Ciera Payton and Morocco Omari Talk Becoming Wendy Williams and Kevin Hunter
Shock jockette sensation turned talk-show icon Wendy Williams was the rambunctious lady with a voice that wouldn’t rest until it was heard.
She was unafraid to say whatever it was that she wanted to say. She was unashamed to live in her truth just as much as she talked about everyone else’s. And, more importantly, she was unfiltered in a way that captivated your ears long enough to fall in love with her Jersey-born twang and the sassy adlibs that would roll from her tongue so effortlessly and entertainingly. Those who loved her couldn’t help but love her, and those who hated her hated how hard it was not to love her.
As a young girl who dreamed of big microphones, flashy clothing, and an audience full of people chanting my name, Wendy Williams was an inspiration. From her bouncy, blonde wigs even down to the pursing of her lips and the sarcastic blink of her eyes, for little Black girls who aspired to be seen–whether they were liked or not–she was an idol… a hero even. With a personality made for both radio and television, since the beginning, Ms. Williams was bound to become the multi-faceted powerhouse that she is today.
She set the tone for women working in a man’s industry, for women who were too timid to speak up in a field that had always shut them down. She opened doors, broke through fences, and led the way for ladies to be respected–on and off the air. She didn’t care who was uncomfortable by her presence as long as they felt it. And for decades, Wendy Williams has made sure that we’ve felt every piece of her presence–be it roaring through the speakers of our car’s radio or filling up the screen of our living room TV.
Now, after making everyone else’s hot topic headline, Williams’ life has become the hot topic of her Lifetime biopic, Wendy Williams: The Movie.
Executive produced by the incomparable broadcast queen herself, the self-titled project records the liberating biography of Williams and the darkness that followed her outside of the studio’s spotlight. High heels and high ratings, big cities and big crowds–none of it was enough to keep the media megastar from the evilness that lived around her. Left to face the embarrassing assumptions and misconceptions that haunted her, Wiliams must fight to protect her image and the woman within.
The Darren Grant-directed film, written by Leigh Davenport and Scarlett Lacey, stars Ciera Payton (Tyler Perry’s The Oval) as leading lady Wendy Williams and Morocco Omari (Empire, P-Valley) as ex-husband/manager Kevin Hunter. Wendy Williams: The Movie premiered on January 30 on Lifetime, instantly becoming a trending subject on all social media platforms.
As I sat excitedly through the private screening of the biopic a few weeks back, at first glance, I knew that Payton and Omari would both knock their roles out of the park. Not only did the two resemble Williams and Hunter very closely, but they even had their mannerism down to a T. The way Payton energetically enunciated each and every word and Omari moved with the classic New York swag, they each brought Williams and Hunter’s characters to life in a manner that felt as if we were watching the longtime couple’s true stories play out right in front of us.
One would think that Payton and Omari had spent a lot of time with Williams and Hunter to mirror them, but the truth is, they didn’t. As the number of COVID cases continues to rise, filming for a lot of projects has been done in an unconventional way. However, during a recent press conference, although not having the chance to meet Williams face-to-face, Payton recounted an educational phone call that she had with Williams and expressed how much of an honor it was for her as a longtime fan of Williams’ work.
“We see Wendy Williams on TV; we’ve heard her, back in the day, on the radio. She’s definitely a familiar voice and a familiar face. So, that’s where I had to start from. I was pulling up YouTube videos, just trying to find whatever I could to embody who this woman is. Then, I got to speak with her over the phone… a few weeks before we started filming. I think that that’s where a lot of the pieces started to click. I went into it–on the phone call–having questions to ask her, but after a while, I just wanted to sit back and absorb her, take her in, and listen to her,” Payton explained when asked about her preparation for the role. “I would ask her questions in relation to the movie and certain circumstances, and she would just go on and tell me about what those experiences were like for her… personally. Soon after that, I started to get the totality of who this woman is and an understanding of her, so a lot of these pieces started coming together. I started to see her more as just a human, as Wendy Williams. [I started] kind of taking away all of the stuff that we see on TV and heard on the radio and really filling in the blanks of who this woman is. So, it was pieces of that and pieces of my own background and history.”
On the other hand, for Morocco Omari, his preparation journey to become Kevin Hunter was a tad bit more challenging. Since Hunter had no involvement in the biopic’s production, Omari said that he actually had to pull from within and the idea that he had of how a New York-bred Hunter would be.
“I tried to research this brother, and I couldn’t find any video of him online. So, I had to go by what the script was saying, interviews of what Wendy had said [about him] and other people giving interviews about the brother. I had to take all of that research, but then I was like, ‘Well, I still don’t have a visual.’ I had pictures, but I didn’t know how he moved; I didn’t know if he was left-handed or right-handed,” Omari detailed before opening up about the day that he received the call that he’d be portraying Hunter. “I came to the project pretty late. I was painting my stairs, and I got a call on Monday and I was in Vancouver by Thursday. Luckily, I had those two weeks to quarantine. So, what I did–since, you know, he’s Brooklyn New York and I’m from Chicago–I watched a lot of Fat Joie and Dame Dash and kind of meshed those two together and came up with Kevin Hunter.”
But, while Omari’s depiction of Hunter required much hard work and dedication, for Ciera Payton, it was acting out the scenes of Williams’ cocaine usage and miscarriages that pulled the most out of her.
“With Wendy Williams, you don’t imagine that she went through any of that stuff and that she’s sustained so long. She’s so layered. From the miscarriages to the relationship and the drug use–I mean, all of those scenes–none of it was easy to film, live, and step into at all. I remember filming some of the drug scenes and how challenging that was for me and chilling for me because I have a different experience with that… on the other side,” Payton shared. “[Seeing] my father struggling with substance abuse and being a child growing up around that. Also, being a child who used to go to AA meetings with my father and listen to other reformed addicts talk about their rock bottoms. Yeah, I always had a lot of compassion and empathy for my father’s situation and a lot of people who have gone through that, but I also had my judgments around it, too. As we all do.”
Payton then continued with her realization of the relation between Williams’ addiction and her father’s, stating the overwhelming feelings that came over her amid the heartbreaking drug scenes and how it changed her perspective on substance abuse.
“So, to live in a character’s shoes and also to live in Wendy Williams’ shoes, doing that stuff, kind of filled in a lot of questions around it for me, personally. You know? Like, what drives a person to go to that extent and what the drug really represents to them. It’s a confidence boost, it’s a crutch, it’s a coping mechanism. It’s all of those things,” the New Orleans native candidly told us. “I remember the first time that we filmed one of those scenes, I felt this wave of shame and disgust come over me, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m sure this is how my father felt every time he did that’ or ‘Maybe that’s how Wendy felt every time she did that.’ So, those scenes, they were hard. I hated the feeling of putting the powder in my nose. It was all fake. None of it was real! [laughs] It was hard, but it also gave me a whole different perspective, and it just made me want to grab my father and hug him so tight and also hug and hold Wendy as well.”
However, although the making of the movie had its difficult moments, Omari and Payton were both instrumental in each other’s process and made the perfect team. Having the chance to see how the actor and actress interacted with each other behind the lens immediately showed me why the chemistry in front of the lens was so magical and moving.
“Ciera is a sweetheart. I told her, ‘Whatever you need, I’m here for you.’ She just had a lot of work to do [while filming this movie]. It was more like this is a collaborative effort. We had our director, Darren [Grant], and our producers. It was a family effort. We wanted to tell the story and get it out,” Omari bragged. “So, basically, our Zoom meetings during quarantine were [for] getting to know each other. Once we came out of quarantine, [Ciera and I] met up on the roof and talked. We knew some of the same people, but me and her, we had never met [before]. We just vibed. We broke down the script, and we had a like-minded approach to the characters and to the scenes. So, once we got on set, it was just love. The magic just happened.”
For Payton, she felt the same way about working with Omari and admired his professionalism and eagerness to create memorable chemistry that viewers could closely connect with while watching the biopic.
“Morocco is so professional and such a great actor. It’s just so refreshing to be in the presence of that. You can’t help but play with each other. [laughs] The subject matter was so serious, but we really were just like two big old kids playing make-believe,” Payton said in closing, chuckling when thinking about their experiences on set together. “And it was fun. Playing house! It was awesome.”
From success to survival, Wendy Williams: The Movie is a story of redefining and reclaiming your time.
Through hardship and heartbreak, Wendy Williams has not stopped pushing forward–and this film and the people within it did a great job at proving that and more.