Rutina Wesley, who graduated in 2005 as a member of Group 34, got her first big break just a few months after leaving Juilliard with the starring role of Raya Green in How She Move, a coming-of-age tale about the gifted but disaffected daughter of Jamaican immigrants in a gritty Toronto neighborhood who sees competing in dance contests as the path to her dream of returning to boarding school. Directed by Ian Iqbal Rashid with a screenplay by Annmarie Morais, the film garnered attention at Sundance and was picked up by Paramount for national distribution. Three days before the film’s January 25 release, members of the Juilliard community were invited to attend a screening in the Paramount Viewing Room in midtown Manhattan, after which Juilliard’s director of national advancement and alumni relations, Jamée Ard, moderated a panel discussion as Wesley fielded questions from current students eager to get “the inside scoop” on her experience. Excerpts from that discussion are presented here.
How did you apply your Juilliard training to what you did in the film?
I had to do a Canadian dialect, so I worked with a dialect coach. I also went through my scripts and mapped it all out, so that no matter where we were shooting, I knew what came before and what came after. A lot of the time, you shoot out of sequence. We shot all the family stuff in the first week, which actually was great, because I got to bond with my mother and father. So I got to carry them with me throughout the rest of the shoot. All this script analysis, I didn’t want to do during my first year—I just wanted to get up on stage and do. Instead of memorizing it, I would just read it every night. And so, I just came to the set and the lines were there because I had lived with her from just reading the script. I don’t know if it was because I grew up being a dancer, but I felt like I knew Raya and her heart. I just knew this girl. Chocolate-stained skin was one of the descriptions, and I was like, ahhh!
What was the audition process like?
James Gregg got me a room at Juilliard so I could put myself on tape for this. I had Jacob, my wonderful husband, help me with some step routines. I made a couple of routines up, and sent it off to L.A. And then, the director responded to my tape. I met him here in New York and then a couple of weeks after that, I got the call. I thought they were trying to find a Canadian actor to star in the film, so I was in complete shock when I got that call—on my birthday, I might add!
Did you have any step training before?
No, I just loved to dance and I love rhythms. I’ve seen a lot of step shows, and had friends in the fraternities and sororities. My dad is a tap dancer—he would listen to construction noises and the next thing you know, his feet would start to move. It’s like the same thing, and you translate that into your body. But there is a groove that Hi-Hat, the choreographer, wanted that took me a while to get, because I was real jazzy and stiff. She would say “Tina, I need you to relax,” and I’d say, “I’m relaxed” [as she moves very stiffly]. I was like 150 percent, four weeks straight—until my body gave out. And then I had to relax and chill.
How much rehearsal was there for the dancing?
Five weeks, nine hours a day, six days a week. It hurt, but it was worth it. All the other guys on the team, none of them are dancers. They just dance in the clubs or play basketball; none are formally trained. But at the end of the five weeks, we were a team. As a dancer, I was amazed at how far along they had come. Hi-Hat really challenged us … our blood and sweat, it’s up on the screen.
How did you memorize the dance sequences?
It was just repetition: over and over, full out all the time. If you are not a dancer, you have to get the stamina down. That first week, we were all down on the floor, and she was like, “Let’s do it again!” and we were like, “I can’t breathe right now, so ...” She was like “get up!” and we had to do it again. By the fifth week we were able to run through all the dance sequences twice or three times without being out of breath at all.
Did you think the movie was going to be this big?
I thought it was going to be a little indie movie that might hit DVD. But it made it to the Sundance Film Festival, and then it had this huge bidding war after the first screening, and Paramount snatched it up real quick. It has taken off since then.
What has it done to your life?
I’m still Tina, you know, chillin’. My phone rings a little bit more, but it’s all people I love and who I haven’t talked to in a while—people from high school calling, saying, “Remember in junior high you said you were going to do such-and-such; look at you, girl, living your dream.” I’m going to cry—I mean, we all love what we do, and it is really hard to be able to do what you love to do. I really felt like the minute I just put my feet on the ground and breathed a bit, this script came to me. Before that, I was so wrapped up in negativity and was thinking I was never going to make it. And the minute I just lifted my head up and believed in myself for just a minute, little things started dropping themselves in my lap. I still had to work to get them—but you can work, work, work and never see yourself on film or get to do these things. So, I really try to appreciate them, because they come and they go. And it is when they go, I think, that you really need to be grounded and know that something else will come along—and if not, create it.
When did you know you were an actor?
I did Finian's Rainbow when I was about 7. I would say I was in junior high when I started to do plays, and my drama teacher there sent me to the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts. It was a brand-new school at the time, and our first show was Fame. I love the movie—it is my favorite. It changed my life. I told my friend "I'm going to go to the 'fame' school one day, I’m going to go to Juilliard." I didn’t remember this, but he called me when I got in!
Are you listed with the agents, and how did you find out about the auditions?
I’m with Endeavor; they are in both New York and L.A. They sent me the script [for How She Move]. I read it and immediately said "yes!" I wasn’t what the director had in mind at all for Raya, but when he met me and we talked, he said he knew he had to have me. He knew he could get range out of me instead of someone who would just be pretty or a dancer. Raya was so much; it was hard to dip and dive. She really pulled on your heartstrings. We all have stuff with our families and know what it is like to deal with those things.
There is a real tragedy that underlies this, and you are so young; where did you find that in you?
I have a lot of friends whose parents are separated for whatever reason. When a child dies in the family and there is another sibling left, that sibling has to watch the parents go through it.
Is dance cathartic for you?
I think that the arts are cathartic for me. When someone is giving you their heart, you can feel it in the room and the entire theater is silent. Whether you are a painter, dancer, writer, it is telling the stories—because everyone’s got stories. And everyone’s story doesn’t get told. So I always try to put little pieces of all the people I know in.
Had you done much work on film before this, and what was the process like, translating the work after Juilliard?
I did a scene in Hitch that hit the cutting room floor. This was basically my first movie. I came to the set [of How She Move] and the director said “Action!” and I was doing all this weird stuff. The director was like, “Sweetie, sweetie …” and I was like, “Is everything O.K., do you want me to do this, do I look O.K.?” He calmed me down and said, “We’ll make sure you look pretty; you just do Raya.” And, I was like, “You mean, all I have to do is just act? I just have to play? Cool, cool!” So, I just started having fun. I was able to relax and a lot of things just felt very organic. And when they said “Cut!” I stayed where I needed to be. A lot of people want to talk to you when they say “Cut,” but I would walk away to stay in the zone. I couldn’t leave the character and jump back into it, because it would show.
What was a day like on the set? What did you have to do at the end of the day to make yourself ready for the next day?
I took hot baths with Epsom salts in the morning before I got up. Sometimes, I had to be there at 5:30 a.m. for hair and make-up. I was in almost every scene; I think there were two scenes I wasn’t in. Then I’d get home at 6 or 7 and take another bath with Epsom salts, eat something, use heating pads … my body was a mess. I also went to masseuses on the weekend and had two hours of massage on my legs, which were rock-hard. A lot of them said, “I work on football players who aren’t this tight!”
How long after you graduated did you start shooting, and how long was the entire process?
I got this at the end of 2005 and we started shooting the beginning of January. It was a 10-week shoot: five weeks of rehearsal and 25 days of shooting. We went really, really fast. And we went into a lot of overtime but we really made it work.
Did you look at dailies [the small reels that contain the day’s shooting]?
They let me look at some; I had to beg and plead.
Did it help? Why wouldn’t they let you look at them?
Because actors get all freaked out. You could look at them and say, “Oh, my God! I’m acting—I’m doing that thing, I’m doing Juilliard!” It was a couple of weeks in, and I went up to Jennifer and said, “Please, please; you are killing me.” She said, “You are fine.” I said I just wanted to know, to see that I was fine. She wanted me to watch one of them, but I had a stack and was putting them in, fast-forwarding. And I realized I was fine; I was doing just what I needed to be doing. But you have to be sure, before you ask that, because it can really mess you up. Or you might see something you don’t like.
So, you’ve been out and had some success; does it make Juilliard look any different to you?
Not different … it’s just, we give school a lot of power, or I did. Over my emotions, over what I thought of myself as an actor. And it is no fault of the School. I’m still slowly getting away from the student part of me. Because I think I still walk around like a student, and I have to nail this audition, and that’s not it—I need to be a little more free. For some, it takes longer than others to get back to ourselves. When you finally get back there, you think, “What was I doing?” You were being a student and you were putting your pieces back together that you were working on. Once you graduate, it is done. But it is hard to let go, because you live and breathe there for four long years.