Teyonah Parris didn’t get ‘WandaVision’ at first, either
By Leigh-Ann Jackson
If you initially had a hard time wrapping your mind around “WandaVision” and its post-“Avengers” portrait of grief, which masquerades as homages to classic sitcoms, you’re not alone. Teyonah Parris, one of the breakout stars of the Marvel series, had a hard time getting a handle on it, too.
In fact, she was baffled from Day 1. In the runup to her 2019 audition, she was given a series of lines to read but was provided zero context about the character or the storyline.
“I found out I got the part,” Parris said, recalling her initial excitement about entering the Marvel fold. “What part? No clue.”
Delivered in weekly installments on Disney+, the show — which wraps up its first season Friday — slowly unravels a mystery revolving around the witchy Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and the android Vision (Paul Bettany), a superhero couple that met a tragic end in the penultimate Avengers film. Now reunited, the pair acts out a kind of demented domestic bliss in the style of various TV comedies — from black-and-white high jinks reminiscent of “Bewitched” to fourth-wall-breaking contemporary fare such as “Modern Family.”
Through all of the show’s channel changes, so to speak, it becomes increasingly clear that the idyllic suburban New Jersey setting, its residents and Parris’ character, Geraldine, are all under a spell concocted by Wanda’s grieving mind. In the world outside this figment, Geraldine is actually Monica Rambeau, an intelligence agent determined to snap Wanda back into reality.
Along the way, Monica’s to-do list includes: processing the fact that she and half the population of Earth have been missing for five years; coping with the news that her mother died within that window of time; traversing a DNA-altering supernatural force field; and fending off a second, more menacing witch.
“Once I read the script,” she said, “I was like: ‘OK, wow! This is crazy and amazing and, wait ... how, again, does this work?’”
Parris, 33, was on set in Atlanta, taking a break from filming the forthcoming Netflix feature “They Cloned Tyrone.” During a video call last month, she tried to recount the details of her Marvel initiation but had a few stops and starts as she tried to align her thoughts. Her trick, as she explained it, was to speak very slowly so as not to accidentally let slip any secrets of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, as other actors have been known to do in interviews.
She did, however, cop to no small amount of paranoia (for two months, she worried her casting may have been a joke because no announcements were made) and plenty of joyful tears (she broke down when she first saw her face enlarged on a poster in a Disney studio).
“It’s been a dream of mine to be a Marvel superhero,” she said. “I had actually been fan-cast as Monica Rambeau years prior on Twitter, so I started doing my own research on the character then.”
Those who have been keeping tabs on the MCU will recognize the character Monica Rambeau from the 2019 film “Captain Marvel,” in which Akira Akbar played the young Monica, the precocious daughter of the title hero’s best friend, Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch). Parris will carry her adult depiction into the movie’s sequel, due in November 2022.
A South Carolina native, Parris attended the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities there and then went on to Juilliard, nudged along by parents who supported her desire to act. She credits her mother and father with instilling in her “a naivete — an openness and a belief that anything is possible.”
“I have navigated through life with that in my heart,” she said.
Her first big role was the calculating social climber Coco Conners in Justin Simien’s 2014 film “Dear White People.” Having seen that performance, Spike Lee pursued her for the lead role in his 2015 “Lysistrata” adaptation, “Chi-Raq.” Her television résumé includes roles on “Survivor’s Remorse” and “Empire.” She also had a recurring role on the AMC drama “Mad Men” — that’s where she first worked with Matt Shakman, director of “WandaVision.”
“What I saw back then was what I saw every day filming ‘WandaVision,’” Shakman said, referring to Parris’ arc in the fifth season of “Mad Men.” “Teyonah brilliantly combines precision and planning with total instinct in the moment. She’s equally masterful in comedy or drama, from quiet moments to big physical performances.”
She brought poise, a quick wit and a sense of inner strength to those earlier roles. As Dawn Chambers, the proud secretary to Don Draper (Jon Hamm), she blazed a trail as the first Black employee in the “Mad Men” ad agency, Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce. In “Survivor’s Remorse,” she starred as the brainy (and bougie) Missy Vaughn, an outspoken sports agent’s wife.
She brings a similar grit and grace to Monica, even while being flung through the air by mystical forces or delivering Wanda’s miraculous twin babies on the floor of a living room modeled after “The Brady Bunch.”
Despite her initial confusion about “WandaVision,” Parris was drawn to Monica’s depth, she said, and to the fact that this secondary character is presented as “a full-fledged, nuanced human being.”
“She is there, by nature, serving this larger story of Wanda and Vision,” she said. “But they have done, in my opinion, a great job of making sure that she is her own person with her own struggles and her own desires.”
Parris boned up on Monica’s backstory by reading comic books in which the character had major story arcs. She already had a handle on the retro TV references, having grown up watching reruns on Nick at Nite. Likewise, she had already seen most of the Marvel films.
“I’m the person who shows up because I want to see things flying, breaking and glowing,” she said about going to the movies.
Now she’s the one doing the flying. After the revelatory seventh episode aired, showcasing Monica’s newfound powers, fans flocked to Twitter to praise her first official superhero landing — a single mighty fist planted firmly on the ground, eyes forward and fierce. She became giddy just thinking about filming that scene.
“I was so excited, I think I overdid it — I’m still feeling some wonkiness in my hip from doing that stunt,” she said. “I probably should’ve let the stunt double do more than I let them, but I so wanted to hit that pose.”
Levitation and luminous eyes aside, it’s what Monica Rambeau embodies that most moves the woman who plays her.
“For me, it’s really about that representation that I yearned for when I was younger,” Parris said, referring to the lack of women who looked like her in the sci-fi, fantasy and superhero stories she consumed growing up. “When you look at these characters who make you feel empowered, make you think that you can do things you never imagined, it’s important to see different races and genders reflected in that space.”
She beamed as she remembered seeing a cast full of Black actors play superheroes on the big screen in 2018.
“For my big, grown self watching ‘Black Panther,’ the level of empowerment and community and excitement that I felt ... that we all felt!” she said. “You just felt seen — I’m very honored and excited to continue that.”