Gabrielle Union: “People Want To See Themselves Reflected On TV”
The Being Mary Jane star talks about life as a jobbing actor, the theft of her nude photos, and her “lesbian short film”.
It’s hard to believe it, but Gabrielle Union has been on our screens since the early ’90s: There she is in Family Matters (1993), for example, plus Moesha (1996), Sister, Sister (1997), and even, as a young Klingon warrior, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1997). In the late ’90s and ’00s, she made the leap on to the big screen by starring in teen classics She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Bring It On, and hasn’t stopped working since.
Now she’s back on the small screen, starring in BET’s Being Mary Jane. Of the feature-length pilot episode (created and written by TV veteran Mara Brock Akil), the San Francisco Chronicle said “the script is good enough to bring out the best in this cast”, and the Los Angeles Times called it “thematically ambitious”. The show is now on its second season, and last month was renewed for a third.
Union plays the title character, a TV news anchor in Atlanta trying her best to make the multiple strands of her life — work, family, and love — come together. Mary Jane is a complex woman: For every good decision, she makes at least two bad ones. The entirety of her Season 1 love life, usually caught between the push and pull of Andre (Omari Hardwick) and David (Stephen Bishop), was an object lesson in “How Not to Go About Your Love Life”.
But there is humour and humanity in her alongside the usual TV tropes of “career woman” and “Single Black Female” (which was the show’s original title). As the lead — and a black female lead is an occurrence that will hopefully be happening more and more in this post-Shonda Rhimes world — Union is in almost every scene, a formidable task that she seems to relish.
Ahead of Season 2 starting in the UK (at 10pm on March 9 on BET), BuzzFeed had a quick conversation with the star about fame, life as a jobbing actress, and the diversity hurdle Hollywood is still struggling to clear.
So what’s new in Being Mary Jane?
A lot of changes at work. Talk Back [the news programme Mary Jane presents] is taken in a new direction and she’s given a pretty big opportunity… Niecy [Mary Jane’s niece] moves in with her, and of course she’s on her second child with her second babydaddy with no job, no education, so there’s the fun of that. Niecy also has a new love interest — or a returning love interest, I guess…
Frenemies: We explore friendships that are not quite healthy — or equal.
And there are two new love interests, plus David. So she’s trying to figure out what’s happening with David, and get over his Season 1 finale bombshell and try to process that.
You’ve been working for such a long time. Do you still see yourself as a jobbing actress? What’s it like being famous?
I think as a black actress — because our road isn’t as easy as it appears — like, the jobs just aren’t sort of lined up like how you with see some of our white counterparts, who have, like…80 jobs. (laughs) Like, “I’ve finished this and then I go here, then there’s this, and…” their schedule is filled? It’s not exactly like that for us. So each job feels like a) a revelation, and b) you’re so freaking grateful, and then the worry starts: “OK, when, if this job ends, where does that leave me?”
But fame is something different. So being famous doesn’t necessarily translate to work. Those are two different things. Being famous is a weird thing, just… Today, we got in the car and the driver, I mean I have an alias, it’s kind of funny, and it in no way sounds like me. So he is looking for this weird name and I get in the car and he’s in the driver’s seat and I’m in the backseat. And he’s like (mimes awestruck, open-mouthed silence) but for a full minute. For a long time.
What was your face doing while he was staring?
I was just like, “Hey, how are you?” you know, whatever, and he’s like, “I know you!” but then he pulled it together.
Those are the moments where I feel like, “Oh, OK, shit. Yeah. I guess.”
And it’s funny, because oftentimes, the studios in the States, they’ll be like, “Oh, you don’t need to do any foreign press because your movies don’t do well over there.” And so for the longest, when I would come to the UK, or throughout Europe or Africa, or Asia, I’m assuming because “our movies don’t do well”, no one will know who I am. But from the first time I came to London, it was, “Gabrielle Union!” (points) I was like, “Wait — you haven’t seen my movies, though!” And they were like, “What?”
And somebody took me to Piccadilly Circus, where they sell all the bootleg movies, and all of our movies were doing brisk business! We didn’t know that. We didn’t know that by hook or by crook, our movies are being seen, and we’re known. Every time you’re kinda like, “Nobody’s going to know who I am,” and then they do.
How do you think Hollywood’s relationship with black actors has changed over the course of your career?
It goes in waves. It’s almost like the colours of fashion week, and someone will be like, “orange is the new black!” or “green is the new black!” So, some years we’re in and some years we’re not. Right now we’re in. But it’s because of the success of the Shonda block.
You know, not everyone includes Grey’s Anatomy, but it has an incredibly diverse cast. With the success of Grey’s, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder — and in the States, they come on in that order — she has a whole block of television that has done extremely well. And people want to replicate that success. So there has been more work.
Somebody asked, “Do you feel like it’s your time?” and I’m like, “I think it’s always been our time, we just didn’t all have the same watch.”
But I think finally TV and film are catching up with the diversity that is the global community and the fact that people want to see themselves reflected on TV. As many gains as African-American actresses have made on TV this season — and the last couple of seasons — where are our Latina actresses, where are our Asian, our Middle Eastern, our Native American actresses? And where is the diversity within those groups? We still have a ways to go. I don’t want to get too comfortable and pat myself on the back. There’s more to do.
What’s been your most challenging role? Is it Mary Jane? Is she the one you take home every night?
I think, with Being Mary Jane, the way we shoot it makes it an incredible career challenge. We shoot almost 10 pages a day, which is unheard of. The average is four, four and a half. You usually shoot one episode in nine days.
We shoot two episodes at a time, in about two weeks. It’s a lot of pages. And Mary Jane is in most of the scenes. So just the sheer volume of work a day makes it incredibly challenging. I don’t have a choice but to take it home with me because I have to prepare for the next day. So it’s… The physical toll of what we are actually doing is very challenging.
But probably, Cadillac Records was often the most challenging. Very rarely do I get those kinds of roles, and that was really a challenge. We shot that movie in a very short amount of time but I loved it.
You were recently a victim of the theft and leaking of nude photographs of female celebrities. You called it “a violation and a crime”. What do you think can be done?
Y’know, I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer. I’m not that tech-savvy to understand what can actually be done. As they were explaining it to me, for every new roadblock they put up for hackers, they’re working just as hard to get around it and to create other ways in. So, for sure, it is a sex crime; there’s no other way to look at it. Um, it was a theft. It was, you know, probably a few things, and it’s happening globally.
And that’s just pictures of you know, a naked body. All of your information — your credit, everything you could possibly want to keep near and dear and secure — is vulnerable. You look at what happened with Sony. I probably don’t have as many firewalls to protect my stuff as they do to protect those movies, and people easily got around that. All of your data. Your financial history… I’m glad it was just my boobs, you know what I mean? Like, your financial history is your footprint, is your fingerprint. You destroy that, you take that away from somebody, you’ve literally taken away their life. I mean, that’s how serious it is. So much of how we live and how we are able to live, our opportunities, are all somewhere online. Somewhere. So, they just did something yesterday, trying to regulate the speeds and all of that…
So I’d like to think that if you can regulate internet speeds, you can criminalise this sort of behaviour and be a little bit more — or a lot more — active in prosecuting and finding these hackers that are doing so much damage. And it’s not just about nude pictures, that’s just one aspect. Protect us. You know? Protect us. As consumers.
You want our money? Protect us.
I wanted to talk about Ava DuVernay and the short film she directed you in, The Door, which I loved…
(interrupting) Thank you! OK, so I have a question for you, which has become my new “what colour is The Dress?” Did you see that? What do you think?
It’s black and blue…
OK, thank you! It’s just the three of us! Did you think my character in The Door was a lesbian?
No, I did not. I didn’t assume any sexuality.
It’s about 50:50. It’s clearly… Because you never see “the guy”. You don’t really see who she’s with. But people are like, “It was such a strong, feminist, lesbian…” I was like, a what? (laughs).You don’t really see who she’s with! But there’s no men in the film! Which, I guess people assume, because if there’s no men involved, it must be a lesbian film. So now, I’m like, “Did you see my lesbian short?”