When DeWanda Wise first saw “She’s Gotta Have It,” the Maryland native was instantly captivated.
Wise, an actress who was attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, had seen few cinematic icons like Nola Darling, the black female lead of Spike Lee’s debut film. Played by actress Tracy Camilla Johns, Nola simultaneously dated three very different men and scorned monogamy. She was bold, established, unapologetic and self-assured — and in Lee’s signature style, she broke the fourth wall, speaking through the screen directly to her viewers, tackling the taboos of female sexuality.
“I was just really struck and inspired by her insistence on living her life the way that she desired to live it,” Wise recalled. “It was very much well a kind of call to arms.”
This year, Nola Darling is back, with Wise reviving the sexually liberated Brooklynite in Spike Lee’s Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It,” a 10-episode rendition of the 1986 film that debuts in full this Thanksgiving.
Born DeWanda Jackson, the Pasadena, Calif., resident had a busy 2016. Wise, who grew up in Woodlawn and Laurel, was in back-to-back productions the entire year, first acting as Clara in several episodes in WGN America’s “Underground” and later as Shameeka Campbell, a mother whose son was murdered, in Fox’s “Shots Fired.” And that fall, she dove into the role of Nola, an artist attempting to balance her work, the disheartening gentrification of her neighborhood, and her experiences with sexuality and sexual harassment.
And it wouldn’t be “She’s Gotta Have It” without Nola’s trio of lovers and her refusal to commit. Nola juggles the gregarious and youthful fan favorite Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), the narcissistic photographer and former model Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), and the established and sophisticated Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), and during her trysts, she bares it all.
Nudity, Lee said, is an important aspect of Nola and her lovers’ roles.
“I knew going in that … all those roles had to be cast with actors who were OK with nudity,” especially Nola, Lee said.
Wise, however, was unfazed.
“For me, funny enough, all of the sex scenes were approached relatively nerdy and scientifically. I was more interested in being very, very specific about the nature of Nola’s relationship with all three of the guys. ... Anyone outside would call it fearless, but it wasn’t even processed [as] strange for me,” Wise said.
The experience is a far cry from the material she explored during her foray into acting as a sophomore Atholton High School in Columbia, but her all-in approach remains.
Because of her socializing in the halls, Wise was often late for class. When it came time to take disciplinary action, Nathan Rosen, 57, the Atholton drama teacher since 1997, gave her an alternative to detention: Instead, she could audition for the school production of “The Music Man.” Rosen resorted to this idea after seeing the promising effort and energy Wise exhibited during class exercises, he said.
“It was on her face. It was in her body. It was in her concentration,” Rosen said. “I thought, ‘There's something going on here that’s really good, and we need to encourage this.’ ”
After Wise was cast in the show, she said her passion for acting took off in an instant.
“Whatever [was] assigned, she would run off to and give 120 percent,” Rosen said.
Wise went on to be a student aide for Rosen. She studied theater at Howard Community College during summer. She even broke up with her high school boyfriend because she was paranoid he’d hold her back, she said with a laugh. And for the first time, Wise, who came from working-class family, said she began to think about college.
“My grades were great, but I wasn’t like ‘Yeah, I’m going to college,’ because I didn't have a purpose to go in my mind,” Wise said. “But if you give me a thing that I’m working towards, it becomes very clear, and the path from there was like just that.”
Wise’s mother, Margie Matthews, 54, of West Friendship said she was initially shocked at how quickly her daughter took to acting. She had held many interests during her childhood. She played volleyball and was a cheerleader. She liked writing, and had a penchant for dress-up and choir, but even with her bubbly, emotional and vibrant personality, Matthews said Wise had never displayed a distinct desire to act before high school.
“One of the things she would do as a child, she’d play the violin, and after she was done with that, she would change her mind. I thought for sure she would change her mind about acting,” Matthews said, but after seeing her in several performances (one of the most memorable was Wise playing an old Prospero in a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) and seeing Wise take interest in colleges with arts programs, Matthews said she knew acting for Wise was for keeps. The surprises, Matthews said, continued.
Wise attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. While in New York, she met her husband, fellow thespian and producer Alano Miller, whom she married in 2009 after just three months. Like her passion for acting, Wise said, their love was instant.
Flash-forward to last year, and Wise was making new waves. The indie film “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag,” for which she acted and executive produced, was featured at Sundance Film Festival. Filming wrapped for “Underground,” and when “Shots Fired” wound down in late summer, Wise said she was ready for a break from heavy dramas. Once she heard about Lee’s series-reboot “She’s Gotta Have It,” she was immediately interested.
The original film was progressive and “ahead of its time,” and it’s still relevant, Wise said. “It's still taboo and there's still a stigma, so much policing and opinions and politics surrounding what a woman can and cannot do with her body. And so you know, from that vantage point, not even having read the script, I was just like, ‘Yes that’s a story that you could tell today,’ and really have an opportunity to update in a way, one that is intrinsically feminine.”
Wise said she sent in a audition tape for the role and later met with Lee for a challenging live audition.
“Spike does this really great thing — or terrible, depending on who you are or where you're from — where he likes to like test your strength of character. ... So we're doing the opening monologue, and he yells ‘Cut!’ like six times,” she said with a laugh. It would have made anyone uneasy, but Wise said she didn’t flinch. It was later during filming that it became clear that she earned her part. She and Spike “got on and got along like immediately.”
“We were in concert — step by step, you know,” Lee said. “We both knew what needed to be done to bring to life this new version of Nola Darling.”
Transforming his original screenplay and 86-minute film into a 10-episode series that focused on the life of a 20-something black woman, however, meant taking a different approach. Lee enlisted female writers and creatives, including two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, playwright Eisa Davis and writer Radha Blank. Lee’s sister Joie, who acted in the original and returns in the series, his daughter Satchel and his wife, executive producer Tonya Lewis Lee, were also pivotal in shaping the show.
“There's no way in hell that I could write 10 episodes,” he said, adding that he’d have been criticized if he had no female writers, and “rightfully so.”
Wise agreed, adding that she and the writers brought a level of femininity, confidence and insight to the show that could only be delivered by a woman.
But playing the free-spirited and “striving artist” Nola was a stark contrast from her disciplined, “type-A” personality. The rules for Nola changed everyday, she said.
“She's always breaking her own rules, and she's very much still figuring out who she is, so nothing about her personality is set in stone — other than nothing about her personality is set in stone,” said Wise, who compared Nola to her 20-year-old single self, when her dating life, opinions about men and philosophies on love were more in line with her character’s.
The set was just as fluid, at times. It was the most fun she’s ever had, she said.
“Everyone there on our crew was super family-oriented. It was a super nontoxic environment. ... And I was walking into it with so much love and respect, specifically for my female costars,” said Wise, who worked along side actresses Chyna Layne and Margot Bingham. “I just felt like I won.”
There was also the unexpected. Wise said she would often learn about guest stars during the filming process (She was surprised to learn that Tony- and Grammy Award-winning singer Heather Headley was playing Nola’s therapist). And that voice-overs would be changed into camera-facing monologues in a moment’s notice. The election of President Donald Trump also threw an interesting twist into the series, Wise said, which resulted in rewritten scripts and re-shot scenes.
“I didn't see it coming,” Lee admitted. “And when it happened, I said, ‘We have to comment on this.’ There's no way that people can take a look at this series on Thanksgiving and not see that the world changed with the last presidential election.”
The effects of sexual harassment and assault are also a large theme in the show, which comes amid emerging sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood executives like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.
The stories have been unimaginable to Wise, she said, but it makes the show even more relevant to present day, especially “after so much legislature has passed, after we're examining our conduct not only in Hollywood, but in like every industry.”
“It's fascinating that it is and will be a part of a much larger conversation,” she said.
Days before the Thanksgiving Day premiere of “She’s Gotta Have It,” Wise and Lee were hesitant to discuss the show’s major takeaways.
“I really try to refrain from telling people what to think,” Lee said. “I truly am always respectful of the intelligence of my audience. They don't need me to tell them.”
Wise added that she doesn’t police opinions, especially when it comes to art.
“This story belonged to Spike and then for four months, it belonged to me. I stole it, and then I gave it back to Spike, and now it will no longer be either of ours, you know,” Wise said. “That's remarkable. It's beautiful.”
Wise’s mother, however, was less modest about her daughter’s latest work.
“Being a fan of the original movie from 30 years ago … and then seeing her in it is a modern twist. It has a lot of meaning for women, and it’s empowering,” Matthews said.
“I can’t wait to see all of it, because I’m going to binge on Thanksgiving food and binge her show.”