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The horror movie 'Imaginary' reflects on memory, childhood and blended families

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Nothing brings a blended family together like being chased by a murderous teddy bear through the hellscape of imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IMAGINARY")

TAEGEN BURNS: (As Taylor) Jess, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROAR)

RASCOE: The movie "Imaginary" stars DeWanda Wise as Jessica, a recently wed stepmother who moves back into her old childhood home with her new family. Her youngest stepdaughter finds an old teddy bear named Chauncey in the basement. In no time, she and Chauncey are best friends, having imaginary play dates, reading to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IMAGINARY")

PYPER BRAUN: (As Alice) Behind this door, she found more doors. So many doors in Molly Millipede's mansion, Molly needed to pick one.

RASCOE: Before long, though, that teddy bear is having an extreme effect on the stepdaughter, and it is not positive. Joining me now to talk about "Imagination," blended families and deadly teddy bears is the movie star herself, DeWanda Wise. Welcome to the program.

DEWANDA WISE: Thank you for having me. That was fun.

RASCOE: Yeah, well, first off, I - you know, I will say, I am a huge fan of horror movies. And, you know, longtime listeners of the show will know this. I - you know, but I've interviewed some actors, like Jamie Lee Curtis, who've...

WISE: Yes.

RASCOE: ...Been in horror movies, but they don't necessarily like them. Like, she doesn't like horror movies. How about you? Do you like horror?

WISE: I do like horror. You know, I don't want to be a fraud, so I will say that my husband does not like horror.

RASCOE: OK.

WISE: So my consumption of horror movies in the last 15 years since we met has been abysmal.

RASCOE: OK (laughter).

WISE: But pre-marriage - I mean, I am such a horror movie fan. I actually - probably after working on this, I'll probably just be out here going to the movies by myself because I really do love horror.

RASCOE: And this movie, "Imaginary" - it takes something that's supposed to be innocent and turns it into something that is very scary and creepy and sinister. Like, did that freak you out at all on a personal level? Or how did you relate to that?

WISE: I think it's just what, you know, some of my favorite horror movies of all time - you think about Freddy Krueger and how he made viewers terrified to go to sleep, which everyone - you got to go to sleep. You need your sleep.

RASCOE: Yeah.

WISE: So it's a very common horror movie device. And in this case, we're definitely using the teddy bear - something innocuous, something that everyone has probably had or seen or grew up with - but more than the teddy bear, we're really playing with this idea of what it means for, you know, a child to have a really vivid imagination.

RASCOE: What was it about Jessica's character that appealed to you?

WISE: It's multifaceted. On one hand, before I wanted to be an actor - I'm still a wannabe therapist, OK? I'm still the friend who (laughter) will sit and talk with you for hours and loves a good communal weep. You know, I'm - I still have that muscle in me, so I think just themes around mental health and unexplored and unprocessed trauma will always be really attractive to me. And then I try not to get too preachy about, like, representation, you know, because it's a trap (laughter).

RASCOE: And why do you say...

WISE: It's a trap.

RASCOE: ...It's a trap? Why do you say that? I got to kind of ask that.

WISE: I mean, because it's just a - you know, at some point, I think, for performers of color, for women, you know, for anyone who has been historically marginalized, at some point, like, we have to grow used to it. Like, it can no longer be remarkable. And so I just saw this character on the page, and she's so incredibly soft and so vulnerable. And, you know, over the course of the film, her greatest strength is actually in her vulnerability.

RASCOE: No, that is a good point, you know, because, as you say, Jessica is a very sensitive character, and she is at times fearful. And speaking, you know, of the - you have two stepdaughters in the film, Pyper Braun as Alice, and that's the young girl who does have the imaginary friend. And then Taegen Burns...

WISE: Yep.

RASCOE: ...As Taylor, who's, like, the older teenager. What was it like acting in a movie where your closest co-stars are children?

WISE: It is both a joy and a responsibility. The joy is our director, Jeff Wadlow, pointed out that, well, DeWanda, you like working with kids because they come prepared. Like, if you're working - there will never be a moment where you work with a young performer, and they're like, oh, I don't know my lines. That doesn't exist.

RASCOE: Oh, because they have...

WISE: That does not - you...

RASCOE: ...To. They...

WISE: They just do - I mean, it's not even necessarily that they have to. It's just that's just who you are when you're, like, 8 and 16. And then the responsibility is, as No. 1 on the call sheet, you know, as a leader, that you are modeling behavior for them. They're learning technique from you. They're learning set conduct. So there's a tremendous amount of responsibility.

RASCOE: You know, I mean, there are always deeper themes in horror movies. And this one - it's really also about family and what it means to be a mother and what it means to - because you are a stepmom, trying to win over your stepkids and have this blended family. You know, talk to me about what it is saying about family dynamics and the - being a - you know, someone's kind of surrogate mother.

WISE: Yeah. I think something about Jessica that was really fun to explore was her eagerness. You get this sense at the beginning of the movie that, like, she wants to be a family now (laughter).

RASCOE: Yeah.

WISE: You know, and so much of her need and her eagerness comes from just feeling like she didn't really have that growing up. So it's both something that she desires for herself and something that she desires for Alice and Taylor - for them to not only love but also feel loved. And there's a mutual kind of, like, need for all three of them.

RASCOE: You've played a lot of different roles in a lot of very different films, from Netflix's, you know, "She's Gotta Have It," which was, you know, a series, to the blockbuster "Jurassic World Dominion." And now you're in "Imaginary." Are there roles or genres that you want to get into next or go back to?

WISE: I have not done - I'm a child. You're so funny. I haven't done a disaster movie.

RASCOE: OK.

WISE: I don't know how I haven't played a witch or a vampire yet, so I haven't done that yet. I really want to do something that's, like, mid-century - so, like, '40s, '50s, '60s.

RASCOE: Oh, OK.

WISE: Haven't done that.

RASCOE: Yeah, yeah.

WISE: And that's - like, those are my top, you know? I'm always rearing to go back to comedies 'cause I just - they're just so fun. But, you know, I got some plans. I still got some hopes and dreams.

RASCOE: Well, that - of course, of course. Well, DeWanda Wise, star of the horror movie "Imaginary," out in theaters now. Thank you for joining us.

WISE: Thank you. You've been such a delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVEN WUNDER'S "BLACK IRIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.