Temple FMA Adjuct Film Professor Wendi Grantham has an incredible background, including a life on stage, on screen (perhaps most notably in HBO's THE WIRE), as a singer, and screenwriter and so much more. We were honored to interview her and find out more about her life, her ideas on teaching, and why she loves to post baby animals on her social media.
Q & A with Prof. Wendi Grantham
Q: You seem to be able to do so many things -- singing, acting, writing, filmmaking -- can you talk briefly about what you love about teaching - how your background informs your teachingy/your teaching philosophy and what your favorite subjects are to cover? What do you generally cover in serial writing class, for instance?
My mother is a lifelong educator. She’s a former teacher, trainer of teachers, and former superintendent of schools. Her specialty is urban education: she goes into districts that are failing, and turns them around, and largely she does it by creating community, and making sure students have what they need, socially and emotionally, so that they can learn academically. Everything I know about teaching, I learned from her. I love teaching because I believe so strongly in students’ abilities to learn. Before I came to Temple I taught remedial classes at a college, and I knew students could learn what I was responsible for teaching them; I just had to motivate them to keep coming to class, and to keep trusting me when I told them they would learn. It’s so gratifying to see students understand something, and to see them do things they didn’t know they could do.
Temple is different, as writing students are self-motivated, but my goals are the same: to invite them to trust me to teach them something, and to prove worthy of that trust.
My job is to see them-to see what they want, how and what they write, where they want to go, and to help them get there. I’m their biggest cheerleader, because I know they can do the work, but they aren’t always quite sure, so I try very hard to create an atmosphere in which they can trust their classmates, and can feel comfortable taking chances, and sharing their work. Serial Writing is really fun for me, because students bring such good ideas, and because they’re writing pilots, which, unlike films, set up stories so they can be continued. They’re open-ended, and exciting, because you’re only at the beginning of the characters’ stories, and I’m always eager to spend more time with the engaging people students create.
Acting training helps me write, and teach writing, because so much of drama school is about observing and interpreting human behavior. That behavior is what film and TV writers want to capture.
Q: I heard you in interview say that Altman, Fellini and Antonioni are some of your great film inspirations -- can you speak to what it is about their films that resonate with you?
I think it comes down to the depictions of community for me: how each of these filmmakers place their characters within larger contexts, and how they influence, and are influenced by, the characters around them. They also tend to deal with existentialism, which is important to me in my own stories, as is an overall enormous vision of the capacity of people. There are lots of others, too- Bergman, Eric Rohmer. They all tune in to such important details and I feel that they’re all really trying to see people, as am I.
Q: Your performance on The Wire as Shardene Ennis is incredible -- can you talk a little about your history in theater and film, how you were chosen for that part, and what the show and the role meant to you? Do you have a favorite role outside of Shardene?
Thank you so much!
I had quit acting, driven home from L.A., and had started teaching full-time when I got that role. I had been trying, and had done a little theater, but not that much. I was very well-trained at The New Actors Workshop, in NY, which was run by director Mike Nichols, Paul Sills who co-founded Second City, and George Morrison, who was a great acting teacher from SUNY Purchase. I loved them, and loved the school, but it was a two year, full time program, not 3, which means there was no repertory year. I didn’t know, at the time, how important that year would be: it’s the year you get to practice everything you’ve learned. So I had all this great training, but no real practice. So I stayed in classes afterwards, to get as much practice as I could.
Anyway, I auditioned for the role of Detective Kima Greggs’ girlfriend, but they said they wanted me to audition for a different part, and that, if I got it, I’d have to take my clothes off. I was always the “one piece swimsuit with a tee-shirt over it” girl, so I couldn’t imagine myself playing a stripper, and not just because of the clothing, but because I couldn’t dance. Like, at all. I was already singing with a big wedding band in Philly, and was always hiding when they wanted someone to lead the Electric Slide. Haha.
So I had to say, “Yes”, because when else would I get to do something so interesting?
It was so fun. The place where they filmed was a real strip club, and the women were so nice to me. They let me practice on the main stage before the club opened, and whenever there were no customers; otherwise I practiced upstairs. I had to do a whole 2 minute dance, which I did, but the director was like “This isn’t a love story”, and cut it. Lol.
Being on set for that show was vindication, and confirmed that I’d made the right choice. It’s just that there was nothing else for me to do afterwards.
There were no parts. I was 11 prostitutes in a row before I played Shardene, and then I was another one on the show “Hack” right after ( the scene never aired). It was all extremely demoralizing. It’s not that I didn’t want to play prostitutes, it’s that those people casting lacked the capacity to ever imagine I could be anything else. So I quit, as there was no “down the line” pay-off. Black actresses were still not permitted to play the roles I wanted. I came to film school to learn how to create acting work for myself. I’ve been writing a long time, but not screenwriting, and this program has been fantastic for me. I’m writing a series for myself to act in-that’s what I wanted to do most.
Q: I listened to some of Julep online and you sound amazing, what role does singing and music play in your life?
I didn’t really start singing until I was 30. I fell into singing, the spring after I drove home from L.A., April of 1998, b/c I was writing songs: a friend was in a band and she said, “Well, you need to learn how to sing live!” I had no idea what that was. She auditioned for a band, and asked that they take me, too. They said I could sing background. I was terrible. But then I got a little better. She taught me everything: how to hold a mic, how to find bars and venues, in the dark, with just a map, how to sing harmonies. Then 2 years in, she left the band, and I met a guy who connected me to a bigger band, and I was there from 2001-2015. That was a whole other world: it was a top-tiered party/ wedding band, and I went from taverns and bars to gowns and the Four Seasons. Because The Wire filmed on weekdays, and the band worked weekends, I never stopped singing. The actors on The Wire lived a whole different life than mine. They’d be like, “Do you want fly to Miami this weekend for a party?” And I’d be like, “Um...I have to do a wedding”. Lol. Also, I couldn’t afford what they could; they had starring roles. I didn’t, and HBO is cable.:)
When I quit acting, which was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, I started singing full time. People don’t understand what acting is like, and how mean everyone is- not the actors, but casting people. And, as I’ve said, it’s really demoralizing. I was wrong for everything I auditioned for. Auditioning is highly tiered: the better your agent, the more likely someone (director/producer of a project) will actually see your tape. Mine was a medium-tiered agency, but there are all these games they play with new actors: they want to meet you, but not always right away: you meet the assistant first, or intern, and then, maybe they’ll see you down the line for an actual audition.
And I didn’t live in NYC; I would drive in from Melrose Park ( near Cheltenham), and the thing about auditioning is that if the director won’t be at your audition, you have to be put on tape, so at least the possibility exists that they could see you. I would get to NYC, for a taped audition, and instead it would be me reading with an assistant, or intern, in a little room, no camera, with their faces buried in the copy they’re reading to me without inflections-for a part I don’t even want, in which I play a crackhead, or a worker at a sperm bank, or something deemed lowly enough for a Black girl to play. It took a toll emotionally, a greater toll than I anticipated, and when I finally saw what it was doing to me, I had to stop.
So, then, singing, I was playing catch-up, singing in a band with people who’d been singing 20 years longer, in some cases. It was frustrating and difficult for many years, because the people I sang with were so good. But they taught me so much. I feel like I’m just now, within the last 2 years, finally having fun doing it. I love Jazz standards. I’m not really even close to the singer I want to be yet, but I’m more in love with music, and with learning about it, every day. The more I learn, the more there is to learn. It’s crazy how it just keeps opening.
Q: You have in the past been outspoken on topics of race (truthfully, I only found your complaint from 1988 from Harvard)) but I wondered if you had any thoughts on recent statements from Temple FMA's DEI committee surrounding "Decolonization of curriculum" -- do you have thoughts on what that might mean for the department and for Film education in general?
Actually, contrary to popular belief, I didn’t file the complaint against Professor Thernstrom; the students who did that filed the complaint without their names being disclosed (I know them, and they did come forward with me to speak with the reporter from The Nation who wrote about us- John somebody, I think? His name escapes me). Then, a reporter from the school paper called other students in the class, like me, told us the complaint was filed, and by whom, without disclosing that the students names could not be released to the public, to solicit our opinions about the class, and to ask if we thought there were grounds for the complaint. I said there were, and gave some examples. The next day, my name is all over the paper and it looks, even to the Professor, like I filed the complaint. He wrote a whole op-Ed directed at me, claiming that I was Mccarthy-istic and on a witch hunt. It was insane.
Truthfully, what he said in class was often offensive, but I just stopped going to lecture. My answer had been to just not listen to him. But our grievance, and the root of their complaint, was that his class should be more complex, and we simply wanted him to do better. I stand by that, and I try to be, for my students, what he wasn’t for us. His history class was unsatisfying, b/c what he lectured often contradicted our lived experiences as Black people. For example: he blamed Black poverty on households run by Black single mothers. Now, this is a sloppy and under-reasoned explanation for a history class, to the point that’s it’s dead wrong. Black single mothers were the only things keeping their families from being lost completely.
The root cause of Black poverty has never been Black people. It has always been about larger institutionalized systems designed to keep Black people in poverty. We knew this 36 years ago (and much earlier than that). It’s always been true, but is only just now coming into the wider national consciousness.
I have been active more in local movements, and specifically with trying to help improve the racial climate of my former HS, which is going through a crisis of leadership, and, with these things, I’m stretched thin. Consequently, I’ve kept a pretty low profile in regard to race at Temple. Race at schools as large as Temple is extremely complicated: change is largely subject to bureaucracy (in which it easily gets stuck) and departments tend to have great intentions, which, then, tend to be thwarted by whatever office sits above them, or the one above that. I love so many of Temple’s Film professors, and believe their hearts are in the right place, and that they’re doing the right things. I’m hoping they are given the opportunity to implement what they envision.
Ultimately, I’m a humanist. I’m for each of us to be able to put our best feet forward, and to be able to realize our full potential.
Q: Might just be social media fun -- but I saw on your facebook that you have some deep love for baby animals -- is there something behind that, or is it just the best thing there is to do when you are on social media?
I do have a thing for baby animals, and for all animals!:)
FB, to me, is a great place for them, and I use them to counterbalance all of the difficult news. Most of my friends and I are significantly older, in our 50s, and the absurdity and severity of the news right now requires a great deal of comfort, and that’s what animals do for me: they keep me looking towards what is good and working about life, so I don’t get too bogged down by the things that aren’t good or working. This new “Information” age is disappointing to those of us who recall life without it: there is far too much misinformation drowning out the actual information. Also, we’re from a generation in which people actually talked to each other, up close and personal, and we find the mediation of a phone or computer very frustrating at times, and often feel that device-mediated communications are troubling: so much gets lost in translation. That said, within the medium, these clips of animals are things we can enjoy.:)
We are so greatful to Prof. Grantham for her time and excited to see what she does next. Students should look to register for her classes in film before they fill up!
(Interveiw by Jason Lindner)