouse but that we can bring a whole history, knowledge, and an experience to inform the work and make it as specific as possible.
When you and Gina are dancing to Lizzo you can tell you’ve been friends for 15 years. You have that natural chemistry.
There was so much of our personalities that intersected in such beautiful and fun ways in the movie. When we were done, we were like, “I hope other people enjoy it ’cause we did.” I mean, I had so much fun — so much fun.
I was there the night he won. There is no way to express that degree of pride — especially with an icon and a cinematic voice who has paved the way and made a blueprint for so many young directors from all walks of life. I see Spike's work in so many things that I watch. To be there for that moment and to give the man his flowers while he's still here, there is nothing like it.
Season 2 starts with a time jump. We find Nola and her girlfriend, Opal, in this seemingly happy relationship 18 months after the Season 1 finale. Nola really seems to be trying her best to be in a committed relationship. Can you tease how the relationship is going to play out?
I don't know what I'm allowed to say. [Laughs.] I think that you nailed it — Nola is now trying her best. I think everyone should try things at least once before they make a snap judgment which she's trying with monogamy. It's been 18 months of feeling good about [the relationship], feeling good about kind of being a pseudo step mom/big sister to Skyla, and really diving into the routine of a live-in partner.
There are so many aspects of Nola's sexuality that we haven't seen from a Black woman on television. What are you hoping the takeaway is?
First and foremost, I have always been invested in under-told stories and stories of marginalized and oppressed communities, especially stories that are not centered on how they are marginalized or oppressed. Playing Nola in Season 1 and getting to see her fight for her identity and her freedom served as a source of true empowerment. I love it when a role in a story can challenge people and their understanding of what something means. I've gotten the funniest DMs from heterosexual, cis gender dudes who are just like, “Oh I just I never thought about it before in these terms!” Whether they were like cat-callers who were seeing themselves in maybe not the best light and they're shook, or whether they were men who demanded a certain degree of like a Madonna complex from the women they dated and they’re realizing how unreasonable their behaviour was.
Wait — you've had guys calling themselves out for cat-calling in your DMs?
Yes! I’ve had the most respectful DMs. There was not a dick pic among them. [Laughs.] I get the most respectful DMs of all time. People come up to me on the street they ask if they can hug me.
You’ve said before that your husband [actor Alano Miller] hasn't seen any episodes of She’s Gotta Have It because of the amount of sex scenes. Is that still true?
It is still true. People are very uncomfortable with that because their idea of what partnership looks like is very narrow.
Why do you think that is?
It’s because they feel like support looks like one thing, but what they don't know is my husband is very much a large part of why my career is where it is. He put his first check from Underground towards [making] How to Tell You're a Douchebag, and How to Tell You're a Douchebag is what got me on Spike's radar for She's Gotta Have It. So, yeah, it's something I kind of wish I'd never said it to be honest with you. He said it first on a podcast, to be fair, but it's one of those things we're still working through. I'm still working through what information is public and what information is private. It's interesting what rubs people whatever way it rubs them.
The Twilight Zone reboot is a big pop culture moment. You said it was a dream project for you. Tell me about getting to live out that dream.
I never envisioned the embarrassment of riches that I feel like I'm experiencing right now. That’s why representation matters. I hadn’t seen careers that looked like this before. When you look at the filmography of Angela Basset, you can kind of see this; she has biopics, she has science fiction. There is a certain breadth of roles that she's been able to do. I try not to allow my dreams to be too specific as to be limiting, but Twilight Zone was a big dream. There is nothing like working with imaginary things. It's a very, very specific challenge, and I feel like every new role I take on there's some new challenge. What more can an artist ask for?
The filming schedule for Season 2 of She's Got To Have It meant you had to dropout of playing Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel. Did you feel a bit of FOMO?
It was wild how it all played out. The day I heard that it was like a direct scheduling conflict, I learned that my first instinct is to figure it out — kind of a survival mechanism. So, the very first thing I did was text Gina [Rodriguez] and say, “Is there a role for me in your movie?” The way it all played out was beautiful and serendipitous. The time that I would have started on Captain Marvel I was working on Someone Great and I was having a really, really, really good time. Then we reached Season 2 [of She’s Gotta Have It] and that challenged me and grew me in a way I didn't anticipate. Fortunately, I just didn't have the time to wallow in anything. I shot the episode of the Twilight Zone in early January and next thing you know Captain Marvel is releasing. By then, I had lived a full year of real life. To me having a scheduling conflict of this kind so early in my career was just really grounding. I trust the timing of my life. So, I was able to go see Captain Marvel and just really enjoy Lashana [Lynch] in it.
That’s a really healthy way to think about it.
Everything plays out the way it's supposed to play out, you know? That announcement served to put me on Marvel's radar 'cause guess who’s not gonna stop making movies? Marvel. They just smashed another box office record, right? They’re going to keep making movies and I’m going to keep being in movies. Yeah, so I'm good.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Season 2 of She’s Gotta Have It starts streaming on Netflix May 24.