Ciera Payton stars as the one and only Wendy Williams in the Lifetime biopic. HL spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Ciera about how fans helped her get cast as Wendy, her talks with Wendy about the movie, and more.
Wendy Williams’ story will be told in the epic Lifetime biopic, Wendy Williams: The Movie, airing Jan. 30. Ciera Payton plays the popular daytime talk show host from her early days in radio to making headlines in front of and behind the cameras. HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with Ciera about the Lifetime movie, and she admitted she was “scared” just before speaking to Wendy for the first time.
“I found out that I got the movie, and then we had to schedule the call with Wendy. I was so nervous because I’ve never played a person that was a real-life person and still alive,” Ciera told HollywoodLife. “This is a person a lot of people in this world know. They can click a button on the internet or just turn her on and watch her like that. It was very, very scary and very, very intimidating. But I also just felt like a giddy little girl. I was scared because I was wondering what she was going to ask me, but she was so pleasant and so wonderful. It was a phone call, but I really felt like she was just holding my hand through the process. I’m sure that she felt like the pressure from the fans and just in general that I would be facing stepping into her shoes. But she just told me, ‘Hey, get your head up high, your shoulders back, and be confident. Forget everything else. Just get in there and just do your thing.’ She was like, ‘The big thing that I just want when you’re portraying me is to just keep your head up. Hold your head up high.’ I feel like that’s the beat that she goes by. She’s had a lot of controversies, and she’s this big personality that we get to watch all the time, but no matter what she does it with so much confidence and so much assurance in herself. It’s so cool and inspiring to watch and then have the opportunity to step into that.”
It wasn’t easy for Ciera to be as open as Wendy is in her everyday life. As part of her transformation into Wendy, Ciera had to “work a lot on being comfortable with being seen, being comfortable with being heard, being comfortable with speaking up, and really releasing a lot of the timidness and meekness that I feel like I have sometimes because I am more of an introverted person.” She admitted that stepping into Wendy’s shoes was “so scary and so intimidating for me at first to be totally and 100 percent free and comfortable with standing out, taking up space, being assertive, and being like, here I am.”
After a while, Ciera did grow comfortable with Wendy’s mentality. “For me, I think playing Wendy is everything that I needed to really grow more into myself and who I am as an artist,” Ciera noted.
In a way, Ciera was destined to play Wendy Williams. And it all goes back to Twitter. “I have to say that I’ve got to thank the fans — Wendy’s fans,” Ciera said. “They are the ones that spoke this whole thing into existence and to fruition. In 2019, around June or July, two people tweeted me, ‘You should Wendy Williams.’ And I was like, ‘That would be awesome. Thank you very much.’ But then they kept tweeting me that saying that I would be a great Wendy Williams if they ever did a movie on her.”
Ciera was eventually cast on Tyler Perry’s The Oval, and fans brought up her playing Wendy again. So she started doing her research before she even knew about the movie. “I literally just started watching her secretly in my office. I just started, in my mind, just piecing together and imagining if I were her on her show. And then next thing I know January 2020 rolls around, and my agent called me to say that there was this audition for this Wendy Williams movie. I just jumped right into it and did the audition.” The rest is history!
The actress also noted that casting director Leah Daniels was instrumental in helping her get the role of Wendy. “I’ve been auditioning for her for 10 years now. She’s always brought me in and has always been a huge cheerleader of me, and we never were able to book a project together until now,” Ciera said.
As her Wendy Williams: The Movie journey continued, Ciera found herself even more impressed with the talk show host. “There were just some moments in her earlier days, and even in the most recent years, that it’s mind-blowing to me that she was able to bounce back and just get back up and keep going from those moments and from being so knocked down,” Ciera said. “We never know anyone’s story, right? We’re just going through this life and making assumptions about people and stuff like that. But with Wendy, having an opportunity to read her story on page and just step into it was just so inspiring. She’s just someone that in her childhood always stood out, but she was always told that she didn’t fit in. I think she tried a lot as a child to just try to fit in, but then finally something clicked for her. She was like, I don’t need to fit in. I need to embrace who I am, and the ways in which I stand out. I think it’s so beautiful that she discovered that about herself and really utilized it to her benefit and has become this successful pillar in the industry for 13 years almost.”
In addition to acting, Ciera also created The Michael’s Daughter Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that aims to provide free/low-cost arts programs to youth and families impacted by incarceration. “I just want to give them a place where they can really just find some healthier alternatives to coping,” Ciera explained. “For me, it’s writing your story, telling your story, instead of going down that path of going to prison. My program has been funded by the City of Los Angeles now for eight years. But this past year, we have officially become a non-profit organization. Our goals for 2021 is to keep the word going but to also be able to provide emergency assistance, funds, supplies, and materials to youth and also families impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. So it’s a lot of work. It’s not easy work at all. But it’s my way of just really hoping I could contribute some type of light and some type of healing in this world, whether it be through acting, or whether it be through championing young people to tell their story and heal themselves.”