‘Imaginary’ Star DeWanda Wise Reveals How She Fought to Craft Her Own ‘Classic Movie Character’

The actress and executive producer goes from killer dinosaurs to evil imaginary friends in Blumhouse’s latest

DeWanda Wise as Jessica in "Imaginary"
DeWanda Wise as Jessica in "Imaginary" (Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate)

“Imaginary” is here — and it’s ready to scare the hell out of you.

The new horror movie, produced by Jason Blum and directed by Jeff Wadlow, stars DeWanda Wise as Jessica, a stepmom who moves back into her family home with her new loved ones. It’s there that her young stepdaughter Alice (Pyper Braun) connects with one of Jessica’s old toys, Chauncey. Soon enough, this friendship takes a sinister turn, with Jessica having to face her old demons (quite literally) to make sure Alice is safe.

TheWrap spoke to Wise (who recently survived dinosaurs in “Jurassic World: Dominion”) about being terrorized by a guy in a giant bear suit, serving as an executive producer on the film and how she had to fight like hell to get to wear a dress during the movie’s big, visual effects-filled final act.

What was the appeal of the project for you?

Part of it was the juxtaposition. I’ve played plenty of capable, kick-ass, knowledgeable women, and the opportunity to play someone not even softer but closer to who I am as the crybaby that I am, that was a tremendous part of it. And I love playing in genre, because the stakes are so extraordinarily high. You don’t come across it often. Often as an actor, you’re training for Greek tragedy, and then you get out of school and you’re passing the salt or delivering the news. [Genre is] like the cinematic equivalent of Antigone, you know?

The character is really interesting because she’s pulled into this supernatural adventure but it begins with her too, with this childhood attachment to an imaginary friend. What aspect of the character really spoke to you?

Whenever anybody asks, “What were you afraid of?” people will be like, a snake or spiders or normal fears. I’d always been afraid of losing my mind. There’s a moment in this movie where you don’t quite know if Jessica is OK. It’s a fear of hers, too. So I really tapped into that. There’s always an in for an actor. Usually there’s at least one thread and this one had several, but that was a major one for me. I really love horror movies that have a psychological leaning, I love “A Clockwork Orange.” I love these movies that are not only going to deliver jump scares and some twists, but also have this unsettling psychological undercurrent.

What was it like getting chased around by a guy in a giant bear costume?

It was hilarious. Making a horror movie is hilarious. I have worked with a couple of puppeteers at this point. There was the guy who played the velociraptor on “Jurassic World,” one of the biggest guys I’ve ever seen in my life. I love working with creature players. I love working with puppeteers. Our bear beast is played by an actor named Dane and he is very tall. He is very enormous. It’s really funny seeing a creature player on a break, enjoying a cup of coffee because the head is off but the body is still there. It’s ridiculous. It’s so fun.

It’s like going backstage at Disneyland.

Yeah, it is. Or wherever the break room is on 42nd Street.

It’s one thing to work on a horror movie and another thing to work on a horror movie with Jason Blum.

When it comes to these things, Jason Blum is an incredible partner. And something that’s super important to me, it’s just as important how something is made as what is made, which is not common. I hate to tell you, that is not a common point of view. And Hollywood, you know, it’s a very ends justify the means kind of industry. But Jason has really created a culture of care. The crew that we worked with in New Orleans have worked on a number of Blumhouse productions. The way that they cast the crew for this particular job was absolutely astonishing. I felt this groundswell of support from the very top down. And you just don’t always get that.

You were an executive producer as well. What was that like?

It was a delight. I’m a very bossy and opinionated actor in general. So it was nice. It was just nice, not having to go, “Can I see this? Can I see that?” From the very beginning, from any script changes that needed to be made, to making the story more specific, as we got the cast into place, making it New Orleans over Connecticut, to having a little say in this incredible set design, making sure that every department was in clear communication so that everyone’s work really had the opportunity to shine. I just love it so much.

Do you remember a note that you gave that you’re really proud of?

I had my whole fitting and originally, the board I created for my character’s wardrobe was very warm, it’s very feminine. It’s the work you see on screen. And originally [costume designer] Eulyn [Colette Hufkie] had me in a lot of blue and a lot of green and I was like, “Ah, it doesn’t pop the same for my chocolate girl.” So she and I went back and forth a little more and she came around. Then when it came time to decide what the third act outfit was going to be … I love iconography, and if you’re trying to create a classic movie character, it’s about silhouette and it’s about knowing what historical nods you’re making. That’s what makes people subconsciously go, oh, that’s something you’d never forget. I told Jeff, I was like, “It’s a dress. And he was like, “DeWanda, that’s when all the action is. You will be running around this set. Are you sure you want to do that in a dress?” And I said, “Jeff, trust me. I will not complain, I promise you. It is this yellow dress, there is nothing more powerful than destroying the imagery of a tattered dress at the end of the movie.” It’s “Carrie.” It’s “Die Hard.” Just having the imagery of this stepmom at the end of the film and this utterly destroyed yellow dress and it bouncing off of the blue of that final set.

Especially where she goes, it’s very “Alice in Wonderland.”

Exactly. You picked up on it. Yeah, that’s it exactly.

Have you thought at all about a sequel?

I think what’s exciting about the possibility of a sequel is that in this case, it makes sense because we’re playing with imagination. That could be anything. Sure, it could be Chauncey again, or it could be that little cute, blue and green rabbit you have behind you [Editor’s note: it’s Bunny from “Toy Story 4”]. We built the Never Ever and it is just begging for a sequel for sure.

“Imaginary” is in theaters now.

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