Teyonah Parris didn't know she was auditioning to play Monica Rambeau until she got the call that she'd been cast as Monica Rambeau. The actress, known for films like Dear White People and If Beale Street Could Talk and a stint on Mad Men, first learned of the character when she was fan-cast in the role years prior. "I looked her up and I was like, 'Oh, wow, she is a badass,'" says Parris. "'I would totally love to do this. Probably would never happen...'"
Monica Rambeau has been a staple of Marvel comics since she was first introduced in 1982's Amazing Spider-Man #16 as the second Captain Marvel -- and first female to assume the title. Superpowered by extra-dimensional energy, she went on to lead the Avengers for a time and assume a number of monikers including Photo, Pulsar and Spectrum. Considering the success rate of fan-casting, however, "I just kind of let it go," Parris tells ET.
Then Marvel called, inviting her to audition for an unspecified role in an unspecified project. "I knew nothing. Not who it was. Not what it was for," she laughs. "I got some dummy sides for one of the first couple episodes and it was sitcom style so when I got it, I was like, 'I don't get this. Did you all say this was for Marvel?'"
"Usually the sides are indicative of what is happening in the scene, and the note that they had given the actors who were going in for this was, 'It's OK to be big. Too much is OK. Over the top is OK.'" Parris laughs, "I'm looking at this like, 'I'm never going to get this part. I don't get it, I'm doing too much in my acting, and I don't have a clue what the context is.' But I just went for it."
A couple of weeks later, she got word that she'd booked the part. "I had forgotten about it! I was like, 'Wait, what Marvel? Wait, that thing I didn't understand? OK, let's go back. I got the part, great. Who am I? What is it?' That's when they told me. And I was floored."
The project is WandaVision, Marvel Studio's first foray into Disney+ streaming series, which centers on Elizabeth Olsen's witchy Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany's synthezoid, Vision, as they attempt to live a normal life in the suburbs. Strangely enough, their fantasy of suburbia somehow manifests as a literal kaleidoscope of classic sitcoms as the duo bounce through the '60s, '70s, '80s and beyond.
The 9-episode series untangles the mystery of its titular odd-couple, but also serves as an origin story for the grown-up Monica. While the premise pulls inspiration mainly from two comic runs -- the Wanda-centric House of M and The Vision -- Monica isn't closely tied to the pair's solo outings on the page. Parris read the issues when they did assemble as part of the Avengers, but also dove into Monica's origin in Spider-Man and her run in Nextwave. "She has so much legacy and history that I was like, 'Let me try to pull from different places for what I need in this moment,'" she says. "I need to source, fairly quickly, what I can to use now."
Parris had the unique opportunity to look to another portrayal of Monica within the MCU, too: Akira Akbar played an 11-year-old Monica in the '90s-set Captain Marvel. Though she hasn't yet had a chance to connect with Akbar or their onscreen mother, Lashana Lynch (who played aria Rambeau), Parris found inspiration in her younger counterpart's origination of the role, despite their respective portrayals being decades apart.
"I think the curiosity that Akira brought to young Monica and her ambition, I thought, those are things that this baby's going to keep and that I feel should track with Monica as she's grown," Parris explains. "And then you have things like, how does young Monica's relationships with her mother and with Carol Danvers -- Captain Marvel -- how has that affected and influenced who she's become as a woman? I wanted to try to infuse all of those elements into the Monica we meet in WandaVision."
I'm excited to see Monica team up with Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel.
On set, the learning curve of entering a mega-franchise like Marvel's cinematic universe proved two-fold. Parris first appears in the show's second episode, which is fashioned as a black-and-white sitcom in the vein of Leave It to Beaver. "Teyonah, the actress, had never done a sitcom," Parris laughs. An episode later, Monica is flung who knows how far courtesy of some rogue superpowers, marking the start of the stunt work that comes hand-in-hand with a project like this. "They had to put Teyonah, the actress, on some wires. I was not ready, John," she tells me. "I was not ready."
"That is a skill that one should practice before attempting," Parris adds. "And as we go forward, if there's any more wire work or stunts or anything like that, I will be sure to get some training and practice."
Suffice it to say, there will be more: It's already been announced the actress will reprise her role alongside Brie Larson (as Carol Danvers) and fellow Disney+ recruit Iman Vellani (Kamala Khan) in Captain Marvel 2, to be helmed by Parris' Candyman director, Nia DaCosta. The news is relatively new even to Parris, who was not made aware of how Monica would or could continue on in the MCU beyond the series when she was cast in WandaVision.
"I told you I barely knew who I was playing once I got the role! They were not like, 'This is a map of everything we have in mind for you.'" Hearing Parris say it, she sounds less like she's playing coy -- secret keeping is a requirement of working for Marvel -- and more like she's just as eager to find out what's coming next. "It will be amazing, I'm sure, whatever they decide [to do]. I'm just excited to see Monica team up with Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel and see what can happen over there."
WandaVision premieres on Friday, Jan. 15 on Disney+.