Wendy Raquel Robinson is every cool and relatable friend, sister and aunt you know and love. She’s also a consummate professional who can convincingly play any role she takes on.
For proof, you have to see Robinson play Cruella De Vil on Disney’s new fairytale flick Descendants. Not only does Robinson, 48, sparkle in the part but she nails every wicked wiggle and giggle. Robinson also looks good doing it thanks to the masterful costuming of Kara Saun (Project Runway and America’s Best Dance Crew).
Descendants, which follows the children of Disney’s most hateful villains as they figure out if they want to be naughty or nice, premieres Friday, July 31. While young viewers won’t likely register Robinson as the first African-American actress to play Cruella De Vil, their parents will and will enjoy her playful interpretation. Cameron Boyce (Jessie), who is biracial in real life, plays Cruella’s son, Carlos.
Although Robinson has delighted fans of The Game for nine seasons – the dramatic comedy comes to an end Aug. 5 on BET – she is not Tasha Mack. She’s also not Regina Greer from The Steve Harvey Show or Miss California from the Sandra Bullock comedy Miss Congeniality. She’s just Wendy and here’s what she said about Descendants, The Game and the Amazing Grace Conservatory she co-founded when ESSENCE recently caught up with her.
Congrats on Descendants and being the first African-American actress to play the role of Cruella De Vil. What was that like?
It’s kind of like suspended belief. Number one, I applaud Disney and all of the producers and the production company for thinking outside of the box. But it’s such a perfect fit. Once I found myself in costume and character and all of that I was like, “Wow! I got it!” It’s humbling. I’m honored and I’m kind of in “pinch me” mode right now. I’m really looking forward to the infinite possibilities. The thing about Disney is, it’s the character. There is no color. This isn’t the first African-American Cruella De Vil but I play her. Even in doing the research, there were so many different looks for Cruella – from the cartoon to Glenn Close and other variations and I just happen to be one of those variations. This is a movie for kids. They don’t see that part of it.
What was it like working with Kara Saun on costuming?
They flew me out to Vancouver for the shoot, and that’s when I knew what a big deal Descendants is because there was all this thought on what side of my head the streak should go on. There were all these pictures and we had to get the right texture. We did the hair and makeup test first. All of that was micromanaged. Cut to wardrobe. Kara was on Project Runway all those years ago. But I had worn her designs during The Steve Harvey Show days to the Image Awards. I didn’t think she would remember me. Not only did she remember me, but let me tell you what this sister did with my outfit. You know Cruella is all black and white with a hint of red? She made it for my body. I wish you could see how textured and layered these outfits were. Everything was custom – the fur coat, the leather, the leather gloves, the earrings. It was so custom and nuanced. When I stepped into wardrobe, that woman took it to a whole other level. It was couture. It was the most amazing journey. That wardrobe was on fleek. It was so detailed and finite that it catapulted me into character. It helped me internalize who Cruella is.
And The Game is coming to an end, too. How are you doing? All of this seems to be happening at once for you.
It’s been the most amazing ride and it has accelerated. Even my Conservatory – we just had a huge gala thrown for us by David Tutera. It was amazing. And with Descendants coming out, it’s so perfectly aligned. I’ve been working with children for so many years. I’m very excited about that. Now The Game. We just did reshoots a few weeks ago and we added Tia (Mowry) and Pooch (Hall). So it’s like a show that will never end. Everything is divinely connected right now and I’m just really trying to be present. Just smell the roses and embrace everything. It’s like God is saying, “Happy birthday, baby.” Especially with Cruella. There’s nothing better than working with children and seeing the joy on their faces. I’m going to take all of my nieces and nephews to the premiere because I don’t have kids. Then I’m going to drop them off afterwards because that’s real.
One of the cool parts about seeing you play Cruella De Vil is that she’s not Tasha Mack. You’ve played her so well for so long but are you excited to let her go?
I’ve always been a character actress. For years, when I was on The Steve Harvey Show, I was Regina. People would say, Regina, Regina, Regina. I couldn’t go anywhere without people saying, “Come here, Regina.” Now it’s “Tasha, girl, Tasha.” It’s so amazing that I have two separate sets of fans. Some people, believe it or not, don’t even know about Tasha. They know me from Steve Harvey. My old Gs. It’s really interesting. It’s somewhat of a generational thing. I embrace it. People have brought me into their living rooms. I’ve had people thank me for making them laugh when times were difficult for them. It took me a minute to really embrace how much people love these characters because they’ve always associated me with them. But I love it. I’ve been living with this character for 10 years. There are all these memories and adventures with the cast and crew in Los Angeles and then Atlanta. We’re like family. I also think it’s healthy to step into someone else’s world and now here I am in the world of Disney. It’s beautiful. There’s a whole other energy. So I’m excited about that but I will never, ever forget my Tasha Mack days or my Regina Greer days. It’s like reading a great book and discovering a new chapter. But it’s also sad and that hasn’t hit me yet.
In another life, what would you have been if not an actress?
You know what’s so funny? I was going to major in child psychology. [Laughs] I’ve always had an affinity for children. I was torn. I went to Howard and that was going to be my thing and I was like, “I’m doing drama and as a backup, I’ll have psychology.” Then Eddie Murphy was doing an interview. I forgot what it was on. He said, “Your fallback plan will end up being what you do with your life. Have tunnel vision. Go for whatever you want.” And that made total sense to me. So I removed the safety net and majored in drama and I never looked back.
What’s next for you?
The thing that I will always love is the Amazing Grace Conservatory. That’s my passion project. It’s been almost 20 years of grooming the next generation of artists and we’ve done some stellar work. Going to ESSENCE Fest to see my baby Elle Varner was everything. I’ve been in her life since she was 9. She killed it. All of the seeds that were planted are starting to grow and flourish and that’s a huge part of what I’m doing right now. I’ll be writing and directing and discovering the next chapter. I’m smelling the roses and I have never done that. I’m ready to travel.
What’s your ratchet summer anthem?
We filmed in Atlanta, and I miss Atlanta so much especially musically. What’s his name? Rich Homie Quan. Yes, honey. He’s got this new cut “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” and I’m just feeling it. I just want to dance and feel good and bop, bop, bop. Watch me whip. Watch me nae nae. [Laughs] It makes me feel so good. It’s just random, ratchet, Atlanta music. But being in L.A., we don’t get that. They clean it up and put a pretty bow on it and put it on the radio. Atlanta doesn’t do that. It’s just raw. There are so many artists that don’t even make it out this way. Rich Homie Quan makes me feel some type of way. He’s my guilty summer pleasure.
Descendants premieres 8 p.m. Friday July 31 on Disney. The Game series finale airs 10 p.m. Wednesday Aug. 5 on BET.