Many of us are waiting with baited breath to see Lifetime’s upcoming Wendy Williams biopic. We don’t know all of Wendy’s story but what little we do know is more than a notion. Recently, we spoke to Ciera Payton, the woman tapped to portray Williams and her roller coaster of a life story. During our chat, Payton spoke about how the role was destined for her, what she learned about Wendy during this process and how playing Wendy led to her own personal growth.
See what she had to say below.
MadameNoire: What drew you to the role of Wendy Williams? She’s an iconic figure but also very polarizing. People have been listening to her, watching her for years. It could be a daunting task playing someone of her notoriety. What made you want to take on this challenge?
Ciera Payton: At first, all of those thoughts stormed through my head. I was terrified at first, stepping into her shoes because she has such a wide fan base and they’re very vocal. Laughs. But early on, her fans were the ones who put this bug out there in the universe. Summer of 2019, I started getting tweets from some of her fans. I don’t know if it was because Madea’s Family Funeral had just come out, but people started saying, ‘You should play Wendy Williams if they do a movie about her life.’ And I was like, ‘What?! That’s so random.’ But immediately, I was like, ‘That would be dope. I would love to step into that.’
I thought it would be a cool challenge. For me, acting in general is just a way for me to really bring more humanity into the world. I feel like every character we see on tv, that’s someone you could pass at the store. And you have no idea what that world is inside of that person’s head or what they’re carrying on their shoulders. I just thought it would be so fascinating to step into Wendy Williams’ shoes.
She can be polarizing and controversial but she’s also a huge source of entertainment for us as well. She speaks it like she is, she’s highly opinionated. Hearing people speak that into existence, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll answer that call.’ And I just started preparing. I started watching her show again.
And when the movie came back around, I remember that fear coming up, so deep for me. I remember sitting in the living room of the hotel and I called my mom crying two days before I had to go on set. I was like, ‘I’m so scared! I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I should do it. I’ve been so comfortable with being in the background, doing these one line parts. Now, I’m going to be front and center as Wendy Williams.’
And my mom said, ‘Listen, people spoke this into existence for you. God made it happen. COVID couldn’t even stop this from happening. There’s a reason why you’ve been chosen to play this role and you’re going to play it. You’re going to get in there and share your story, shine your light, and tell your truth while playing it as well.’
That was enough for me to feel like I could take it on and do it.
MadameNoire: What were you surprised to learn about Wendy as you were filming?
Ciera: We pass people every day and we have no idea what they’re going through. What burdens they’re carrying around. What wound they’re trying to heal, what wounds aren’t healed. And I feel like I saw all of that in Wendy, even prior to thinking about stepping into her shoes. What surprised me about her was learning how delicate she is and how she’s tried so hard to build this tough exterior in order to do what she does. Her wounds of her past have had such positive and adverse effects as we’ve seen in the media. But to get more of the backstory of how and why she ticks, it confirmed a lot for me but it also gave me a renewed sense of appreciation for her and compassion.
I think she’s very misunderstood and I think she misunderstands what people really think about her as well. She thinks there is no compassion for her. And I think she doesn’t know how to deal with compassion as well. It’s a foreign concept to her. But she is a very compassionate person who is deserving of receiving compassion and love.
MadameNoire: Did you get a chance to meet Wendy?
Ciera: No, I haven’t met her but we’ve spoken on the phone. So before we filmed the movie, maybe three or four weeks prior, she and I had two really long, in depth phone conversations which were pretty amazing.
MadameNoire: I’m sure Wendy’s seen the movie by now what did she tell you she thought of your performance?
Ciera: Oh yeah. She saw the movie a couple of weeks ago because she sent me a text a couple of weeks ago. She was just raving and saying how much she loved it. I have to ask her permission if I can share. But it was really, really sweet and I really appreciated it. She genuinely seems happy with the movie.
MadameNoire: What do you want audiences to take away from your portrayal of Wendy?
Ciera: There’s so many things. One part of it is, we’re living in such crazy times right now, I just want people to escape for two hours or so and just sit back and be thoroughly entertained. But I also want people to see themselves in this story. As people, as women, and as Black women, we just don’t know what people are going through. And I just feel like everybody’s story is valid. So I want people to see their story in Wendy’s story. Also to be encouraged, be inspired and just know that no matter how hard you’ve been knocked down, you can get back up and rise again and do it just as fierce and fearless as Wendy Williams has.
And I hope people get what I got from it, a renewed sense of perspective and respect for Wendy Williams.
MadameNoire: Were there any scenes that were particularly emotional for you?
Ciera: Oh yeah. There were a couple of scenes. I mean Wendy’s story, it’s a roller coaster. The fact that this woman is still standing and still here with us, doing what she does five days a week is so impressive. And it really speaks to her resilience.
The scene where she was sexually assaulted—filming that scene was particularly difficult. It was challenging. We had some intimacy coordinators available to help us work out the logistics of it. And the intimacy coordinator said be mindful that when you’re reenacting these things and putting your physical body into these circumstances your mind sometimes can be triggered or tricked to think that it’s actually happening. It’s a made for tv movie so the time frame is so limited to what n guys are watching. The scene happens in five seconds but that took us about 6-7 hours for us to do.
Even the actor I was in the scene with, he was nervous too because that’s not his nature. It was hard to come out of it. But the intimacy coordinators were there to coach us through because your mind is thinking this just happened and you probably can go into some shock or emotional trauma. They offered different types of food and things to help keep me engaged and present.
A lot of the drug use scenes were very challenging for me because of my own trauma of seeing my father use drugs. And I was able to talk to my father about his life and say, ‘I understand now and I’m sorry.’ It gave me a moment to apologize and forgive him. Those were particularly hard but I think they all aided in my own personal healing and growth. There was such a huge spiritual presence on that set. Through all of it, I felt so supported and felt like God was just moving and doing things for me and my own personal growth. So much was so deep and so beautiful.
Wendy Williams: The Movie premieres 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 Wendy, airing at 10pm on Lifetime.