According to DeWanda Wise, the secret to good filmmaking is simple: Just make movies with your friends.
For example, the actress might call up an old college friend to see if there’s space in any of his or her new movies, or meet a director at a party, become fast friends, and connect later. “Stella Maghie slid into my DMs and was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing in December 2017?’ I was like, ‘Chillin’, why? We making a movie?’ And then we made a movie,” she explained. Simple as that.
That movie turned out to be Weekend, an upcoming romantic comedy starring SNL alum Sasheer Zamata, Tone Bell, and Insecure’s Y’lan Noel, about a comedian who visits her parents’ bed-and-breakfast with her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend, a woman named Margo who comes from what Wise refers to as “generational black wealth.” But before Wise appears in Weekend, she will star as Erin in Netflix’s latest entry to the rom-com canon, Someone Great.
Someone Great opens and ends on a bittersweet note. Jenny, played by Gina Rodriguez, lands her dream job, but there’s a catch: The new gig requires her to relocate from New York, where she’s spent the past decade building a life, to San Francisco. Her boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) isn’t too keen on the idea of moving cross-country and ends their near-decade-long relationship in one fell swoop. Now she must rely on the assistance of her best friends from college, Erin and Blair, to give her one last wild night in New York. As Jenny, Rodriguez is a lovable rom-com protagonist, but it is Erin, her boisterous best friend, played by Wise, who steals just about every scene.
As she tells it, filming Someone Great “felt like destiny” for Wise—and perhaps she really was fated to play a part in the film. She first met Rodriguez more than 15 years ago, when they were both training at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. At Atlantic Theater Company, they were the only women of color in their year, and their friendship persisted post-university, when Rodriguez started interning at a boutique management company and hired Wise as her first client. “She’s always been this very hardworking hustler, brilliant. She’s just such a girl from Chicago, and I’m such a girl from Baltimore, and we took to each other ravenously pretty early,” Wise said of her costar.
While Rodriguez eventually went on to get her big break with Jane the Virgin, Wise has made a name for herself by working with esteemed directors since graduating from college. She stars as Nola Darling, a self-proclaimed “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual who doesn’t believe in monogamy,” in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It reboot, and will appear in Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone adaptation this spring. She was also on track to appear as Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel, but found out almost exactly one year ago that her schedule would not permit her participation in the production. Rather than dwell on her disappointment, Wise sent a casual text to Rodriguez: “Is there a role for me in your next movie?”
According to Wise, Rodriguez jumped at the opportunity to work her friend into the script for Someone Great. “I’m very simple when it comes to the process. Story first. Is this something that I’ve seen in this iteration or incarnation before, and then, have I played this character already?” Wise said she asks herself. “It checked all those boxes. Then I binge-watched Sweet/Vicious and fell further in love with [director] Jen Kaytin Robinson’s brain, and that was it.”
At NYU, Wise initially planned to be a therapist, but she scrapped that plan to study acting. She does, however, take an academic approach to character work. “It’s super easy for me to take the side of any character I play because I try to operate from an inside-out place,” Wise says. “Who we are, where we come from, it dictates so much. It dictates how we lead. Like, this is super nerdy, but Erin has a pelvic lead. There’s a connotation to how we walk and how we move through the world, and all of that has everything to do with our past and our trauma and all of our life experiences. I work from a very anthropological, psychological place when I’m constructing character.”
Erin, Wise’s character in Someone Great, is a fun-loving party girl who is hell-bent on keeping Jenny’s spirits up, with some assistance from Blair (played by Brittany Snow), their other, slightly more uptight, best friend. She is also, at 30 years old, in the middle of realizing she’s having a hard time growing up. Her Peter Pan–syndrome manifests most notably in her struggle to commit to a relationship with her girlfriend, played by Broadway veteran Rebecca Naomi Jones. But just because Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It and Erin in Someone Great are both queer black women living in New York doesn’t mean they’re the same. “I don’t try to make [my characters] different. I think I always go from exactly what’s on the page, and then my brain unravels from there,” Wise said. “There was a line Jen wrote about this notion of Erin having traveled through different hobbies and interests. Those little nuances—I’ll be like, Oh, well, what if she was a jewelry maker at some point in her life? And if you’re really watching, you can see set design and have a conversation with props and set design and wardrobe about integrating those nuances and choices. I feel like Erin has had a different experience [than Nola], far different.”
Despite the fact that any character played by Wise will look like her, she also doesn’t want her characters to just be physical carbon copies of one another. That’s why she takes a hands-on approach to constructing each character’s outward appearance. “The first thing I do externally for a character is decide what their hair looks like,” she confessed. “I feel like some actors will choose a hairstyle and stop there, but I’m a black woman, and our hair is super versatile and diverse.”
For Erin’s look, Wise settled on natural curls, and when she asked the production department if Jones could wear her hair natural as part of her character too, the request almost didn’t fly. “For a moment, they were gonna straighten her hair. I was like, ‘No, we can both have curly hair. We can just both have curly hair!’” she laughed.
Someone Great also benefits from appearances by supporting bit players like Rosario Dawson, RuPaul, and Jaboukie Young-White, all of whom are objects of Wise’s fandom. “There was an element of having to continuously snap back into character and not be the fan that I am of so many: of Ru, of Jaboukie,” Wise admitted. “I’m ‘new famous,’ so I’ve also never worked on something where there are, like, scores of paparazzi. When we did the scene with Rosario, there were, like, 20 photographers, and it was crazy!”
The magic of filming a movie about three best friends on a big adventure in what Wise calls “New York Fantasia” was not lost on the actress at all either. Just as Erin and Jenny relive their college glory days while running around town, from Washington Square Park to Bushwick and back again, it was enchanting for the actress to work with one of her best college friends in the same city where they met. “For the most part, it was so surreal filming around NYU, filming in SoHo, filming in the West Village, right next to my favorite coffee shop, right next to Grey Dog, right next to all of my vegan, plant-based haunts,” Wise said. The nostalgia hit Wise hard, in the best way. “[It was] just immensely full circle, as you can imagine, to have the privilege of working as an actor, and then you layer on playing a character from New York, filming in New York, filming in Washington Square Park. I mean, that park has changed a whole lot since we were at NYU, but it’s still Washington Square Park. I knew it was magical when it was happening.”