Playing Nola Darling Is All in the Details for DeWanda Wise (Exclusive)
By Joel Keller
Anyone who has watched Netflix’s TV adaptation of Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, the filmmaker’s acclaimed and controversial 1986 film debut, has not only noticed that DeWanda Wise has reinvented the iconic role of Nola Darling for a 2017 audience, but that her version of Nola wears a nose ring -- well, sometimes.
There's a pattern to when and why the Fort Greene, Brooklyn-based polyamorous artist dons the accessory: when she's about to -- or has had -- sex with one of her three male partners.
And it was all Wise's idea.
"Sex for Nola is more than this physical act. That's why there are candles. It's this thing that's deeply imbued in ritual, and it was like a facet of the ritual that I contributed to Nola," she tells ET. In fact, she wears a different ring depending on the partner Nola has just been with -- financier Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), model-photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony) or bike messenger Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).
"We say in the first episode that everyone sees her and experiences her [in] a different way, and the flip side of people perceiving you a different way is that people bring different things out of you,” Wise explains. “If I, DeWanda, feel one day like dressing like I'm from the '50s and wearing a certain style of clothes, that's how I feel that day. But that doesn't mean the next day that I'm not gonna dress like a track runner. I'm very intuitive and I like to switch things up a lot."
If Wise sounds like she's confident in herself, it's not a coincidence. The young actress is having a fine year, with her turn as Nola following notable performances as Clara on the recently canceled WGN America series Underground and as Shameeka Campbell on Shots Fired.
Lee became aware of Wise, a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, through the show's writers and producers -- including wife Tonya Lewis Lee and sister Joie Lee and the show’s other noted female writers Lynn Nottage and Radha Blank -- and her work in the 2013 play Sunset Baby and the 2016 independent film How To Tell You're a Douchebag.
"He basically had everyone in his ear being like, 'We got your Nola. We know the girl,'" she says. "That was like the fast of it. The slow of it was I went to NYU. He was a professor at NYU [in the graduate film school]. And so, whether or not he knew it, he had been seeing my work for years, because I did so many student films. Like an abundance, a load."
Of course, this being 2017, some things are different in the series version of She's Gotta Have It from the original film. Fort Greene is dealing with gentrification that's pushing out longtime residents, and Wise says her view on that aligns with Lee’s. "I wish that we had the infrastructure, and the care, and the police presence, and the Whole Foods that Brooklyn has now with the culture, the diversity, the freedom that Brooklyn used to have."
The series version of Nola also explores a same-sex relationship with Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera), who briefly appeared in the original movie. On the show, there is a safer space (and more room) to explore that part of Nola's sexuality, even if it might have existed in her three decades ago.
"[For] my friends who do identify as polyamorous, pansexual, it's like, ‘It's that,’” Wise says. "There's a phrase for it now, but there's always been a culture. It was immensely satisfying, and a lot of thought and specificity in care and consultation went into incorporating that element of story."
Surprisingly, being dropped into a “Spike Lee Joint” didn't seem to faze Wise. She starred in a 2014 production of the David Mamet play Race, so rapid-fire, stylized dialogue is something she was used to. And by the time Wise and Lee went through the process of filming 10 episodes together, director and star were in pretty good sync. So much so that the two were able to execute a scene of Nola slowly spinning on a stool in front of her latest work, reacting to a song being played in the background, in single takes, with the only change being her outfit.
"By that point, he had become very well acquainted with my emotional skill set,” she reveals. “Spike became super acquainted with my inner life and so he knew I could [do it]."
While written before Hollywood’s year of reckoning, Wise feels that the message of the series, especially in episodes where Nola tells her suitors in no uncertain terms that she's not a sex object, resonates today, referencing the recent sexual misconduct scandals that have taken down Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and many others.
"We can kid ourselves and pretend that we're living in this bastion of acceptance and uninhibited sexuality and all this stuff," Wise says. "But I think even the last [two months] have proven that we're not."