If there’s a common thread to DeWanda Wise’s screen work, it’s that you can’t pin down her characters with a simplistic, straightforward label, and that’s on purpose. From Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It series to hit Netflix films Someone Great and Fatherhood, the NYU-trained thespian revels in ambiguity, in living rather than naming every aspect of her characters’ humanity. And there’s no difference to her approach when it comes to popcorn fare like Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World: Dominion, the actor’s biggest-scale project to date. Her response when asked to describe her character, pilot Kayla Watts? “I wouldn’t dare.”
Wise sat with The A.V. Club to shed light on that creative process (she channels Eminem entering a rap battle), discuss how she adapted it to suit the needs of an iconic film franchise, and reflect on some of her cinematic inspirations. She also provided insights on working with “titans” Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum, all returning to the Jurassic Park saga alongside Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard for one last reptilian romp.
The A.V. Club: Coming into the sixth installment of a major film franchise, especially with older and newer generations uniting, do you feel a sense of pressure or responsibility as an actor?
DeWanda Wise: Major. The sense of responsibility is, there’s a balance between what they call fan service, and also kind of pushing the boundaries of what the franchise is and can be. This is a character that we haven’t really seen before, honestly, [Kayla Watts has] energy we haven’t seen before. And on one hand, it’s a very classic energy; I always liken her to the kind of characterization of a young Harrison Ford. Very Indiana Jones, very Han Solo, a little laissez faire. Like, “Eh, did I shower today?” That kind of energy. So there’s a mix of that and clearly, you know, just working with titans ... I am absolutely not one of those people who will talk about the pandemic in any glowing or loving terms, I’m very clear that we all essentially survived a trauma together. But this [film] was a situation that brought us closer together, and by the time I was working with Laura and Jeff and Sam—one, I’d already worked with Sam before [on Invasion], which is ridiculous—but to consider them friends? They’re my friends! It was a really beautiful and precious experience ... it’s just one of the most generous groups of actors I’ve ever met in my life.
AVC: What were you most excited about going into Jurassic World: Dominion?
DW: So this is essentially my process. I always feel like I’m going into a rap battle. I feel like late-’90s Eminem whenever I’m starting. It’s ridiculous. I’ll get an offer, I get the script, I see what work I need to do, and then I just go step by step. So there’s never premeditation. There is no like, “I’m so excited to do this thing.” You know, I was absolutely looking forward to the stunt work because that’s something that I hadn’t experienced or done before. But outside of that—a movie this size, this epic, you have to do your homework, you prepare, you do research, whatever, physical stuff you’re going to do. You make whatever character choices. And then you just go, “What am I doing today?” You have to. What do they say? “How do you eat a whale?” Is that a thing, how you eat something large? Just, “bite by bite”... Although I’m plant based.
AVC: And that jibes with what you’ve said about refusing to limit your characters in with unambiguous descriptions. It sounds like, each day on set for a film like this, you’re just living in the nuances of your character’s journey?
DW: Yeah, and [especially] in a story like this, where anytime you show up to set, there’s so much to play with. You don’t know what you’re going to be confronted with. You don’t know what Jeff Goldblum is going to do. He’s Jeff Goldblum! You know, he might be eating peanuts in the scene even though it’s the third act of the movie. So you get those flickers in Kayla where she’s like, “That’s ridiculous. All right, I’m going to move on because we need to survive.”
AVC: Speaking of Goldblum, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where Dr. Ian Malcolm begins sort of undoing his shirt buttons and you as Kayla shake your head ... could you just shed some light on what that was about?
DW: [Laughing] It varied, it depended on the take. There are so many moments where we were giving this nod to obviously things that happened before [in the first Jurassic Park film]. It’s a little nostalgia and fan service. And for me, because Kayla is the newest character, you’re really bringing almost 30 years—they shot that movie 30 years ago, this is coming out 30 years after—so when he [unbuttoned his shirt in Jurassic Park], everything in that film became iconography but it wasn’t a big deal. Nobody was going for like, “This is going to trend.” It was 1993. No one was going to be like, “It’s going to be a hit on Instagram, it’s going to be a real good gif” or whatever. There was no intention in that respect. So [that moment was] kind of a nod to that. Like, “It don’t matter if you’re hot!”
AVC: And your character is almost a surrogate for the audience because she’s the new addition to the franchise.
DW: She’s the new addition—she’s the audience. She’s the lens, the voice of the audience, the perspective of the audience. It’s like, if you just took anybody from anywhere and you drop them into one of these parks or worlds, how would they really think, feel, behave? That’s why for the last third of the movie, she just has one job. All Kayla is doing, the last third of the film is, “How do I get out of here?” Every time you see her, every moment—they’re having, like, an emo moment—there was one moment I remember filming, where [Pratt and Howard as] Owen and Claire are just having this beautiful, tender, you know, “I always come back to you” moment. And I’m literally like, “All right now! What about this helicopter? We gotta get out of here!”
AVC: Do you approach these big popcorn movies differently from your indie movies? I think of Laura Dern as an example of an actor who brings the same work ethic to both sides of that spectrum.
DW: She does it all. Yeah, I think I really only have one mode: you’re gonna get this character work. There is absolutely, especially in the modern day, this expectation that you’re just casting a person in the thing. And I’m not interested in that. You know what I mean? Like, Meryl Streep raised me. So I am super deliberate. I also come from Maryland and I know it matters where a person is from, where they’re born, whether they’re working class, whether they were raised with money, how many generations of it. So all that goes into it. And you see it here: Kayla’s working class. She clearly joined the military. She has the resourcefulness of a woman who has had to be resourceful. And I’ve had the same—I don’t know how many pages—of the character [construction] question form that I’ve had since I was 16 years old. Yeah, it’s never changed. And I think the only thing that’s opened up is now you have directors like Colin who are more collaborative, who are interested in integrating that work. And if I could hone in on one reason why whenever anyone’s like, “DeWanda, I always like the characters you play,” it’s because everyone I worked with has been collaborative and has allowed me to actually have some agency and ownership and stakes in the roles.
AVC: Who else are your dream collaborators? You’ve mentioned Laura Dern, Meryl Streep. You’ve worked with Spike Lee.
DW: Spike Lee, yeah. I’m a huge fan of Janicza Bravo, I think she’s brilliant. I cannot wait to work with her. Man, there’s a long list, there’s a lot of filmmakers. I would love to do something super whimsical, so Wes Anderson. I would love to get a little weird. I worked with Jordan Peele as a producer [on The Twilight Zone], but I would love to work with him as a director, writer, filmmaker. A ton of actors; I love actors. I love being an actor. I just love actors in general. I want to work with Tom Hardy. You know, I want to work with Tom Hanks. All the Toms.
AVC: Let’s make it happen. What is next, or what would you want to be next?
DW: Something very intimate. You know, this is super massive. This was my second production working during COVID, and it’s like it’s a real responsibility. It’s a big sacrifice. It takes a lot of discipline. I’ve been very boring for two years. So I want to work on something with a very small crew. You know, essentially Cast Away. I want to do Cast Away, with Tom. Let’s do Cast Away 2. Just us two on an island. It’s just two and a half hours of us hanging out, hunting for animals, eating things on an island.