I have to believe that some folks are surprised to discover that the stunning actress Gabrielle Union is from Omaha, Neb. That’s because a large chunk of America either draws a blank when the city and state are mentioned or else conjure up images of corn fields and small towns devoid of black people. Well, it is true that most of Nebraska is crop and range land. This is a Great Plains agricultural state after all, and agriculture is what drives the state’s economy. It is also true that most of the communities dotting the state’s wide expanse are small towns that generally do have few residents of color, particularly African-Americans, although some have large Latino populations. But Nebraska also has two large cities in Lincoln and especially Omaha, and while the black population in Omaha has never been huge, its always been significant, in the tens of thousands, and African-Americans here own a long and rich heritage of cultural and intellectual achievement. She belongs to a large and prominent extended family whose annual reunion is more than a hundred years old and draws hundreds from all over the region and the nation. Gabrielle is proud of her roots and she usually makes it back for that reunion, particularly when it coincides with the biennial Native Omaha Days, a week-long black heritage celebration.
So, when you know the facts, you realize Gabrielle hails from an urban African-American environment here not so dissimilar from those in cities with major black populations, and through all her success she’s remained fiercely loyal to this place and the old haunts in the inner city. The following is the first of two cover stories I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com). This piece appeared just as she was breaking big on the national scene. Just as she’s done with other journalists, she spoke thoughtfully and candidly with me about a whole range of subjects, including her family, her growing up here, her surviving an assault, and her forging a career. Although she’s enjoyed a nice long run in film and television, I’m not sure she’s quite reached the heights that she or others saw ahead. But she’s still young, still fabulous, and still working hard to develop projects that provide positive images of African-Americans and that put her and other African-Americans in control of those images. To that end, she and director Nzingha Stewart have formed their own production company, Stew U. Good luck with it, Gabrielle, you are a face of poise, beauty, and strength for many females who see you as a role model. You also give America and the world a whole other idea of who lives in Omaha.
Look for my followup story about Gabrielle on this same site.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The next Halle Berry?
If, as some predict, Gabrielle Union, co-star of the new action sequel Bad Boys II, is poised to be the next ebony screen idol, then don’t expect the rising young actress with the suave sultriness of a classic Hollywood siren to do any cartwheels in anticipation of It happening. Not that the hard-bodied ex-athlete — she competed in track, soccer and basketball while growing up in Omaha and Pleasanton, Calif. — couldn’t do a flip if she wanted. It’s just that this sophisticated lady, who first made an impression playing smart, sassy babes in the teen comedies Bring It On and She’s All That and who more recently revealed a deeper dramatic range as a hard-boiled seductress in Welcome to Collinwoodand as a meddling man-hater tamed by Mr. Right in Deliver Us From Eva, remains firmly grounded. After all, she well recalls the vagaries of her unexpected cinema ascent, which soared despite no formal acting training. Unlike some stars to whom success comes early on, she’s savvy enough to seek advice and hungry enough to hone the craft that first chose her. Sweet.
“I have no problem humbling myself and asking a lot of stupid questions of veteran actors and of people who’ve been there-done that. I’m not into taking myself so seriously that I can’t go, I’m in a little over my head — can you help me out here? Yeah, I think a director would rather have you ask questions than waste takes. Luckily, people have taken me under their wing and helped me along the way. I’ve found really great mentors the last couple of years who’ve helped me sort of deal with my insecurity and say, Obviously you’re doing something right — you’re working, so whatever it is you’re doing don’t stop that, but also don’t stop asking questions,” she explained by phone from the Los Angeles area home she shares with husband Chris Howard, a former University of Michigan and NFL football player.
One reason Union doesn’t think she’s all that is because she views her film career as a kind of fluke. Not so long ago she still held out the possibility of falling back on her sociology degree if this movie thing didn’t work out (Her mother and two aunts have worked as social workers.). You see, the UCLA grad stumbled into acting only when her striking good looks and poised manners got her mistaken for a model at an agency where she interned. Before she knew it she found herself going up for and landing parts in ads and then television shows, debuting on Moesha, doing guest spots on ER and Steve Harvey and nabbing recurring roles on Sister Sister, 7th Heaven and City Of Angels. A year ago she was just another fetching supporting player in a string of moderately successful films, but was still best known as the first African-American love interest on the hit NBC series Friends. It was really the buzz behind her Friends guest shots, combined with her scene-stealing turn as a diva head cheerleader in 2000’s Bring It On and her portrayal of a tough yet tender sista in 2001’s The Brothers that added steam to the career she never intended.
2003 is shaping up as a breakout year for Union between her performances in the already released Abandon, Cradle 2 the Grave and Eva and her featured appearance opposite Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II. In the expected summer blockbuster she plays the vexing Syd, a woman raising the heat and danger for Miami police detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith), who falls for her, and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), her half-brother. She may really turn heads with her on-the-limb portrayal of a disturbed mother in the now-under-production Neo Ned, a gritty project by indie director Van Fischer (Blink of An Eye, Urban Jungle). Her persona as a beautiful, brainy, brassy black woman coincides with the growing crossover appeal of women-of-color artists — from Jennifer Lopez to Beyonce Knowles to Halle Berry — whose urban, hip-hop vibe is redefining the image of female sex symbols. Where, only a few years before, Union doubted if she even belonged, she’s paid her dues and now finds herself on the verge of A-list status. Not coincidentally, she’s since fallen in love with acting.
“I have, actually. Certainly after working on Welcome to Collinwood with Joe and Anthony Russo — who are very much actors’ directors — they really made it a different kind of experience. It wasn’t just about coming to work and knowing your lines. It was — How can we elevate this material? How can we make this better? How can we make this completely organic? We’d be doing exercises on set. We’d be doing tons of rehearsals. And through that process there was so much more discovery about the character and about the text that I really became enamored with what they did. It’s definitely experiences like that that make me really enjoy what I do now. It’s not so much a means to an end.”
Challenges are something Union, a fierce competitor at Scrabble or anything she competes in, welcomes. Her never-say-die-attitude, which surfaced when she fought back against a rapist that attacked her at 19, was instilled by her old-school ex-Army and ex-jock father, Sylvester, who pushed her, like a drill instructor, to excel in sports and academics from the time she was a child. She feels this boot-camp rearing gives her an edge in swimming with the sharks. “I’ve learned how to navigate tough waters, whereas a lot of actors are used to being coddled. I have a very thick skin. Screaming directors or difficult actors or whatever…it’s not a big deal. I mean, after you’ve dealt with my father, it’s all easy.”
The mettle that comes from a trial-by-fire background is why Theresa Union is “not surprised” by her daughter’s success. “She’s very disciplined. She’s self-reliant. She’s a natural-born competitor. She takes advantage of things that come her way. Her confidence and ability to pick up things fast give her an edge,” she said.
After playing largely decorative roles early in her career, Union, who can now afford to be choosy, is embracing more ambitious parts. “With certain kinds of things I was doing it wasn’t that hard to figure out and you sort fell into a lull,” she said of the stock best friend and girl friend characters she played. “But as the projects got a little bit more complex and a little bit more challenging it became a lot more fun for me because I had to push myself to see what I could do better than the day before. For me, it’s like when I played up an age group in basketball or in soccer, where the players were bigger, faster, stronger, better and you had to kind of raise your level of ability to meet that challenge. It’s the same with acting. As the projects get a little bit more in-depth and complex you have to raise your game to work with the William H. Macys and the George Clooneys. You can’t just sort of rest on, Well, I did a few sitcoms for UPN. So, I work with a coach (acting) now to make sure I’m sharp and ready to compete.”
Of the tests posed by her latest films, Union said: “For Eva, the challenge was how to make this really difficult woman likable. For Bad Boys, it was how to do action and not make it seem like you’re just a cardboard cutout in this high-concept movie. This movie I’m shooting now — Neo Ned — will probably be my most challenging to date. I play this woman who was molested as a child. She’s a bed-wetter. She’s trying to deal with the shame that comes with these experiences. She keeps checking herself into mental institutions. She’s not necessarily crazy, she’s just very overwhelmed. She develops this character, if you will, of this girl who feels like she’s got the soul of Hitler trapped inside her. She goes as far as to learn German and she ends up falling for this neo-Nazi, Ned. So, it’s incredibly challenging on a lot of different levels.”
Making the role even more demanding for the actress is that it requires her to be more emotionally raw on screen than ever before. “Usually, I’m cast as someone strong — with bolder-type qualities. But with this, she’s damaged and sort of on the path of trying to put herself back together. I kind of wanted to challenge myself in that sense in being able to convey the vulnerability and the trust issues that victims have and some of the things that go along with being violated.”
Union is careful not to take on roles too close to the real-life trauma she endured, saying she accepted Neo Ned because it deals with the aftermath of the attack rather than its depiction. “I’ve turned down other projects where the character was brutally raped on-screen,” she said. “It’s not a problem talking about it or expressing it or conveying the emotions of what it feels like to have all control taken away from you, but to have someone physically simulate raping me, that would be above and beyond what I’m emotionally able to do. So, I know my limitations.” Her fear of having to relive her horror during a City of Angels shoot whose storyline concerned a serial rapist first led Union to divulge her own story. “I had so much anxiety that my character would be next that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t go through that again. You see, I never talked about it. No one ever knew to not write my character to be raped. That, combined with the very cavalier attitude a lot of people on the set were taking about the storyline, made me come out to a magazine reporter I was doing an interview with in the midst of all this. I just felt it was my duty to come out and use my voice for something worthwhile. Reporters ask you a lot of stupid questions, like who’s cuter — Freddie Prinze. Jr. or Paul Walker? Well, who cares? How about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve overcome. I still finished college and I still got a pretty cool career for myself in spite of all this. Why don’t we talk about that and help people?”
She said it’s only after “years and years of therapy” that she’s able to be “normal again and somewhat sane.” Although once the victim of a brutal crime, Union is no victim for life. Her defiant attitude then and now stems from the way she was brought-up. “My parents always said, Don’t ever start a fight, but you damn well better finish it. You know, it was like — Don’t bring your ass home defeated. I certainly never solicited to have that (rape) happen to me, but when I saw an opening to sort of take back control of the situation I gave it my all. I put up a really valiant fight and have the scars to prove it.” As first related to Vibe Magazine, she wrestled the armed perpetrator to the ground, flailing at him with her fists, and managed to grab his gun and fire. “But in the end I wasn’t successful. He went on to rape another girl and ultimately turned himself in. A part of me was disappointed I didn’t kill him or didn’t at least wing him, so he could be apprehended sooner. I wanted to be the one that put an end to it.” She is proud, however, for having “the tenacity and courage…to make sure he was prosecuted and served his time and got a little dose of good old-fashioned prison justice,” she said. “All of that definitely goes back to how I was raised.”
Where her father has been the driving disciplinarian in her life, her mother, Theresa, a former dancer, has been the nurturing, artistic influence. Her mother’s family, the Bryant-Fishers, is one of the oldest and largest black families in Nebraska. So entrenched are they that as part of their annual weekend-long August reunion — 85 years and running — the family stages their own parade down 24th Street. Union recalls that after her family moved from Omaha, where her father was an AT&T manager and her mother a social worker, her mom would take her and her two sisters to such Bay Area cultural events as poetry slams, ethnic festivals and gay pride parades. Union, a tomboy at heart, was 8 when she left Omaha but her ties led her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose women’s soccer team she competed on and whose football team she still madly cheers. Homesickness soon led her back to the coast, where she attended Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo before entering UCLA. After getting her B.A. she considered law school before being “discovered” at the Fontaine Modeling Agency.
Despite lacking a prestigious acting school pedigree, Union said, “I feel confident about what I bring to the table.” In a sense, she’s been in training from the start by being a keen observer. “I’ve always been the kind of person, even as a young kid, who would just sit somewhere and watch people. I’ve always been fascinated by human nature and by what motivates people to do certain things…and that’s kind of a big chunk of acting. That, coupled with the fact I was a sociology major and wrote tons of term papers on inter-group conflict and on what makes people tick…which is a lot of what goes into theater studies.”
Then, she said, there’s the side of the profession no drama school can simulate. “Nothing prepares you for Hollywood. There’s no class on how to deal with a psycho director or a co-star on cocaine or on how to get along with people. Those are just sort of common sense things and a lot of that goes into who works and why. A lot of it is just like manners. Being on time. Working well with others. Literally being one of those people that others like to spend three or four months out of a year with. Part of that is definitely being professional, but part of it too is not taking yourself so seriously that you don’t have a good time. I mean, if I’m going to work in Miami I’m taking a very professional attitude, which means I’m going to be at work on time, I’m going to know my lines, I’m going to hit my marks and you’re not going to have to wait for me. But I’m also going to have a good time while I’m there. No one’s ever going to accuse me of being a fuddy-duddy.”
The vivacious Union is also no shrinking violet. Having grown up in the suburbs, she’s used to being “the black girl” in classes, on teams and, more recently, on sets, which means taking on “the responsibility of sort of educating people, correcting people and letting people know…little different nuances of race and class. It can be a little tiresome. It’s so much different on the set of a predominantly minority cast and crew, when you can free yourself up to just work and not have to worry about somebody saying something offensive or not understanding why I need a black hair stylist or why pink lipstick doesn’t look so great on a black person. It’s nice not to have those little struggles.”
Union is riding a wave that is seeing a more inclusive American cinema than, say, 10 years ago. But, as she can attest, Hollywood is still no where near to being as diverse as the society it purports to mirror. “There’s so much more that needs to be done for minorities, period, just to make films reflective of a multicultural America. Unfortunately, most of the writers employed come from privileged, homogeneous backgrounds not representative of the changing face of America, especially among younger people who, with the infusion of hip-hop, have a completely different mind-set,” she said. “For the younger generation, it’s not a big deal to have a black person kissing a white person or to have a Latino and an Asian as a couple. If those are the dollars Hollywood’s trying to get, then the projects need to be reflective of those attitudes, which are much more open.”
Casting, she said, is still replete with racism. While Berry broke down barriers playing a Bond girl, the buzz behind that “goes away and it’s back to fighting to play certain roles not written race specific. Why does the star’s secretary have to be blond? Why does Tom Cruise’s love interest have to be white? What’s the problem?” More insidious, she said, is the practice of casting light-skinned minorities in positive roles and dark-skinned minorities in negative roles. “When I was auditioning to play the pretty girl friend or the well-educated snob, the other girls in the room were either very fair or biracial and it was like, OK, clearly we have a mind set about what’s attractive, what’s well-to-do and what those faces look like. But a single mother crack-head who just lost her baby’s daddy to a gangland shooting, oh yeah, those girls are going to be dark. It’s just what people feel comfortable with I guess. It’s weird. But hopefully we’re slowly changing that.”
Along with her counterparts, Union hopes to open doors for more actors-of-color. “People in Hollywood always say, It’s not a black thing or a white thing, it’s a green thing, and in a sense that’s true. I’ve been lucky enough that some of my films have made money. Deliver Us From Eva made triple its budget, which you can’t say about many other movies, and that means something to Hollywood, which says, Here’s a movie about four sisters who all have jobs, who all have relationships and it made made money — Hmmm, let’s have more of this.”
Black or white, part of being a starlet in Hollywood is glamming it up, something Union, who can otherwise be found kicking it at home in sweats or shorts, enjoys doing for occasional magazine spreads and industry bashes, when she looks as cool and posh and fabulous as anyone. “It’s an escape from reality and a nice release to be a part of that whole Hollywood glamour machine,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not something I could keep up every day, certainly.”
She still gets back to Omaha, most recently for the January funeral of her great-grandmother, Ora Glass, who was 110. And she keeps tabs on other native Omaha film artists, such as actress Yolonda Ross (Antwone Fisher). An admirer of Alexander Payne, who’s a fan of hers, she said if he ever shoots in town again she’s “willing to be a P.A. or grip to help him around north Omaha,” adding with her typical sauciness, “I love his work, but you don’t see all of Omaha reflected.” Hint, hint.
- Gabrielle Union & Dwyane Wade: Hard Rock Hotties (justjared.buzznet.com)
- Gabrielle Union joins possible “Army Wives” spinoff (reuters.com)
- Gabrielle Union & Jamie Foxx Get Cozy In Vegas [PHOTOS] (hellobeautiful.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)