On Monday night, “Jurassic World Dominion” DeWanda Wise posed outside the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, taking in the emotions around unveiling her brand-new character, pilot Kayla Watts, to a theater full of anxious fans.
Asked what she’ll most remember about joining this nearly 30-year-old franchise, Wise told Variety, “Probably the fan love, especially tonight.”
Clad in a shimmering Valentino gown, Wise shared the black carpet moment with her mother, brother, husband (fellow actor Alano Miller) and some of her lifelong friends. “My family’s here. My friends from New York are here, it’s very special,” she noted. “These are my day one’s, my 20-pluses. My success is theirs.”
The raucous red carpet experience stands in stark contrast to the day, five months earlier, as Wise patiently waited at home for the first photo of her character to hit the internet.
It had already been a long road for the actor, a 20-year industry veteran, who had her big blockbuster break interrupted by the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, when production on “Jurassic World Dominion” shut down the Saturday before her Monday start date.
“I saw the email and I literally just got on the plane and came home,” she shared, recounting her filming experience alongside her co-stars Laura Dern and Bryce Dallas Howard at their Variety cover shoot this March.
Her first day back on set was in July 2020 to film a scene with Chris Pratt, who stars in the new trilogy as animal behaviorist Owen Grady . Though Wise is a veteran actor, she admits: “I had my Kayla veneer, but DeWanda was terrified.”
It was a tricky time to start a job you’d describe as “career-defining,” which is how Wise sees Kayla. And it’s even more difficult when your “resourceful and witty” character is expected to be as “laissez-faire” as Harrison Ford’s Han Solo or Indiana Jones.
Eighteen months after that — following five months of filming the dinosaur movie and quarantining with her co-stars in the U.K. — it was time for Wise to face a new batch of nerves, as an image from that very scene was set to be released to the world on Jan. 7.
“I knew the image was coming out. I didn’t know what context,” Wise explained.
But when the first-look photo of Kayla standing next to Owen on the ice lake and preparing to face an unknown predator sprang up on the “Jurassic World” social channels, Wise reposted it to her own page with the caption: “She’s your resourceful, scrappy, adventure-loving newest Mesozoic HERO. Can’t wait for you to meet her in 5 months!”
Overall, the response to Kayla has been largely positive. “It’s a very pure fan base,” Wise believes. “Maybe it’s the love of dinosaurs, but everyone wants to see you win. I don’t think that’s common. They’re just like, ‘We can’t wait to meet her.’”
“Jurassic World Dominion” co-screenwriter Emily Carmichael was also feeling the nerves for Wise, noting that she felt particularly protective of Kayla as a character “coming in to the franchise as a newbie.”
“I have special love for like each and every one of them, but I have a very deep, deep fondness for Kayla Watts,” Carmichael shared. “When producers or studio heads are like, ‘What type of movies should we consider you for?,’ the thing I’d say now is ‘Any movie that has a character who could be described as a female Han Solo’ because Kayla is a riff on that gun-for-hire archetype.”
It’s a major challenge to introduce a new hero into a long-running franchise, but it was obvious to Carmichael and director Colin Trevorrow early on that Wise would “steal the show.”
“DeWanda really makes the character jump off the screen and truly holds her own,” Carmichael observed, adding that, after seeing the finished film, “I was incredibly gratified by her performance and felt silly for having felt protective.”
Read on as Wise shares how she, Carmichael and Trevorrow worked extensively to develop Kayla’s backstory — she’s an Air Force veteran with a legacy of military service on her mother’s side; she’s from Detroit; she’s bisexual — and what she hopes to achieve with this character:
As you started thinking about Kayla and who you wanted her to be, where did you start?
There’s a couple of little flags in the script that were clear things to hang my hat on. It was her military background; I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be a Black woman in that underground market, like it was giving me expat vibes in a sense. And I’m a person who’s very comfortable alone — I always have been. I love a seven-course meal by myself – so there were certain elements of her that I understood kind of implicitly, like how much of a loner she was. And then there were some things, that we kind of thread into the script: there’s an exchange that Kayla has with Owen on the ice, and that was all my backstory stuff. Some of it’s woven into wardrobe in Morse code.
I was so intentional about training and representing a strong female body — a strong post-military [body], clearly this chick has gone through boot camp — just to be like, “Yeah, we ready; we’re capable.” We’re serving on the front lines. We’ve been doing it since the late 80s.
It was a really dope and atypical opportunity to give her some legs to stand on. I always think it shows up [on screen]; you can feel the difference between a character who’s like one-dimensional and one who clearly has had an entire life before she has met any of these people.
Emily shared one of those things was that Kayla is from Detroit. How did you pick that city?
Detroit is one of the first cities we think of when we think classic Americana. I just have a thing for people from Detroit. I’ve just never met a person from Detroit who I’ve not really, really, really, really, really, really, really gotten along with. Dominique Morisseau, who is a playwright, and one of my favorite humans is from Detroit; Simone Missick is from Detroit. Just some of the most authentic, consistent, generous, funny, true people.
I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, and I treasure being from a specific place and that kind of authenticity. I just love the little cultural norms.
Colin mentioned there were lots of conversations about Kayla’s hair. Because as Black women, we know hair is a real part of our identity, and making sure that it reflects who Kayla is, is very important. How did you go about developing the look?
Did he tell you that that was like the first question he asked?
He didn’t say it like that. He just said you guys had lots of conversation about the hair. I love that!
I didn’t even see a script yet, and Colin was like, “What’s the hair gonna be?” I’m not kidding. It was the first time we met, and I was like, “You are clearly an Oakland boy.” [laughs].
He knows what’s up.
He knows what’s up. One, that’s the first choice I made for every character. Before I even decide where they’re from, I’m like, “What’s the hair gonna be?” And it’s a combination of obviously, very practical concerns when we’re filming, and what makes sense in terms of where they are, when they are, what I’ll actually be doing in the movie. Then, in this case, we were just trying to go for something that would be — which was part of the first conversation [Colin and I] had — iconic.
When you go back even to the first Jurassic World, it’s very obviously a strong suit of Colin’s. When Claire Dearing pops up on screen with that asymmetrical bob and those bangs, it is a look. It was a throwback in that respect, in terms of the asymmetricity of it.
And then also, braids. The experience of getting them, everything about it was just Black womanhood at its finest. They called in Josee Mampuya (owner of Josee’s Professional Braiding Studio in North London), and her daughter, and every time they would come and braid my hair in the U.K., they brought food. It was, as it is, fulfilling spiritual ritual, a precious thing every time I got my hair braided, and the front re-braided, during production. It became this respite and home, because they do what Black women do, they spoke into my life. It just felt like having family there with me in the process.
Another very important part about Kayla’s story is that she’s bisexual. Why was that so important for you and how did you guys develop how to make her sexuality impactful? So, it’s not just a passing fleeting thing, but instead a real part of who she is.
I mean, we’ll see. I think it remains to be seen.
My relationship with the representation of sexuality, I think it’s important to continue to expand and diversify what that looks like, what it means, what it feels like on the scale of femme or masc. I crave and I’m hopefully am continuing to push forward just widening the scope and the scale of what that means. It’s the same thing when you’re coming at conversations about diversity and representation in general, which is at some point, it has to be so well-woven, so matter of fact, is, you feel it in the fiber and the truth of the character.
Hopefully, we’re moving more towards a level of normalizing that. I try to live in the future, which is like a balance of being idealistic, and also recognizing that it is important to have those kind of beacons and people stomping the ground.
When your character first came out, and people didn’t know who you were, the initial speculation was maybe you were playing Kelly Curtis, Dr. Ian Malcolm’s daughter. First of all, what did you think about Kayla being a different character? Would you have had any interest in playing that character?
No. Vanessa’s here and she’s an actor. It’s one thing to reboot a character Nola Darling, 30 years later and another thing to be like “I’m this person now.” Like that’s just ridiculous. I’ll never forget the impact of seeing her on screen just being phenomenal, and a gymnast, and inconspicuous, and such a fun kind of translation of the character in the book.
I’m deeply invested — and this is also something that Colin and I talked about a lot — in playing new heroes and building new heroes and building new cinematic icons, icons in television and in creating something from scratch. That’s my own personal history and strengths, coming from nerdy theater that I do. Just selfishly, it’s less pressure, but it’s also a ton more fun to be able to collaborate the way that I was able to collaborate.
Was there anything else that’s really important to you for people to know about Kayla or about your experience as a woman in this franchise?
I was talking a little bit earlier to someone else just about how phenomenal it is to be a Black woman in a franchise, and not necessarily be the woman in the tower. What’s just dope about the franchise overall, is it gives this kind of vast representation, both of women and what the strength of women actually is. What’s really exciting in a post-Time’s Up world, is we’re moving towards a more integrated feminism, which is vital for times such as these for obvious reasons.
So, it’s just a really exciting moment to be an actor who identifies as a woman and to continue to make some real-life strides, while also acknowledging that there were so many touchstones that I latched on to like Grace Jones, Lucy Liu and Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown, all these phenomenal badass kick-ass women who really paved the way and we’re the blueprint in many respects.
I think there’s a lot about Kayla that a lot of people will be able to be really proud of and latch on to. So that’s really exciting to witness how she resonates when it’s actually out in the world.