Archive for the ‘Nebraskans in Film’ Category

Stephanie Kurtzuba: From Bowling Alley, to Broadway and Back

August 27, 2016 Leave a comment

So, everything you need to know about stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba from Omaha is summed up in the Bill Sitzmann photo of her below and in her scenes in the movies “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Annie.” She’s the rare performer who can project many dimensions and emotions at once or in rapid succession: brash, silly, poignant, smart. This multi-talented artist can act, sing, dance, play comedic or serious and have you smiling and laughing one moment and move you to tears the next moment. You may not know her name or her work, but she is one of the brighest talents in a long line of talented individuals from here to have found serious success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She got her acting and dancing start in Omaha at Central High, Show Wagon and the Rose Theatre. Growing up in Omaha she was encouraged to pursue her performing dreams by her mother, who didn’t live to see her realize her dreams. But Stephanie’s supportive father has. She and her dad and her siblings still own the family’s West Lanes Bowling Center that she spent a lot of time in as a girl. On a recent visit back home she agreed to a photo shoot at the bowling alley and you can see the fun movie-movie magic she and Bill Sitzmann made together. Stephanie’s also involved in an Omaha-based production company that’s developing a TV pilot drawn from her own life that is to be shot right here in her hometown. She is one of very few Nebraskans in film to bring the industry back to these Midwest roots. Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler and John Beasley have led that charge and others are looking to do the same. Whatever Stephanie ends up doing, it should be entertaining. This is my profile of her in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (




Stephanie Kurtzuba

From Bowling Alley, to Broadway, and Back

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit




November 9, 2015 2 comments

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Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book in the Great Plains Quarterly

Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book in the Great Plains Quarterly

I only just now became aware of this fine review of my Alexander Payne book that appeared in a 2014 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly journal. The review is by the noted novelist and short story writer Brent Spencer, who teaches at Creighton University. Thanks, Brent, for your attentive and articulate consideration of my work. Read the review below.

NOTE: I am still hopeful a new edition of my Payne book will come out in the next year or two. it would feature the additon of my extensive writing about Payne’s Nebraska. I have a major university press mulling it over now.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998–2012 by Leo Adam Biga
Review by Brent Spencer
From: Great Plains Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2014

In Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective 1998–2012, Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The Omaha reporter began covering Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career, and in fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska, Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early (student) film of Payne’s The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

Biga’s book contains a collection of the journalist’s writings. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers made it to that point. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. Biga presents the artist from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Tinseltown as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it is that it occasionally leads to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means that an essay will sometimes cover the same material as a previous one. Some selections were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counterbalanced by the feeling you get that the artist’s career is taking shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open.

Leo Adam Biga's photo.

Nebraska’s Film Heritage presented by Leo Adam Biga: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m., Durham Museum

February 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Join me for-

Nebraska’s Film Heritage Lecture

presented by Leo Adam Biga

Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m.

Durham Museum

PLEASE NOTE: Reservations are required. Email or call 402-444-5071.


Here is how the Durham is promoting my talk:




*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall, Durham Museum

Omaha author Leo Adam Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema. Several native sons and daughters have made significant contributions and established major careers in the industry, both on screen and behind the camera. To this day, Nebraskans continue to make their mark in virtually every aspect of the industry and have received many honors, including Oscar recognition. Many hometown products are regarded as leaders, innovators and trailblazers, including the Johnson Brothers and their Lincoln Film Company, Harold Lloyd, Fred Astaire, Darryl F. Zanuck, Marlon Brando and Joan Micklin Silver.

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based nonfiction author, award-winning journalist and blogger. His 2012 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is a collection of his extensive journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Additionally, Biga is the coeditor of Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores and the author of two e-books for the Omaha Public Schools. As a working journalist he contributes articles to several newspapers and magazines. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels.

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email to reserve your spot.. Cost of admission applies and members are FREE.

Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
*March 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email to reserve your spot. Cost of admission applies and members are free.

Hollywood Bootcamp
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members

Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
Now – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.

All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit

Leo Adam Biga to deliver Nebraska Film Heritage lecture at Durham for Katharine Hepburn exhibit

January 22, 2015 1 comment

Leo Adam Biga to deliver Nebraska Film Heritage lecture at Durham for Katharine Hepburn exhibit
Join me at the Durham Museum at 6:30 pm on Tues. Feb. 17 for a lecture I am giving on Nebraska’s Film Heritage in conjunction with the Katharine Hepburn exhibit there. Kate had no particular ties to Nebraska, but she was an icon in an industry that included many fellow icons from this state. She famously worked with two of them, Henry and Jane Fonda, in On Golden Pond. She worked with another, Montgomery Clift, in Suddenly Last Summer. Her longtime lover, Spencer Tracy, won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in a movie partially shot here, Boys Town, about one of the most famous Nebraskans ever, Father Edward Flanagan, and his legendary home for boys. One of Hepburn and Tracy’s lesser films together, Sea of Grass, was set here.

My talk will touch on some of the figures from here, past and present, to have carved out successful cinema careers behind the camera and in front of the camera. These include household names and more obscure but no less important names. Far more Nebraskans than you think have made significant contributions to the industry or established themselves as solid working film artists. I will also discuss some of the significant films made here and premiered here. Additionally, I will highlight some of the legendary film artists who have passed through Nebraska. Finally, I will give props to some of the individuals and organizations that have enhanced the cinema culture here.

The lecture is part of my Nebraska Film Heritage Project that will ultimately result in a book.
Read more about the exhibit and the special programs scheduled around it, including my lecture, below.
I hope to see you at my presentation,
Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
February 7 – April 26, 2015
The Durham Museum is pleased to present Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, an exclusive exhibition of Hepburn’s personal costume collection organized by the Kent State University Museum. The exhibit features more than 35 costumes worn in 21 films and 6 stage productions spanning Hepburn’s illustrious career. Among the items on display will be an ensemble of her signature tailored beige trousers and linen jackets, vintage posters, playbills, photos and other Hepburn-related artifacts, as well as stage costumes from The Philadelphia Story and Coco and screen costumes from Adam’s Rib and Stage Door. From classic Hollywood dresses to Kate’s personal “rebel chic,” the exhibition highlights how Hepburn’s sense of style influenced countless women and fashion designers. It helped to create the informal, elegant approach to American style seen on today’s runways. Come see how this true icon of American culture came to epitomize the modern woman of the 20th Century.
Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is supported locally by Mutual of Omaha, Douglas County Commissioners, On Track Guild, Rhonda and Howard Hawks and the Dixon Family Foundation. Media support provided by KETV.
Pictured Left to Right:
Dress by Walter Plunkett, from the 1934 RKO movie The Little Minister
White satin and lace wedding dress by Howard Greer, from the 1934 production of The Lake
Design by Chanel, from the 1976 production of Coco
*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
Presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall
Omaha author Leo Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema.*Katharine Hepburn: Master of her own Image
Presented by Amy Henderson of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Thursday, April 9, 6:30PMSCHEDULED TOURS
Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.*Backstage with Kate
February 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Jean Druesedow, Director, the Kent State University MuseumMarch 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof TheaterApril 4, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Dr. Barbara Trout – Professor – Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, College of Education and Human Sciences University of Nebraska-Lincoln

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please email or call 402-444-5071. Cost of admission applies and members are free.

An Evening with Kate
February 6, 2015
6:30PM Lecture, Reception and exclusive preview of the exhibit to follow
Join the Durham Museum’s On Track Guild and Honorary Chairs Gail and Mike Yanney for “An Evening with Kate.” Jean Druesedow, Exhibition Curator and Director of the Kent State University Museum will discuss the exhibit, collection and Kate’s life.

Tickets: $75

For more information or to make a reservation, contact the museum at 402-444-5071.

Hollywood Bootcamp
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members

Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
February 14 – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit

Visit The Durham Museum Hitchcock Museum Shop, Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain and the Photo Archive for 10% off Katharine Hepburn related gifts, treats and photos as part of your membership!

Matinee Marriage: Omaha couple Mauro and Christine Fiore forge a union based on film and family

December 13, 2014 1 comment

Here is a short profile piece for Omaha Magazine about an Omaha couple whose lives revolve around film and family, Mauro and Christine Fiore. He’s an Oscar-winning cinematographer who works on A-list projects. She’s a costume designer and the producer of an in-development indie feature based on the best-selling novel The Persian Pickle Club. They met on the set of a film they both worked on. They have three children together. Whenever the film Christine is producing ends up shooting, Mauro will light it. That’s keeping it in the family. Mauro is a native of Italy who moved to the States with his family when he was young. Christine is a native Omahan. The couple have made their home in Omaha for the last several years even as Mauro’s career blew up. She and the kids often travel to his far-flung sets. They also travel as a family to his small hometown in Italy, where he has many relatives and where they regard him as a kind of hero and superstar. It may surprise some folks to know that Mauro is one of three Oscar winners living in Omaha. He won his for Avatar. Then there’s recently retired editor Mike Hill, an Omaha native who won his for Apollo 13. And then there’s Omaha native Alexander Payne, who won his writing Oscars for Sideaways and  The Descendants.




Matinee Marriage

Omaha Couple Mauro and Christine Fiore Forge a Union Based on Film and Family

March 16, 2015
©Illustration by William Holland

The metro’s small but robust cinema community includes Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival (see related story on page 42) along with several working industry professionals, among them Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar). He’s among three Academy Award recipients residing here. The others are editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13), and filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).

Fiore’s most recent director of photography feature work came on The Equalizer in Boston. The projected 2015 release reunited him with Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington from Training Day.

But Fiore, originally from Italy, isn’t the only film pro in his own household. His wife Christine Vollmer Fiore, a native Nebraskan, is a costume designer now developing a feature adaptation of The Persian Pickle Club. Mauro’s slated to light it.

The couple actually met in 1997 on an independent picture largely shot in Nebraska, Love from Ground Zero. At the time each lived in L.A., traveling wherever projects called them. Christine finds it “ironic” the film that brought their itinerant lives together happened in her home state. They settled here after marrying. He regularly goes off to do commercials and features.

They are the parents of three children—Olivia, Tessa and Luca. The Fiores view the state as a healthy grounding from the hustle, bustle and hype of L.A., where they also have a home.

“We knew we didn’t want to raise kids in L.A.,” Christine says. “It’s kind of nice to be here and have blinders on and not be affected by what’s out there.”

It’s a stable sanctuary they can count on.

“It’s nice to have a firm place and not really worry about Christine when I’m gone because her family’s here,’ Mauro says. “I feel really safe there’s somebody here to support her. I’ve come to really appreciate it because when I’m here it’s all about the family and helping Christine any way I can.”

During his absences Christine runs a tight ship. “I’m very schedule and routine-oriented,” she says. She purposely doesn’t make a big deal of his departures.

“It’s kind of no-nonsense, no-tear because it’d be too tough emotionally. It’s like, ‘Dad’s leaving but he’s going to come back and now I need help around the house from all of you.’ Then when Mauro comes back home we still have the same routine. Dinner’s at 5:30. I think it makes it easy for Mauro to kind of slide back in.”

That normal, laidback lifestyle is what appeals to the Fiores.

“Omaha is manageable,” Christine says. “It’s easy to go to the airport and to the zoo…”

“It’s easy, it’s familiar,” Mauro adds. “We’ve found several friends around the community of schools the kids attend.”

They enjoy, too, how much more house they can afford here. They lived in Hawaiian Village before moving into their present home over a year ago. The ranch-style in Elkhorn sits on a six-acre lot with a view.

“We really love the property,” Mauro says. “It has a piece of land that stretches out to the river. You don’t really find that too much anymore.”

They appreciate the open floor plan, banks of tall windows and homey features.

He says, “It’s just the uniqueness of the place and the fact we can really grow into this and make it our home.”

“It’s not like a builder’s model home,” Christine says. “It’s different, it has personality.”

They’re now updating the downstairs to accommodate a craft room for the sewing Christine and the kids do.

In her spare time she wears her producer hat trying to get Persian Pickle Club financed. Setting up a film is a new experience for them.

“It’s been a great learning process to see the inner workings because I never really knew what it took. I’m never on that side of it,” he says.

He admires how “Christine’s done it all from here—figuring out ways to push it along.”

They’re admittedly anxious to start production because making films is what they know best.

Mauro eagerly shares his expertise. He photographed an Omaha Film Festival promo. He’s served as a panelist-presenter at OFF and Film Streams. The couple supports the opera, the symphony, KANEKO and other local arts-cultural offerings they find on par with anywhere.

The family often visits his far-flung movie locations. His Hollywood colleagues are surprised he lives far afield from film industry centers.

“They find it very odd,” he says. “But with Alexander Payne, Nebraska also sort of has a mystique. They appreciate it’s a different way of living, more old fashioned or traditional.”




Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

December 10, 2014 1 comment

Native Nebraskans own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader ( It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.



Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (


My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.

Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.

Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.

A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.

“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”

Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.





She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.

“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.

Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.

“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.

“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”





Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.

“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.

Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.

“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”

She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”

She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.

“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”

Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.

Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one  the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.

“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”

Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.

University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”

Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.

“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.

Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.

“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.

“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”

She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera  She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”

Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.

Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.

“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”


The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.

“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”

Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.

It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.

Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.





After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,

“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”

Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.

Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.

After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.

“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”

Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.

“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”

Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.

Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”

In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.

The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.




Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.

“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.

The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”

She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.

“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.

“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”

Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.

“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”





Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.

“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”

About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”

Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.

“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”

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