'Wendy Williams: The Movie' Star Ciera Payton Talks Fainting, the Tyler Perry Bubble and Costume... Enhancements

Ciera Payton Lifetime Wendy Williams The Movie
Ryan Plummer Photography

Wendy Williams’ shoes are not easily filled — and not just because she wears a size 11. The DJ-turned-daytime-host is among the more colorful personalities in the American media landscape. So to play the famous gossip hound in her authorized Lifetime biopic would require not only confidence — but a few costume enhancements.

Enter Ciera Peyton. The actress, who reprises the role of Lilly Winthrop on Tyler Perry’s The Oval when it returns, Feb 16, stars as Williams in Saturday’s Wendy Williams: The Movie. Despite being the casting director’s first choice, Peyton was only able to film the project after COVID wreaked havoc on the original production schedule. She spoke with THR about her strange path to the project, filming in Tyler Perry’s Atlanta bubble — 22 episodes in 10 days! — and the excessive prep that went into recreating Williams’ infamous on-air fainting spell.

Had you ever been approached about a resemblance to Wendy prior to this film?
I started getting tweets from Wendy Williams' fanbase during summer 2019, saying that I should play her. Now, that is the most random thing — but, also, sure! I would love that. I’d love to step into those shoes. People kept tweeting at me, and someone went so far as to tag Wendy in one of the tweets.

I had been working on the Tyler Perry’s The Oval, which came out October of that year, so people just kept bringing it up more and more. I thought, there’s a sign there. So, I started brushing up on her. I watched some interviews. I watched a few episodes of her show. I even came up with a little monologue if I was ever in a position to audition. Then comes January, and Leah Daniels Butler — who I’ve been auditioning for her, without booking anything, for about 10 years now — is casting this movie. So she had me come in.

How was the audition?
Oh, I was in full-blown character. I was acting as Wendy, going off script, just doing my thing. I thought I’d get a call back, with the director and the producer, but a few weeks later they just offer me the role. But then I couldn’t do the movie, because it was in conflict with the second season of The Oval. People were calling Tyler Perry, trying to make it work, but there was just no way to make it happen. I was crushed. But this was the first week of March, so COVID came in and shut both productions down.

Kind of a blessing, I guess?
Tyler, who had been trying really hard to make both things work for me, called me mentioned that they were still very interested — and that I might have another shot if they got back into production later in the year. It was amazing, but I kinda took my mind off of it during quarantine and just focused on better days to come. By June, Tyler decided to go back into production for The Oval — but we shot 22 episodes in ten days. Two weeks later, I was on a flight to Vancouver to shoot Wendy Williams.

Excuse me… You shot 22 episodes in ten days?
Yeah (laughs). I was very surprised too. We were a part of the first wave to go back. We were in a bubble, and he made sure that we were fully accommodated, fully taken care of. But it also gave everyone the opportunity to shoot all this stuff even more quickly. We were living on the lot for 10 days, so we just plowed through. I literally looked up, like, “We’re done?” And it was final cut.

Not many actors can say they were double-booked in 2020.
Whose story is this? It was a great problem to have, but not the norm at all this business — and especially not in my career (laughs).

Wendy Williams is an extreme personality. How did you sort of anchor this performance without going over the top?  
When I approach really any character, you try to do it from a grounded and authentic place. But when I was watching Wendy, one of the things I noticed is that there's a certain persona that is being created when she’s presenting herself on air. It’s like a news anchor or any other radio DJ. I really felt, watching her, that this is a character she created. A lot of it is her, but it’s also a character that she created for the world. I wanted to play with that. The woman you see on screen is completely different than behind the scenes — and that’s a person no one knows at all. I had to kind of make it up.

So that’s where I wanted start from. Then you know, I pull out the New Jersey accent, the mouth popping, the hand gestures, the eye movements.

Wendy is kind of famously candid, but there’s always the risk of sugarcoating in any authorized biography. Did you have any hesitation about signing on, given her involvement?
Not necessarily. The only hesitation that I had just goes back to the fact that she's so well known. People either love her or they don’t. My reservations came in with the idea of all of the comparisons. That's going to be just hard to step into, no matter what, because you can't please everybody. Right? But I think if I'm going to do anyone's authorize autobiography, it has to be Wendy Williams’. She's going to give it to you in a certain way that you're still going to shocked. After reading the script and, you know, getting into the costumes and stuff, it just felt right. All of those nerves just went out the door.

Speaking of costumes, please tell me about the Lady Liberty scene.
Oh yeah! (laughs) Look, yes, it was a very serious thing that happened and very scary to watch on screen. But it's one of the most memorable moments of her career. For me, that was one of the most important things to make sure that I got it down. The week leading up to it, I just kept playing the clip over and over and over again. She bends her lips this way. She opens her eyes this way. I remember the day we shot it was all hands on deck. Collectively, we were like, “Let's do it until we know that we got it!” I hope we did.

Let me think of like the least crass way to put this…
Bring it, bring it, bring it! (laughs)

Is it noticeably different acting with the augmented costume you’re wearing in the latter third of the film after she’s had the breast implants? They’re not subtle.
No, they're not! And when I look back, I’m thinking, “Gosh, they probably should have been bigger…” Continuity-wise because, we were moving so fast under the loom and doom of COVID, I just hope they’re consistent from scene to scene. It was very different for me. I’m dealing with a very humble situation. To put on something like that, they’re very uncomfortable. They do hurt your back. But I can see why Wendy wanted them. When you have something like that, you stick your chest out, your shoulders are back and your head tends to rise up a little higher. It does something for your confidence. And she doesn’t hide behind them. She knows what she’s got.