If ever there was a movie you could guarantee would be a hot topic, it’s that of the hot topics queen Wendy Williams. Tomorrow (Jan. 30), her original movie and documentary air on Lifetime, addressing decades of rumors about her career and marriage and piecing together the story of how Williams came to rule the airwaves and dominate television as a talk show host.
It’s not only Williams’ story that’s unique, however. In and of herself, the 5’10” woman with a six-foot personality and unquestionably distinct Jersey accent, couldn’t be played by just anyone on screen. It took a special actress to step into the media personality’s size 11 shoes to portray her and that someone is Ciera Payton.
A daughter of the south, having been born in Mississippi and spent her childhood between New Orleans and Texas, you’d never guess from the movie’s trailer that Payton wasn’t born right in Williams’ hometown of Asbury Park. The accent, the height, the hair — Payton nails it all in her depiction of everyone’s favorite gossip girl. And though this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Payton on-screen– she currently stars in Tyler Perry’s The Oval— it also won’t be the last. That’s why we tried to learn as much about her and landing this part as we could before she takes off after this breakout role. Check out 5 things to know about Ciera Payton below.
Wendy Williams: The Movie premieres on Saturday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. followed by the documentary, Wendy Williams: What a Mess!, at 10 p.m.
A difficult part of a biopic is getting viewers’ buy-in on the believability of the actor cast in the role, but Payton didn’t have that problem.
“Summer 2019, some “Wendy” watchers and Wendy’s fans started tweeting me and being like, ‘You should play Wendy Williams.’ And I’m like, ‘What? That’s so random,'” she tells ESSENCE. “I’m just going throughout my life, I’m auditioning, and people were tweeting me, ‘You should play Wendy Williams.’ And I didn’t even know that they were doing a movie about Wendy Williams.”
After season one of “The Oval,” on which Payton plays Lily Winthrop, aired on BET, the chatter about her portraying the talk show host picked up even greater steam.
“People were saying I should play her and I was like, ‘Well heck yeah, I’m going to play her.’ And so I started just watching her, pulling up anything I could pull up on her on YouTube. Every day I was watching her show. And finally in January 2020 Leah Daniels Butler, the casting director, called my agent and was like, ‘Hey, we’re casting for this movie, can Ciera come in?’ And I was like, ‘What? Look at God!'”
I was just like, “Oh my God. Wendy Williams just called me and she knows my name. This is insane,” she recalls. “I think a little bit of the fandom for me really comes up because, again, I’ve been watching her show for years. I was living in New York when she first got her show. I remember listening to her being played on the radio when I was in the taxis. And then as an actor, my mom, every time I will book a role on something if it was two lines or whatever, my mom was like, ‘I hope you’re going to be on Wendy Williams.'”
Before filming the scene, Payton implored some of her personal regimens, like saging the space. She also worked with intimacy coordinators to mentally prepare for the delicate moment. “I was like, ‘Look, we’re entering some really tough territory here, and I want to make sure to be really respectful of the story, but also respectful of my body,'” she says. “And we had some really great intimacy coordinators that came in and just kind of coached me a lot through the process of really trying to detach your mentality from your body because sometimes your mind really thinks you’re going through the action of being assaulted. So those things were tough.
New Orleans became Payton’s home when she was seven years old and it wasn’t long before she noticed the duality of the Crescent city.
“New Orleans is a city that’s so much fun, but there’s another side of it, lots of poverty and drug addiction. And I experienced that first as a child, watching my father struggle with that. And also another aunt of mine struggle with that,” she shares.
Witnessing those battles, Payton says, had a huge impact on her ambitions. “I would go and sit in these narcotics anonymous meetings with my dad and listen to people talk about their rock bottom. And then I’d be at school and be invited to shake President Clinton’s hand. It was this extreme of different spaces, different people. And so I think it was only natural that I proceeded towards the arts because of that.”