Raising Dion, Netflix’s newest foray into the superhero genre, explores what happens when a single parent has to raise a seven-year-old who begins exhibiting superpowers. The series begs the question of who the real hero actually is: Dion, or his put-upon, determined mother, Nicole, played by Alisha Wainwright. We sat down with Wainwright, along with co-star Jason Ritter, who plays family friend and Dion’s “mentor” Pat, about the challenges and rewards of working with a young cast, working on an inclusive set, what might be in store for a potential second season.
DEN OF GEEK: If you both had to guess, why do you think we’re all very invested as a society in superhero stories right now? What is your take on that, and then what do you think that Raising Dion offers that feels different from the other superhero stories available now?
ALISHA WAINWRIGHT: Some people gravitate towards superhero stories because it’s like acknowledging the inherent good in people and wanting people to choose to save the world and to be a hero. I mean that would probably be a highlight of my life. Being a hero to somebody. I don’t know. That’s what I think.
JASON RITTER: Yeah, I think we live in a world that’s confusing sometimes and it’s nice to jump into a world where there’s clearly good and clearly evil and I think it’s satisfying to see evil vanquished as opposed to having it get away with everything.
AW: And I think, I think what makes Raising Dion kind of fit into the world so seamlessly is because you have a little kid. You don’t often see superheroes that are seven-years-old. They might believe in their imagination, but this character actually has the ability, and I don’t think we’ve seen a superhero like that. And I also think on the flip side, one could argue that his mother Nicole is the superhero, or as much of a superhero as Dion, in trying to raise him kind of against all the odds.
Michael B. Jordan’s production company, Outlier Society, was one of the first to adopt an inclusion rider policy. How do you think the diversity behind the scenes impacted your experience on set and the overall finished product here? Because this is one of the first end products we’ve gotten to see from this new system.
AW: Well for me it was incredible. I had just come from so many other productions that aren’t an accurate representation of what I see when I walk out on the street, and there’s so much room for improvement. And I think sometimes when you set a baseline of, “at the very least, this is what has to be,” you open doors for people to be able to excel in all aspects of production. So for our show, if the department head wasn’t a woman or person of color, the key was a woman or person of color, and you just had such a wide variety of perspectives and ideas and backgrounds, so that when people were collaborating you could get all of the perspectives to make an educated, clear cut, final product.
And obviously, like in Atlanta it’s rich with black culture, and it was great being able to see so many diverse spaces on my own set. What my favorite part of it was, when Nicole’s character would do or say something with Dion, crew members would be like, “Oh, that’s how I am with my kid.” Or “that’s how my momma was with me,” and I just, I love that because it just builds an even closer sense of community.
JR: Yeah, for sure. And for me, it just, it felt right. It just felt like this is how it should always be. It felt crazy to realize that it was something that had to be said and promised and written out so that it happens because it won’t otherwise.
And so it was really lovely to see and it just felt like this is how it should always be. This is how it should always happen. But it’s great to at least be doing it now and to be having producers like Michael B. Jordan. People who say, “yes, I commit to this,” because like Alicia said, the more experiences you get, the more diversity you have in people’s life experiences, the richer your understanding of the world will be. You can’t go wrong with more perspectives.
Another thing that kind of makes this project interesting and unique is how young a lot of the main cast is. So what was it like working with Ja’Siah Young and a lot of the other young actors?
AW: It’s the challenge I didn’t even anticipate, with how little time they had on set. These kids, they’re so young that they’re limited to only working four hours of onscreen time a day, so it really created a level of challenge that I’d never experienced before. And it’s purely technical, but obviously you want these kids to be in school and having fun and not being bogged down. So the balance was something that I had to kind of learn to stress production that, we could get as much of the time with the kids as possible and get the shots done efficiently. But beyond that, these kids are fresh faces, they’ve never done TV, they’ve never done film. They didn’t know what a reversal was, what a mark was, that we have to do [scenes] a bunch of times.
And so these kids, who were fun and incredibly smart and did their very best to just be a little sponges and absorb as much as they could’ve, learned the industry as well, while also keeping it fun for them.
JR: I tried to keep it as fun as possible and sometimes that backfired because sometimes as the fun level goes up, the focus goes down. And so, there’d be times where I would have to reel everyone back in after a particularly long break where I was trying to keep the energy up and keep it going. Cause one of the wonderful things about kids is they’re so open, and the more you can have that sense of playing around, you don’t have to just be serious and say your lines. You want to have that freedom that you have as a child. And so I sometimes I’d be like, “let’s keep the energy up and then you’ll bring all that energy to the scene.” And sometimes it was too much energy. But it was a lot of fun. They’re all sweet.
They all do seem pretty polished on screen. one particularly stands out is Esperanza, played by Sammi Haney. I’m just wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about what was it like to work with her? Cause she’s really one of, I think, the highlights of this series.
AW: I think she’s the breakout star, especially of the kids, because she is absolutely herself and she’s quick and she’s sassy and she is just such a lover of friends and people and she just always has such a bright smile. And I love that about her because she always keeps the energy up and wants to play. And be rambunctious just like with the rest of the boys.
JR: She is so fun.
AW: She was great. And again, she wasn’t, you know, a trained kid actor and I think of all the children, she took to being on a set and being in front of the camera, the most seamlessly out of all the kids.
Alisha, you mentioned earlier that your character really feels as much of a hero as Dion in the context of this series. And I just wonder if you could comment a little more on that. Sometimes the role of the mother in a lot of these series can feel like one-note or cliche, but I guess just for you, what was it important to get right about Nicole and being a mom on screen?
AW: So one of the best conversations and sources for what the show was really about was from Dennis Liu, the man who created the concept of Raising Dion. He brought it to Michael [B. Jordan] and Netflix and kind of got the show made. And so number one, I wanted to kind of understand why? Why is a an Asian man writing a story about a young black woman with a boy?. I just, I thought it was so incredible and I love that.
I love that diverse minds are creating stories outside themselves. I think that’s what I think I want the end result of Hollywood to be about as inclusive as possible by inviting minds that can speak on the type of story you want to tell. And for him he was like, I want people to see that Nicole is as much of a superhero as Dion is because I understand, from what I can see, the challenges that a young woman has in raising a kid by herself, trying not to mess him up and let him become his best self while also battling these issues of him having super powers and being a danger to himself and possibly a danger to other people.
And that’s really tough. And I think the way you kind of make the story highlight her successes of motherhood is by making Dion so young because at that age, when little kids are sick, they just, they’re obsessed with their moms, they love their moms, they look to them for guidance and at that age they start maybe growing some of their own ego and self-sustainment. So you might start to see some of the ease of them being able to kind of be not as close to mom, but he’s still young enough that he’s still a little boy.
When I talked to Dennis about kind of what he was trying to get across was that yes, Dion has the physical powers, but Nicole has the real special gift of being able to raise this kid. And that’s what I loved so much about the story because in a lot of the things that we’ve heard and seen and read in comic books, the parents are either not involved, they passed away, o they don’t know. And it’s a secret that has to be kept from them, their loved ones. So I do love that the whole story kind of centers around the parent knowing and trying to protect her kid.
Yeah. Parents don’t really have a good track record in comic book stories.
AW: No, they really don’t. They don’t.
[WARNING: Raising Dion spoilers ahead, proceed at your own risk!]
Jason, your character is decidedly less heroic.
JR: That’s a fair assessment. I would say yeah.
I would say for better or worse, he kind of feels like, an accurate depiction of someone who’s steeped in nerd culture.
And what kind of research did you do for that, and how do you feel about a character like that being presented as not good?
JR Well, I’ve basically been doing research for this kind of character since I was about 12 I would say. But I think, the thing about that is that there’s these elements of him that he has, certainly his own trials and tribulations, but there are also ways in which he’s kind of gotten the life he wanted, pretty nicely and easily. He made friends with Mark Warren, who’s like a star scientist who got him this job and he’s kind of had thing work out in general for him. And so there’s an element of his personality that’s maybe a little bit stunted and I think he’s escaped into fantasy worlds a little bit too much maybe. And I think within all of us there are good and bad qualities and one of the things that I was drawn to about him is that even really early on in the show, it’s not clear necessarily how you’re supposed to feel about him.
It sort of goes back and forth. Sometimes you’re like, “all right, he’s okay.” And then sometimes you’re like, “can this guy just get out of here for one minute? I’m so annoyed.” And so I liked that. I liked that there’s sort of, like, he’s just sort of who he is and that’s just him. And I think we’re all capable of the whole spectrum of good and bad and excitable and jealous and all that kind of stuff.
Did you know that when you took the role, was it always apparent that he was the Crooked Man?
JR: Yeah. We got all 9 episodes so I knew exactly what was happening. And so I had a whole little chart of every time the Crooked Man did something, I knew that’s what my character had been up to the night before. So I sort of, I would track how sick I was feeling, how after I absorbed someone, I would feel much better after those days, have a little bit more energy, but I didn’t want to like tip it. So I tried to hide most of that stuff, but it was really helpful to know. I would have been kind of annoyed if I got to the end and they’re like, “Hey, surprise, you’re this guy.” It also helped me in some of those moments where Pat has this sort of questionable moral stance that he takes sometimes.
I saw Pat say all of this stuff of like, “Well if you don’t get caught, it’s fine. You can do whatever you want. There’s no rules. Just don’t tell your mom.” All that stuff. Not the best type of parenting and shepherding in the world. “If you can get away with something,” it’s a lot of “ends justify the means”-type of thing that I think plays out later. Pat is sort of like, “You can do whatever you want because everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want at all times,” which I think helps foreshadow some of the entitlement that we see from him later.
That checks out. I think one of the strongest scenes in the series is Nicole grappling with how to teach Dion about, basically, just garden variety racism that he’s undoubtedly going to face as his life goes on. What was it like to read and film that scene, and do you think this will help black parents broach the subject with their own children? Or how is it true to life?
AW: For me, I have seen the talk in various iterations on a couple different films, MTV shows, but up until this point, never with a kid that young. And so I thought that was interesting because you would hope that your child at six, seven or eight wouldn’t be interacting with someone who is putting them down and then they can’t understand that it has nothing to do with their personality. It’s just because of the way they look.
And so I think that it is a representation of something that parents have been doing for years and as, I don’t know that I necessarily look at it as a guideline, but it’s an indication to maybe others that don’t realize what black parents have to do with their children. It’s something that they may not ever have to experience with their kids. And so it’s more of a reflection on the reality of being a black kid in the world and not necessarily a how-to, cause every child is different and every circumstance and insight into racism is different and needs to be acknowledged in a way that helps the child understand this is how the world is, but it is no way a reflection of the kind of person you are.
You are, who you are in spite of and because of all the things that you represent. Like I’m a young black woman and when I was in school, I was one of two black girls in my school. So I understood kind of what Dion was going through. And when I came home and I told my mom like, I don’t understand why people are telling me I’m different. I want to be just like everybody else. Like most kids want to be. It was my mom who was like, “Well you’re not like all of the kids, you’re you. And that’s why you’re awesome. You come from this incredible culture, you have a rich family history, you have people in your community that love you and that’s why you need to be really proud of who you are and where you come from.” And I think those are the kinds of conversations that uplift people, rather than, hopefully you’re not brought down by those conversations. But it is an unfortunate experience that kids go through.
Should you guys get a second season on this, how do you anticipate that going? It seems if I read the ending correctly, it seems like maybe Pat is inhabiting the body of another boy or the Crooked Man is, but what kind of features and challenges do you think could be in the next chapter of this story?
JR: That is a great question. I have no idea. Carol Barbee has told me that she has some really exciting ideas about the future of Pat, but I have no idea how that manifests. It’ll be interesting to see on the other side, now that Dion has really found his new powers, whereas this first season was a lot of discovery and trying to hone his powers, what he does now that he’s really stepped into his ability to take down a huge monster.
AW: And for Nicole, I feel like her character arc was being able to find the confidence in herself that she is capable of. That’s raising her kid by herself. And so I, with that sense of empowerment, I am so hopeful for the way she will navigate season two with a new found confidence in herself and in her child. I just feel like the world’s her oyster. Hopefully she, I don’t know, she gets a great job and her kid gets straight A’s. I don’t know. Yeah, it’ll be great.
JR: One last thing, quickly. I think this is the first time I’ve gotten to talk about anything spoiler-y at all. So I was like, “Oh I haven’t even talked about this out loud.” But I think, like, in terms of what you were saying about having a guy like this turn out to be the bad guy, I feel like I am a part of that world. I love the things that Pat loves, and I don’t know, I don’t think that character is supposed to be a representation of everybody who is passionate and enthusiastic about nerd culture and things like that. But I do think there is like a subset within this group of people who are 99% like the loveliest, most beautiful passionate people I know, that have some real anger and have some issues that I think that are within Pat.
The sort of idea that there is some future that was promised to him that he feels like is being taken away from him somehow or he’s being replaced somehow. And that unfortunately is not limited to this community that I’m talking about, but there is an element within that community and I think it’s important as we all go forward to call that out and say, “well, that part’s not so awesome about us guys.” Let’s look at some of these feelings and figure out where they originate from and why we get so angry about certain movies and certain things and what we’re actually upset about and why people are feeling the way they’re feeling and what we can do with some of those feelings. But I don’t…you said, “how do you feel about this kind of guy turning out to be the bad guy?” and I don’t want to sort of paint the whole community of lovely people and most of my friends as secretly evil.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.