The Netflix original series Raising Dion follows Nicole (Alisha Wainwright), a widowed single mom who is raising her son Dion (Ja’Siah Young) after the death of her husband Mark (Michael B. Jordan, who is also an executive producer on the series). Already struggling with the normal dramas of motherhood, when Nicole discovers that her son has superpowers, she realizes that they must keep Dion’s gifts secret to help protect him from those who are out to exploit him because of his abilities.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Alisha Wainwright talked about the incredible fan response from everyone who’s been binge-watching the series, getting to learn about the entire season and character arc from the beginning, how quickly she jumped into Raising Dion after the end of Shadowhunters, bonding with co-star Ja’Siah Young, just how special Esperanza (Sammi Haney) and the actress who plays the character are, how impressed she was by actor/producer Michael B. Jordan, the most technically challenging scene to shoot, the blooper reel, what she’d like to see from her character, if there are more episodes in the future, and how she’d also like to start to develop her own projects, as a producer.
Collider: First of all, congratulations! This show is so great and so special.
ALISHA WAINWRIGHT: I’m so glad you said that. Thank you!
When this project originally came your way, what were you told about it? How much did you know about what the show and character would be?
WAINWRIGHT: I would say that it’s the opposite of a Marvel experience. If you’ve ever spoken to anyone who’s done DC or Marvel projects, everything is kept super close to the chest and no one will tell you anything. They won’t even sometimes tell you what character you’re reading for. That was not the case for Raising Dion. They made it very clear, who my character would be and what her priorities were, and they also let me read the first episode. Once I got the role and started working through the character, they gave me the rest of the episodes. So, from the very beginning, I actually always knew the entire season arc, and then, also, the character arc.
That’s cool, and it seems like that would be really unusual for any show.
WAINWRIGHT: I know, and I think it was really a symptom of being able to think about the show, on a season scale and not just week by week. We also block shot, and you have to know what you’re going to block shoot, so you have to have everything in advance.
It seems like you did this straight after the end of Shadowhunters, but was that actually the case? Did you immediately jump right into something else, or did you have more of a break than it seems?
WAINWRIGHT: It was immediate. It was crazy. I got the news on a Monday that Shadowhunters was being cancelled, and I had my chemistry read for Raising Dion on a Wednesday. And then, I found out that the part was mine on a Friday. So, that Thursday was just crazy because in my mind, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, is this gonna be an amazing transfer of one great show to another, or is it gonna be doubly terrible that my show got cancelled, and then I didn’t book this part?” That Thursday was really crazy. I ate a lot of cake.
This series hasn’t been out long, but so many people and families and kids seem to be watching it and really loving it, and talking about how much they’re loving it. What’s it like to instantly hear that feedback on the whole season, and to hear how much people are connecting with the show and these characters?
WAINWRIGHT: I come from a weekly format, where you all get together and you’d do a live tweet, so it’s this event where everyone sits down. Obviously, people are watching it in different time zones, but the network will set up it up for us to all be on east coast time and it’s this whole singular event. Whereas with Raising Dion, I woke up on Friday morning and people had already binged the show. I was so impressed by the dedication of the Netflix binge-ing community, but also people who had been eager for the show to come out and wanted to be able to get ahead of any spoilers, or anything like that. And there are quite a few opportunities to get spoiled, so anyone who wants to watch any TV, you have to stay away from social media. I thought it was interesting because, on a week to week format, usually you can like get something to trend on Twitter and have an instant dialogue. Whereas with Raising Dion, I will refresh the search on my Twitter, and every second, there’s a new comment about it. It’s this intense, consistent dialogue that’s happening over hours and over days, and I don’t even know how to process that level of social media interaction. It dies down in between the weeks ‘cause you’re looking for that next episode, but with nine episodes to see everything, all at once, some people are talking about Episode 5, and some people are freaking out about Episode 9, or some people have just watched the first episode and want to rave about that. So, it’s crazy to see where people are at, in their binge-ing process.
It’s cool to see how diverse the audience is and how kids are really identifying with it.
WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. There’s two really unique things about the show. It deals with a child that’s very young. He’s only seven years old. And then, it’s from the perspective of a single mother. You’re hitting two unique demographics. You’re hitting young moms, and then you’re also connecting with young children. You’ve got both of those perspectives, so it also makes it great for family viewing. Everyone can identify with feelings of motherhood, or what it was like for your mother when she was raising you, or your mother figure. And then, seeing the superpowers through a kid’s eyes makes you want to live in his wonder and imagination.
And Dion’s friend, Esperanza (Sammi Haney), is just such a great character.
WAINWRIGHT: Absolutely, and the fun thing about Esperanza is that she’s so unapologetically herself. The show doesn’t necessarily focus on what she looks like, or some of the things that make might make you think she’s different than anybody else. They just present her as she is, and I do love that. You don’t want to focus on the things that make somebody different. You just wanna include them in a conversation, so that it normalizes how you interact with people who are differently abled. And Sammi Haney, the actress that plays Esperanza, is just so sweet and charming. Don’t tell anyone, but she’s my favorite, out of all the children. She’s just as sweet and funny. I’m so happy that she’s included in this project because she elevates it and makes it better because she’s just creating a new face of acceptance.
I think that that you are just so great in this, and you seem so real and natural when it comes to playing a single parent. But as someone who is not a parent yourself, finding that connection between you and the young actor playing Dion must have been really important because you want to make that real. What was it like to work with Ja’Siah Young, especially with this being his first big role? How was it to work with him, as a scene partner?
WAINWRIGHT: We got the lucky opportunity to be able to have about a month of rehearsal, before we started shooting, and that was really pivotal, in helping to develop some of the specificity that helps people identify with the relationship. Ja’Siah is just himself, in his role, which actually made it really easy for me to connect with him. The way he feels about his mom, Nicole, on the show, is how he feels about me and the way we interact. It’s all story circumstantial, but by and large, the way we interact in real life was reflected in the show. It was easy ‘cause I could ask him, “When you go to sleep, how do you like to sleep? Do you like to sleep on your side, or on your back?” When you’re a mom, putting your kids to bed, you know that they’re always gonna go for like their right shoulder, when they go to sleep. It was just these tiny little specifics about who he is, what kind of food he likes to eat, or that sound a kid makes when they’re being a little too loud. It was about those little things that make a mom, a mom. I also talked with his mom a little bit, and that was helpful in developing that relationship.
We know that this character is not a single parent because of any choice that she made. It’s a situation that she’s found herself in, and she has to deal with it. What was it like to get to explore the relationship between Nicole and Mark, in the little bits that we get to see their dynamic, and to have someone like Michael B. Jordan there?
WAINWRIGHT: Their relationship defines everything about the show. At least, that’s what I think. You have to understand how and why these people really love each other, and the family dynamic they had, so that you can really understand and appreciate the loss everybody feels, once he’s gone. That was something that was very elegantly fleshed out, in the script, and that gave us a real opportunity to make sure that we showcase the love between these two characters, so that people really felt that. And then, Michael is a movie star, and he comes with so much clout and star power, so to have him be a loss on the show, it almost magnifies that sensation. He’s an incredibly kind and hardworking person. I experienced him as a producer, almost as much as I did as an actor, because of his involvement in the show, behind the scenes. Eventually, I also wanna move into a space where I can create my own content, and other TV shows and projects, and I admired his ability to see a project, all the way through from seeing it be crowd-funded to having it premiere on Netflix.
When you play a character who’s raising a son that’s also learning how to be a superhero, it’s not just powers in certain scenes, but it’s figuring out how to use powers, so things don’t always go right. What was the most technically challenging scene to shoot, or were there multiple scenes that were challenging, in that way?
WAINWRIGHT: One that jumps out to mind the most is that Episode 1 scene on the boat, with us watching the fish come up, and then the ultimate chaos that ensues, followed by me falling and jumping in, afterwards, to save Dion. There were just so many levels of escalation in that scene. It starts super calm and casual, and then gets to the point where we were both soaking wet, inside the water. What was crazy about that shoot, which went for days, ‘cause it took multiple days to shoot that, was that it was exceptionally hot in Atlanta, or we were outside of Atlanta, at that time, and it was just incredibly hot. And we were in that boat by ourselves because it took too much effort to dock us to this platform that they had in the water. So, it was just me and Ja’Siah, on this boat for 12 hours, in the hot sun. It was overwhelming, and I would say it was probably one of the more challenging days. But then, I got other days, where I was eating fried apple pie, in a great restaurant in Atlanta. So, you take the good with the bad.
Were there also a lot of fun bloopers and moments where you just couldn’t help but crack up because of the crazy things going on?
WAINWRIGHT: Oh, absolutely! I’ll add on to the level of why that boat day was so rough. So, if you go back and watch, the water is crazy rough, and they created that by actually having several people on jet skis, doing circles. It’s a lake, and these people were on jet skis, causing these huge dips in the boat to get all of that movement. And then, one of the guys on a jet ski got too close and kicked it a little too high, and rather than just move the water around us, the water actually went in the air, and Shamu-style sprayed all this water on Ja’Siah and I, so we were absolutely drenched when we weren’t supposed to be. They got that on video, and it ended up in a blooper reel that I saw. It made me laugh so hard because you just see in my face that I didn’t see it coming at all.
One of the most heartbreaking moments in this series is when, as a mother, Nicole has to explain the existence of racism to her son and tell him that, you know, even though he’s a good kid, there are people in the world that are just going to judge him. What was that moment like to shoot? Were there are a lot of conversations around how to handle that moment?
WAINWRIGHT: Yes, there were a lot of conversations. Some of the producers talked to Ja’Siah and Ja’Siah’s mom, to prep them for the scene, so that he could understand what his character would be trying to understand. It was one of those things where we didn’t do too many takes of it, and a lot of the reactions that you see are just the genuine processing of what he was learning about. And also, I do appreciate the way they wrote the conversation for Nicole because, rather than just straight educating him, she leads him in by asking questions to encourage him to be thoughtful of his own situation, before she tells him what the world is really like. I thought that was really important. I don’t know anything about parenting, but it seems like understanding where your kids are coming from before you guide their way of thinking is a much healthier way to have a genuine connection with your kids, when you’re trying to get them to understand something.
There are little reveals, throughout the season. We get some questions answered and we get a big twist in the second to last episode, but the story is also not fully wrapped up, at the end of the season, and you can see a path to what further episodes could be. Have you had conversations yet about possibilities for a second season?
WAINWRIGHT: I know that everyone is incredibly helpful, but we just have to wait for the big okay from the powers that be. I would absolutely love to come back for more.
Do you have a personal wishlist of things that you’d like to see with your character?
WAINWRIGHT: That’s a great question. I feel like, for Nicole, you see her put a firm no on romance, from Episode 1. There’s a connection there with her husband, at the end of the season, so for me, I would love to explore what love looks like after loss. Is it possible? What does that relationship look like? I think that’s really interesting. Obviously, as little kids grow up to be young adults, I’m sure there are a lot of evolutions of powers that could be happening with Dion, so I would be curious to see what he can do next.
While you’re waiting then to hear about whether there will be more episodes and if you’ll be going ahead with another season, what are you looking to do, in the meantime? Where are things at for you, as far as what the next step is?
WAINWRIGHT: Right now, I’m just sitting in the glow of the show being released. I just shot of a movie (Death of a Telemarketer) over the summer, with Lamorne Morris, that’s about a telemarketer who ends up stuck in a quandary where he calls someone on the do not call list and they try to kill him. That’s a dark comedy that I love. And then, I’m also trying to put together a package to hopefully pitch and develop my own projects.
Raising Dion is available to stream at Netflix.