'She's Gotta Have It' Star DeWanda Wise Talks "Reverse Privilege" at Girlboss Rally

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DeWanda Wise

"I was definitely born into grit. But the more I'm successful, I've found there is a degree of hunger, that you have to fight to maintain."

For the third annual Girlboss Rally in Los Angeles, founder Sophia Amoruso tapped She's Gotta Have It star DeWanda Wise as the final speaker of her two-day conference at UCLA that drew women from around the country for panel discussions and workshops in the name of female empowerment on the job.

In a shimmery silken jumpsuit, Wise took the stage at Royce Hall to shed light on her blueprint to success. "I'm at CAA now. It's just like a big deal," she said with a smile. "I have one agent who they call 'the hammer.' She's the one who will call and cuss anybody out. The one who does not give a fuck. And I can ask her, 'What does the straight white dude ask for?' That's what I need to know. Finding those teammates who are transparent and who will give you the insider information is essential."

Wise said she has noticed the veil of transparency lifting in the wake of the #MeToo movement after years of seeing "Hollywood breeding on secrecy" and that one of the keys to success is lending a helping hand to other women.

"I was classmates with Gina Rodriguez, who I just worked with on Someone Great," she said of her college days at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "Gina was a hustler from Chicago, and she was interning with a boutique management company, and I consider that my big break because she said, 'Hey, DeWanda, will you be my first client?' And that's how I entered the industry."

Although she joked that Rodriguez never landed her a role and that she went years without work, it was during that time she discovered the meaning of true star power.

"My prayers shifted from something tactile like a career to praying for the characteristics required to get through it," she said. "A lot of who I am now was developed during that season. It shifted from being 'I want an acting job' to 'I'm working on unconditional joy.' It became, 'How do I change my perspective? How do I actively cultivate these things?' It brought up so much heart stuff. So much muck needed to be addressed for me to not just reach success, but to be the kind of person that I wanted to be when it actually happened. … I believe that our energy, the way we think and the way that we feel, does have the capacity to change our physical."

During her panel discussion, she read aloud diary entries from 2012, describing her journey to an evolved sense of peace that all would eventually work out in her favor — so much so that she had the confidence to almost turn down her breakout role as Brooklyn artist Nola Darling in She's Gotta Have It.

"I am not easily impressed," she said. "I didn't care if it was Spike [Lee] or not. I was just like, 'I would have felt more comfortable if it was a woman at the helm for this women's story.'"

Being a married woman, who would potentially play a sexually liberated character, also came up in her decision-making. "I had to have a conversation with my husband about being fake in love and having fake sex with other people," she said. "I read all 10 scripts, and there was a whole host of conversations about what the sex scenes would be. All that stuff had to happen before I felt comfortable, even though I did not have a job. Anyone else would have been like, 'Money? Thank you.'"

Wise also was candid about her relationship with finances, revealing that a classmate's mother agreed to co-sign a loan to help her stay in school. "There's something to be said for being working class. There's something to be said when you don't have a fallback plan, where there's no childhood home to go back to, you know?" she said. "I found when I was in school and even afterwards what I call a kind of 'reverse privilege' because my friends who were accustomed to financial comfort and luxury could not fathom suffering. But because of my barometer, I didn't have the same perspective."

She went on: "For me to ask my friends to sleep on their couches for years, I didn't have a judgment value on it. I considered it something that was a necessary component of me not spending beyond my needs. I was definitely born into grit. But the more I'm successful, I've found there is a degree of hunger, that you have to fight to maintain. My hunger has manifested in at this level. I will get opportunities and I have to have the wherewithal to say no to money, which is crazy."