There’s one thread that unites all the characters DeWanda Wise has played on screen: They’re all unabashedly confident women. From the astronaut in Jordan Peele’s remake of The Twilight Zone to the real-estate agent in Someone Great, Wise has a tendency to choose roles that are refreshingly real. It makes sense, because it's the way she lives her life, too.
Scrolling through her Instagram, you’ll see Wise completing a skin-care tutorial with products she purchased off Amazon, or twisting Bantu knots from the comfort of her own bathroom. While many Hollywood actresses keep their fans at a distance, or maintain some level of mystery, Wise says, “bump that” and puts it all out there.
That openness is what Wise brings to her role as Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. We caught up with Wise ahead of the season two premiere to talk skin care, privilege, and how she's breaking out of the box Hollywood has tried to build around her. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you always been as into skin care as you are now?
"I wasn’t 12 with an at-home steamer and an ice roller — Amazon didn’t exist back then. But my mom used to sell Avon. She was a single mom who was always finding another hustle, so I was a product junkie for a very long time. I was moisturizing in the mirror when I was five. For me, skin care is part meditation. It’s something I’ve always been strangely into."
What are your favourite skin-care products right now?
"I use refined coconut oil. I use shea butter. I use things to moisturize that you can buy at the grocery store. There is an element of being super old-school and granola about it. I do the same with my hair. When I’m trying to do a deep mask, I’ll mash up some avocado. You can keep it simple; it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot."
You often hear the phrase "Black don't crack" when people talk about Black actresses, do you ever feel pressure to look ageless?
"A lot of it, for us, is genetic. It’s so funny, when I see celebrities selling certain products, I’m like, 'You don’t need that. You just out here lying, talking about anti-aging when Black don’t crack.' At this point, it’s law. We don’t [crack]. It’s our birthright. We have to suffer through other injustices, so we don’t have to age the way other people do. In that vein, I didn’t grow up with ageism either.
"There are certain things related to my industry that I just don’t care about. When I was on Someone Great, I joked about having a contingency plan. I was like, 'Guys, I'm a PYT now, but in the future, I’m gonna be like Phylicia Rashad. I’m going be this all-knowing, flowy dress-wearing woman who embodies wisdom.' Thankfully, we are seeing more roles for women over the age of 50. I’m inspired by it."
Has anyone ever asked you to change something about yourself to get a role?
"I was moving to L.A. and a well-meaning director was like, ‘You are going to have to straighten you hair all the time and be Barbie and fit into these hyper-Eurocentric modes of beauty and acceptance.' And I was like, ‘Nah, that don’t apply to me.’ The way that I’ve found success so far has been in being me and finding work that allows me to tell my truth.
"I would like to acknowledge my pretty-ass privilege. I feel like people often talk about colourism and certain kinds of privilege. I always acknowledge what it means to walk through the world with this face — shout-out to my parents. It’s a helpful tool in this industry when other people think you are cute."
In an essay for The Guardian, you wrote about the impact of colourism in Hollywood and in your life. How do you combat societal messages that tell you your skin isn't beautiful?
"Thankfully, I took more cues from my personal life than online platforms, magazines, or film. My friends are from completely different backgrounds — whether that is race, class, or orientation. That’s been so important to my self esteem, honestly. I never thought about how powerful it was to be surrounded by people who love you for you.
"That has been instrumental in buffering out the nonsense of the world or this industry trying to put something on me that I didn’t choose for myself. If there is a project, and I’m like, ‘You’re not for me. You’re not my people,' I wipe my feet off at the door and go the other way. Life is too short and there are too many people who are your people to be concerned with the ones who aren’t.
What are some of the boxes people have tried to put you in?
"I’ve been fighting against perceived type since day one. I can’t tell you how many times I would see 'no-nonsense' in a breakdown. I think 'no-nonsense' means chocolate — I don’t know who came up with these rules. I have friends who ask for a character to be pretty and the casting director only brings in fair Black women. I think we will have made it when all those things are obsolete and that is just going to take more and more work."
I've read that you use hairstyles to develop your characters. How do you pick each one?
"I’m super specific about how I style my hair — even when I’m auditioning. The flat twist-out Nola has in season one, that’s what I did in my audition. For Erin in Someone Great, I was choosing hair based on how much she probably wouldn’t fuss with it. I choose hairstyles based on professions and lifestyle and what is historically appropriate, real, and honest.
"I think you can always tell when someone is an artist in every aspect of their life. Hair, for me, has always been another iteration of how I practice my artistry, especially because it can be molded and sculpted in so many different ways."
How did you land on your signature hair colour?
"It was an accident. I decided on this hair colour for Clara in Underground; she’s Gullah Geechee. In the process of researching what it would mean to represent that group of human beings in American history, that was the hair colour I chose. Because Underground overlapped with the filming of the first season of She's Gotta Have It, it became Nola’s hair colour, so I had to keep it. I’m very non-committal and like to switch it up a lot; thank goodness for braids and weaves. This is the longest I’ve had to keep anything besides my husband.