With a family tree that includes great-aunt Dorothy Dandridge and grandmother Vivian Dandridge, it’s a big understatement to say that Nayo Wallace has entertainment in her blood. But, lest you think that nepotism played a role in the Detroit native’s recent Tinseltown success, think again. Wallace, who plays the mysterious scientist Minx in the spring flick Speed Racer, had just as many reservations as anyone would when she moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago after graduating from Southfield High School and logging a bit of time in community college. Being kin of Dorothy, the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Vivian, best known for singing with the Dandridge Sisters, actually had little effect on Wallace’s direction.
“I’d always loved acting, but doing it as a career was something that never seemed realistic,” says Wallace, who grew up on Six Mile between Wyoming and Livernois, and attended Cass Tech before moving to Southfield for her senior year. “It was really hard when I first came out to Los Angeles.”
One might think that being the granddaughter and grandniece of veritable legends would open some doors. But, unlike many Hollywood types, who use every possible advantage to self-promote (up to and including eating bugs on reality television), it never crossed Wallace’s mind to advertise her rarefied lineage. “I really don’t talk about [my famous family],” she says from her home in L.A. “I’m flattered if someone asks, and I’m happy to talk about it if people are curious, but even growing up, we didn’t talk about it all that much.”
So, the Wallace home wasn’t filled with Dandridge memorabilia, posters, pictures, and DVDs? Wallace bursts into laughter: “No, no, no, not at all. You wouldn’t do that, either.”
Yes we would.
“No you wouldn’t.”
Of course, Wallace might just be too busy these days for much reflection. Things started out slowly for her in Hollywood, but one might argue that talent — or, perhaps, a persevering spirit — is in her makeup. Just a few years ago, she was attending the Beverly Hills Playhouse acting school when a teacher suggested she try out for The Lion King touring company. With no singing or dancing experience, Wallace says, she wondered why. But, following his advice, she took a chance and went to the audition.
“I was so nervous, I was shaking, and the casting director came over to me and said, ‘It’s OK — just breathe,’ ” she says. “That’s not a good audition, when the casting director has to come hold you.”
Wallace had a little something, though, and, a year and a half, seven auditions, and several singing lessons later, she was in the show, first as a singer and, by the time they reached New York, playing the major role of Simba’s mother, Sirabi. “That experience was incredible, mind-blowing,” she says. “I did so much, learned so much … it was one of the best times in my life.”
However, even Broadway pales in comparison to Speed Racer. Forget the film’s reported $100-million-plus budget. Forget that she was appearing with stars Matthew Fox, Emile Hirsch, and Susan Sarandon. More intimidating was the fact that the film was written and directed by the near-mythical brothers, Andy and Larry Wachowski, who everyone with even a slight strain of nerd in them knows, are the masterminds behind the Matrix films.
“They were amazing,” says Wallace of the siblings. “You can imagine that it might be slightly intimidating to be flown to Berlin [where Speed Racer was filmed] to meet the Wachowskis, but they were very sweet, very generous. They’re creative geniuses, but so kind and caring. It was really telling in how the set was run — their energy and positivity and spirit were reflected in the environment.”
Despite Wallace’s trepidation regarding her move to Hollywood, perhaps it’s all meant to be. “The weirdest thing happened,” she says, recalling one of the more memorable events of her Speed Racer experience — and life. “When I went for my costume fitting for Speed Racer, I was getting measured by one of the assistants, and in came the head of the department [John Hale], who’s been there for decades. We were talking while he measured me and he says, at first, ‘You remind me of Lena Horne.’ Then he said, ‘No, you remind me of Dorothy Dandridge.’ And it turned out he’d measured her for [Dandridge’s hallmark 1954 film] Carmen Jones.’ I started to cry. I didn’t know what to do with myself for a few minutes after that.”