Ciera Payton admits that stepping into Wendy Williams' shoes is a very intimidating process.
The New Orleans native stars as the outspoken television host in the Lifetime biopic Wendy Williams: The Movie, opposite Morocco Omari as Williams' ex-husband Kevin Hunter.
Williams herself serves as an executive producer on the project, and she gives fans a revealing look at her journey, from her start in urban radio to the success of her own syndicated daytime talk show. The biopic explores the highs and lows of her personal life throughout the years, including being raped early in her career and Hunter's infidelity and lovechild with his mistress.
"When I got with Darren Grant, the director, we talked so much and really agreed upon the importance of making this person very grounded and very authentic," Payton says.
"What's so different for this role versus any other role I've played, and I feel like most actors as well, is that stepping into the shoes of someone that people know so well, that is on TV every day, that there's tons of stuff out there on her, is a very, very big and intimidating process," she admits.
"In college I wrote a play about Condoleezza Rice. So that was the only real person I've ever stepped into the shoes of, and so going to Wendy Williams was definitely a very intimidating process, but I just grabbed the bull by the horns and just was like, "you know what? I'm going to just delve in and dive in as deep as I can'."
Talk about your process behind learning Wendy Williams - from her mannerisms, her voice, her walk and expressions. Lifetime truly found their Queen of all Media in you.
Ciera: I just started watching her show every single day. I started pulling up stuff on her on YouTube. At first, that's what my homework was all about, was trying to emulate the woman that we all see on TV. But then, I started thinking, "Okay, well, who is this woman in her everyday life?"
She's a mother, she's somebody that has been in a very male-dominated business, as far as radio goes, so how have all these things impacted her? And so, that's where the pieces started to be put on the table, not even built yet, just put on the table.
I got with my acting coach and we started filling in a lot of these blanks and really diving into what we thought the psyche of Wendy Williams was. And I think we just started to piece all those things together, and then going back and adding on her mannerisms, the way she blinks her eyes, then adding on the New Jersey accent.
There are no hidden cameras in Wendy Williams's house that are rolling, showing us who she is every day. And so, for me and Darren, we just wanted to bring our imagination to the forefront and display who we think, or who we imagine she could be behind closed doors. So there was a lot. It was a long process, but we got it done.
Did you discover anything surprising about her in your research?
Ciera: Yeah. Some of this stuff, I just intuitively felt with her, and then doing the research and reading the script solidified some of those things. And I think one of the big things for me was I think she's so misunderstood in the sense of she's not a compassionate person. I think some people have mislabeled her, misinterpreted her as being mean, or not caring about the people that she talks about, or having some malicious intent.
And I don't think that at all, from my standpoint. I think that she's someone that, as a child, never understood or never got the benefit of having compassion and empathy. I think the time that she grew up in and the way in which she stood out as a child lent itself to her having to be emotionless at times because emotions, to me, as the actor trying to fill in the blank on some of this stuff, I think emotions were her kryptonite.
And so, a lot of times as a kid, being told that she was too fat or she'd be pretty if she lost weight, and stuff that, I can only imagine what that would do to a child's psyche. And also, as well-meaning as her parents were and how they wanted the best for their daughter, it had some adverse effects on her.
I think that she just adapted some of that, in her upbringing and in her life, and normalizing the idea of, no, I don't have to baby everybody. I don't have to say things or put things out there in always a pleasant way.
And so, learning about her backstory, and her upbringing, and how she's navigated life with all those circumstances, and how it has informed and created the person that we see today, it ended up making so much sense to me.
And I also feel, and got to experience firsthand, that Wendy is a person that's very full of compassion and is also a very delicate person and a very vulnerable person, but she has to be so, so, so, so, so tough in order to conceal a lot of that because it's been violated so much throughout her life.
And so, all of that stuff was very surprising, and it gave me a renewed sense of respect and just an admiration for her. I think she's just a fierce and fascinating woman, not only to watch, but now to learn about as well.
Was it important for you to pick Wendy's brain prior to deep diving into her life for this production?
Ciera: At first, yeah, it was very important for me to just hop on a call and talk to her and just, like you said, pick her brain because there was just questions that I had after reading the script, and one of the big things that, again, this was my first time playing a real life person, and so I just wanted to just go in and just be like, "Hey, what is your goal? What is your wish with your portrayal in this movie?"
That was one of my big things, and regardless of what she said, or however she said it, I wanted to be extremely respectful either way, but I also wanted to, again, bring a character to life. Aside from it being a known person, I wanted to bring the characters to life.
And so, that initial meeting, we spoke over the phone, it was important to me. And it was extremely enlightening as well because she had the opportunity to really relive and replay out some of the stories that we see in the movie to me over the phone, so I got to get a sense of how those things affected her and how they impacted her.
It was beyond the words that were coming out of her mouth. I could pick up her energy and pick up the excitement in some of the scenes, but also the different layers to them as well. And so, we spoke twice over the phone and I felt like, all right, that's all I needed. I got a good grasp of what was going on in some of these stories and some of these scenes.
She was very mindful and extremely respectful to give me the space and the creative space to create this character, and that is something I totally, wholeheartedly appreciated.
What's your relationship with social media? Do you plan on following the Twitter conversations and hashtags when the film premieres on Saturday?
Ciera: I don't think so. As much as I want to dive into that and get people's opinions, honestly, and I was sharing this with the producer, Sheila Ducksworth, so much of the work was so sacred to me and I know anybody reading this interview can be like, "Oh, it's just a Lifetime movie," but it's not just a Lifetime movie, for me at least. And I feel for a lot of people watching it, they're going to feel the same way.
There was a lot of raw emotions that came out, a lot of vulnerable things, a lot of exciting things. I had a lot of fun working on this movie, and the world and the people that are watching it or who are going to watch it, they weren't there on set, so they didn't get to see or really experience the totality of what playing this role and what this whole production meant for me.
And so, as exciting as it is to want to get behind the keyboard and see like, "Oh, what are people saying?", it's too scary to let the good and the bad in. I just want people to enjoy it and I'll keep all those amazing memories and moments to myself.
Is there any one lesson you hope people take away after watching Wendy's story?
Ciera: Let this story be the makings of just immense inspiration for you and let this story be the making for your own phoenix rising story. That's what I want people to take away from this.
And, not in a sense where it's a super struggle and coming back angry and stronger, [but] coming back with a smile on your face and being able to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously is also what I want people to take away from the story and be inspired by.
Is it more challenging playing real life personas such as Wendy, compared to fictional characters?
Ciera: Oh, big time. This whole wave and life of social media and everything, as fun as it is to have it and to be an actor on social media, playing a real person has made it even more intimidating for me.
Because it's just, with Wendy Williams, so many people know her, and so many people, they even have her down to a T, to her mannerisms and the phrases that she says, and so I am living body proof of constant comparison to that. And the fans are so particular, and so, yeah, it's way more intimidating and harder versus a fictional character.
Because with a fictional character you just make up everything. You input all the circumstances that the script gives you, and then you attack it from your own personal standpoint of your own personal bank of emotions, and if you've been through similar circumstances and that, you just try to plug it in and fill in the blanks.
But with a real-life person, people got Twitter, and YouTube, and Instagram and they can look her up or they can even ask her themselves to get information. But yeah, it's a very, very intimidating process. I'm like, "Whoa".
When the movie comes out, I already know, if I don't get calls from my mom and my family, people are going to be like, "Well, you didn't do it quite like this…" So it's an interesting thing to know that you can put a performance out there that could be compared to someone who is still alive. It's a gnarly experience, I'll say that.
Lastly, how do you feel about a film being made about your life journey so far?
Ciera: Ooh. Wow. That's a good question. It's funny because maybe about eight years ago, I wrote a play based on my life. It was my own autobiography, but it was a play, and it highlighted and documented my experience of having my father incarcerated and how it impacted me.
And there was a lot of talk and people were really trying to push me to make a feature film out of it, and I had started that whole process and I ultimately just shelved it. It's not dead, it could come back one way or the other, but it was just a weird experience for me to play myself and play my father, and as much as I loved it, I was just like, "I don't think now's the time."
And so, maybe one day I will tell that story and I think, yeah, I would look to have somebody else play me. And then, I would love to step into the shoes of my father, because I did it in the play. And so, that's what I would do if there's ever a story written about me and it got produced and made for a movie. I don't think I would play myself. I think I would play my dad in the movie.
I only say that because my dad is such a unique character, just like Wendy. My dad, he has a speech impediment, he's from New Orleans, and he has this crazy New Orleans accent, and I'm the only person that understands him whenever he speaks. I end up translating for him. And I'm the only person that can do his accent and do his mannerisms, because he also is partially disabled.
And so, just for me, and how Wendy Williams fans are, knowing my dad so well, I'm like, "I'm the only person that can play him." There's only one person who could do Wendy and that's Wendy. And I feel like I came as close as I could to doing her.
Wendy Williams: The Movie, premiered Saturday, January 30 at 8 pm ET/PT accompanied by the documentary The Wendy Williams Story…What a Mess!, featuring a raw and emotional interview with Williams, airing at 10pm on Lifetime.