Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Exploring Fear and Representation in “Imaginary”: An Exclusive Interview with DeWanda Wise

DeWanda Wise as Jessica in Imaginary. Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis

Childhood fears and imaginary friends take center stage in the chilling new horror film Imaginary, with DeWanda Wise leading the charge. In an exclusive interview with Taji Mag, Wise looks into her personal fears, her role in the film, and the significance of being a Black woman in a lead role within the horror genre.

Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): Can you elaborate a bit on the preparation for this role? Did you take inspiration from other horror films or perhaps real-life experiences to inform your portrayal of a character battling inner demons?

DeWanda Wise (DW): I am a very nerdy actor (when it comes to the first read of the script) My process is pretty comparable with everything I’m working on.It’s like, “Oh, is there a set of practical skills I need?” So I was refreshed. You know, I’ve played a visual artist before, so I was refreshing many of those skills and just painting at my home, you know, taking a virtual course online. Then I just started at the beginning, you know, I take everything that’s in the script, and I build out the sort of biography and, you know, her history and her world.

Then I will take that information. And because I do this for every project, sometimes the director’s like, “Okay, this actor’s crazy.” And then sometimes, if I’m fortunate, they weave a lot of the tapestry of that backstory into the set design, costumes. They just weave it into the film. And I’m an EP on this one, so I was lucky to have that kind of experience.

Imaginary does an amazing job of providing jump scares and chilling visuals throughout the film to keep you on edge. (So if you are easily scared or have high blood pressure, please be aware). There is an especially horrifying scene where Jessica’s daughter is talking to a therapist, and let’s just say the reveal had me sharing the same emotion as the therapist. 

Wise talks about how she channeled the terror and scary elements of her characters. 

DDF: How do you approach finding authenticity in portraying fear and vulnerability on screen, especially in a horror context?

DW: I think I had this conversation with Jeff (Wadlow)when we first met, you know, he was asking me, essentially, he said, “You know, DeWanda, I’m a little concerned because your characters often come across as very strong and capable.” And I told him, I was like, “Oh, I know Jeff, because I am very capable, but I’m tired.” And I find that time and time again, without fail, you know, I find myself, and one of the positive things about social media is that you kind of know what the moment is.

You know, and I will be in a particular moment and then I’ll be online and I’ll be like, “Oh, we’re all in this moment. We all agree.”And there’s something about the last several years and this conversation of black women’s strength and burnout where we’ve collectively gone. “We want to be soft. We want to be cared for. We want to be saved.” You know what I mean? We don’t want to always be the hero. More than anything, what I’m proud of in this role is adding to a certain canon and a legacy of soft black women. I am one, so it’s not hard, but I’m just really thankful that the opportunity presented itself, you know, in this vast and wide release of a space to see that.

You know, as an actor, it becomes a real playground. You know, it’s very hard to do too much. There’s no, there’s no such thing as too much in, in horror. There’s, there are absolutely, uh, certain beats you have to hit. There’s a certain quality and tone and element, but I really gravitate towards psychological horror. So, you know, in this instance, uh, the, the script struck me, you know, in that respect, I love movies that don’t necessarily like get to the monster immediately where there’s like a real thread, a real tone underneath, uh, an actual story, like a depth of backstory.

Being a Black woman in a lead role is not easy, and a Black woman lead in a horror film is a rarity. Two notable films are being released this year featuring Black women as leads, A Quiet Place: Day One starring Lupita Nyong’o and Imaginary, where DeWise also serves as Executive Producer.

DDF: How does “Imaginary” contribute to the growing space for nuanced Black women leads in horror, and what do you hope to see more of in the future? 

DW: You know, I am a little, something I kind of recognized early on. I recognized this back when I was training. I think that depth is just our birthright. Like, I just think, you know, in many respects, I’ve always felt like I’ve always had the depth as an actor that I have now, which, as you can imagine, is really awkward in your 20s, because nobody needs, you know what I mean?

Nobody needs it. It’s why so many of us work later. Like, it’s why Viola Davis popped off later, because it’s like, you know, roles for women in their 20s are like, they don’t need it. They don’t need what we have to offer. And so what’s exciting, what was exciting for me in this opportunity and what’s exciting going forward is the convergence of that level of depth in the horror space. Because you can watch a horror movie and it could wash over you. And you cannot care about a protagonist. You cannot care about, you know, the heroin or the hero in the movie. Or you can watch a horror movie and you can be like, “I did not expect my heart to be broken, but here I am with my heart broken.”

And you know, I think that’s what we have to offer. And I’m really excited about that.

DeWanda Wise as Jessica and Director Jeff Wadlow in Imaginary. Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis

The portrayal of Black men as devoted fathers is a refreshing departure from traditional stereotypes in Imaginary. Wise reflects on the beautiful bond between young Jessica and her father, a relationship that adds depth and warmth to the film. Black men are not normally portrayed in a way where they fend for their children no matter what the conditions are. The bond between young Jessica and her father is something beautiful, applaudable, and a loving relationship. That was the highlight of the film for me. 

DDF: How impactful was it for you to witness a Black father protecting his daughter in a horror film with the presence of an imaginary monster and extreme circumstances?

DW: Well, that’s the part that made me, if there was a moment, if there were moments in this movie where I was like “Yes, I want to do that.” The actor who plays Jessica’s father, his name is Sam Salary. He is a father himself. Um, and such a beautiful human being. And we treated that story with, I think more than anything, honestly, in the movie, I had my shoulders up the most about.

About the thread that we were threading, you know, Sam Salary’s like 6’6. Like he’s a man’s man and he has to have that duality of when we see it in the beginning of like, kind of an ambiguous nightmare. We don’t quite know the relationship from the beginning.

So he has to feel scary. But I was so mindful that none of it bordered on character and none of it was feeding into any unnecessary images of violence or stereotype. This is one of Sam’s first, really larger opportunities in film and TV.

And from the very beginning, definitely by the time we hit those like nursing home scenes. We really had to trust each other, and he really had to know that I had his back and that I was watching his performance. Yeah, you know because for me so much of the heart of the story is that relationship and Jessica’s the depth of that loss, you know the depth of the sacrifice. But also the depth of feeling like there was a relationship that might have been had with her father, you know that Both of them missed out on, like, it’s something as you can tell, like, even now I find really moving and I’m just really proud that we were, that everyone was on board to execute it in a way that was resonant and loving and true.

“Imaginary” masterfully delivers jump scares and chilling visuals throughout, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. There is a particularly haunting scene involving Jessica’s daughter and a therapist, a moment that brought me goosebumps, and I can say I will have others do the same.

Wise shares insights into how she channeled the terror and suspense of her character, immersing herself in the unsettling world of the film. As a Black woman in a lead role, Wise acknowledges the rarity of such opportunities in the horror genre and celebrates the increasing visibility of Black actresses in prominent roles.

DDF: What do you find intriguing about the horror genre?

DW: You know, as an actor, it becomes a real playground. You know, it’s very hard to do too much.There’s no, there’s no such thing as too much in, in horror. There’s, there are absolutely, , certain beats you have to hit. There’s a certain quality and tone and element, but I really gravitate towards psychological horror. So, you know, in this instance, uh, the, the script struck me, you know, in that respect, I love movies that don’t necessarily like get to the monster immediately where there’s like a real thread, a real tone underneath, uh, an actual story, like a depth of backstory.

DDF: What are you afraid of?

DW: I’m always afraid. I always have a healthy dose of access to my vulnerability. Even if I’m not afraid for myself, I think there is plenty in the world to be, um, frightened of.And that doesn’t mean that, you know, I’m like, living, you know, stressed out. It just means that my eyes are open.

DeWanda Wise as Jessica and Pyper Braun as Alice in Imaginary. Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis

With “Imaginary” and other upcoming releases like “A Quiet Place: Day One,” featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Black women are taking center stage in the horror genre like never before. Wise, who also serves as an Executive Producer on “Imaginary,” embodies resilience and strength as she confronts an imaginary monster.

DDF: How does “Imaginary” contribute to the growing space for nuanced Black women leads in horror, and what do you hope to see more of in the future? 

DW: You know, I am a little, something I kind of recognized early on. I recognized this back when I was training. I think that depth is just our birthright. Like, I just think, you know, in many respects, I’ve always felt like I’ve always had the depth as an actor that I have now, which, as you can imagine, is really awkward in your 20s, because nobody needs, you know what I mean?

Nobody needs it. It’s why so many of us work later. Like, it’s why Viola Davis popped off later, because it’s like, you know, roles for women in their 20s are like, they don’t need it. They don’t need what we have to offer. And so what’s exciting, what was exciting for me in this opportunity and what’s exciting going forward is the convergence of that level of depth in the horror space. Because you can watch a horror movie and it could wash over you. And you cannot care about a protagonist. You cannot care about, you know, the heroin or the hero in the movie. Or you can watch a horror movie and you can be like, “I did not expect my heart to be broken, but here I am with my heart broken.”

And you know, I think that’s what we have to offer. And I’m really excited about that.

If you are looking for a horror film that blurs the lines between reality and imaginary, along with a tribute to old horror film like “Annabelle” Child’s Play, then Imaginary is what you should head to the theaters to see. With Wise as the lead, you’ll see why she’s built for anything that comes her way, even an imaginary monster. Imaginary is in theaters this Friday, March 8th. 

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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