Blair Underwood: The Character. The Man!
Susie Stillwell | 1/31/2013, 11:50 a.m. | Updated on 1/31/2013, 11:50 a.m.
Blair Underwood was born in Tacoma, Washington on August 25, was raised as an Army brat all over the country and also in Europe. After studying drama at Carnegie Mellon University, he embarked on a distinguished career, which has included work in theater, on television and in feature films.
Though he made his big screen debut in 1985 in Krush Groove, the hunky heartthrob really found fame a couple of years later when he joined the ensemble cast of NBC's L.A. Law. A four-time winner of the NAACP's Image Award, he has also appeared on such TV shows as Sex and the City, A Different World, Knight Rider and The Cosby Show. His extensive list of movie credits include Malibu's Most Wanted, Full Frontal, Rules of Engagement, Deep Impact, Gattaca, and the upcoming Medea's Family Reunion, to name a few.
Furthermore, he has just published a book inspired by his son, Paris, entitled, Before I Got Here: The Wondrous Things We Hear When We Listen to the Souls of Our Children. In this revealing tete-a-tete, Blair shares his thoughts about an array of subjects, plus his latest flick, G, an update in blackface of The Great Gatsby, where he plays a bourgie brother whose wife falls for a gangsta’ rap mogul.
SS/JC: Blair, I really loved this film. What made you decide to do it?
Blair Underwood (BU): Oh, I'm glad. Well, first of all, thank you for checking it out. It was a couple of things. First, that it had something contemporary in the hip-hop culture and the music. Second, that it fused all that with the elite, society world of The Hamptons.
SS/JC: I found it to be such a clever adaptation of The Great Gatsby, because it preserved all the novel's themes. And it was very interesting to see those parallels in a black world.
BU: Exactly. It's interesting that you mention that, because those parallels are, basically, real-life, human relationships themes we all have had to deal with, if you've been married or in a relationship or fallen in love. We're all kind of searching for love and trying to find happiness in our own different ways. And that's really what these three main characters in the love triangle are trying to do.
SS/JC: It unfolds almost like a Shakespearean drama.
BU: Right, classic themes.
SS/JC: I also found this interesting because I've seen a lot of ghetto fabulous gangsta’ flicks, and then a separate genre of middle class-themed, black films like The Best Man and that one with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan.
BU: Brown Sugar?
SS/JC: Yeah, Brown Sugar. But this is the first film I remember which features a clash of ghetto and bourgeois blacks in such a realistic fashion.
BU: I'm glad to hear you say that. I love movies, and you probably have seen more movies than I have. Diary of a Mad Black Woman, for instance, had elements of that, but because of the Medea character, it put it into a different genre.
SS/JC: Right, it was more of a slapstick comedy, than an attempt to make any serious social statements.
BU: Oh, yeah.
SS/JC: How was it working with Tyler Perry?
BU: I had big fun, because I love to laugh, and to have a good time. And we did just that the whole summer long. And we had a great cast, Boris Kodjoe, Lynn Whitfield, Jenifer Lewis, and some new faces you haven't seen before in two of the female leads.
SS/JC: And Cicely Tyson.
BU: That's right, Cicely Tyson and Dr. Maya Angelou.
SS/JC: How was it making G?
BU: It was amazing because it started out as a play downtown in The Village, in New York City. Andrew [producer/co-star Andrew Lauren] had seen the play, and bought the rights to it. What was great about it was that, like the movie Rent that's coming out soon, the majority of the cast in the movie actually did the play. Ultimately, it serves the film better. For us, everybody had been in the play except for Richard T. Jones and myself. It makes a big difference when a production has been nurtured to a certain point. It was refreshing for us to arrive and find that there was already this camaraderie and timing and seasoning among the cast members who had been there since the very beginning.
SS/JC: Recently, you did a one-man play, IM4. That must have been challenging?
BU: Just the idea of doing a one-man show was very intimidating, to say the least. To be on stage for an hour and a half by yourself.
SS/JC: What made you do the play, then?
BU: I was really fascinated by the question of how would Dr. Martin Luther King think of and respond to the hip-hop culture of today.
SS/JC: So what was IM4 about?
BU: The overriding theme was, what are you for? What are you about? What is your life committed to, if anything at all? The basic premise of IM4 was that you had a rap mogul like a G, or a Diddy, or Jay-Z, or R. Kelly who gets shot and goes to what he thinks is Heaven, it's actually Purgatory, and meets the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King. The play is all about that juxtaposition and that dialogue between the two of them, although we incorporated about eight or nine different characters throughout the production.
SS/JC: And you played them all?
BU: Yeah, one-man only?
SS/JC: That must have been very demanding.
BU: It was, both physically and emotionally exhausting. But it was also a rewarding experience in many ways, and I'm glad I did it.
SS/JC: Have you observed the tensions between the hip-hop and older generations?
SS/JC: What do you think about it?
BU: I don't know that it's that different than the tensions which have always existed, traditionally, between the young and the idealistic and the older and the more conservative. Every generation has had that. The ones who have learned from their mistakes try to teach the young. It's funny. I just had a conversation the other day with my six year-old daughter about what a rebel is. I was teaching her that Jesus was a rebel, and that Martin Luther King was a rebel, and that a rebel is not necessarily a bad person. That sometimes laws are unjust or ’not right’ in her language. Sometimes the laws need to be fixed. Historically, it has almost always been the youth who are the rebels, who buck the system. Sometimes the system needs to be fixed. So, I find great inspiration in the youth, and now, in the hip-hop generation.
SS/JC: You like rap?
BU: Some things I advocate, some things I don't. I'm very close to it, because my very first film was a movie called Krush Groove.
SS/JC: Do you think that NBA players should be allowed to walk around looking like ghetto gangstas? Do you think the new dress code is a racist attack on hip-hop culture?
BU: I really don't know enough about it to comment on whether it's an attack on the culture.
SS/JC: When I was a kid growing up, to be cool, you had to wear Converse sneakers. If not Cons, the next best thing was Keds, then P.F. Flyers. But despite me and my siblings our clamoring for the popular brand of sneakers, and for leather jackets and cashmere sweaters I saw on my sports idols, my parents didn't cave into our misguided appetites for conspicuous consumption. So, I appreciate the NBA dress code, even though it might be unfair to the players. I saw that you also did a movie called Something New written by Kasi Lemmons? What is that all about?
BU: It basically revolves around Sanaa Lathan's character who is a successful, intelligent businesswoman who is single and looking for a man. After she falls in love with a white man, her brother, played by Donald Faizon, introduces her to the character I play. We go on a few dates and I throw a wrench into her whole program.
SS/JC: What was life like for you when you broke so big on L.A. Law as the country's new handsome hunk?
BU: It was phenomenal, because I was single, and I was loving life, and enjoying the dating scene. It affected and altered my life in every way possible, for the better. You know, I was only 21 when I came on the show. I was there for seven years and it was just a great roller coaster ride. By the time I got married at 30, I was very much ready for the next chapter of life, i.e., a family. Now, my wife [actress Desiree DaCosta] and I are very happily married with three kids, and I don't feel like I missed anything.
SS/JC: I like to ask celebs where they live,
BU: I live in Sherman Oaks.
SS/JC: Well Blair, thanks for the time, and again, I really all your work.
BU: I appreciate your seeing it, number one, and I'm so glad that you liked it. We must do this again, soon Susie.
SS/JC: Oh most definitely. We’ll keep in touch……
BU: Okay, thanks a lot.
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