Gabrielle Union: “People Want To See Themselves Reflected On TV”

                                            <b>The <i>Being Mary Jane</i> star talks about life as a jobbing actor, the theft of her nude photos, and her &ldquo;lesbian short film&rdquo;.</b>                                                         

Everett Collection/REX USA

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.

Universal Pictures

Touchstone Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures


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.

Akil Productions / BET

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.

Akil Productions/BET

Akil Productions/BET


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.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

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.

Kevin Winter / Getty/BuzzFeed

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.

Akil Productions/BET

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.

Union in Ava DuVernay’s short film The Door. Brigitte Lacombe For Miu Miu

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?”

Season 2 of Being Mary Jane starts at 10pm on 9 March on BET.

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Check Out the Weird TV Shows You Won’t Believe Actually Got Made.

Consider this: 

Greenlighting a TV show takes many steps and invovles many people. First, there are the people who come up with the premise and create the characters and the pilot script. Then there are the studio folk who agree to produce it, and the networks who agree to distribute it. That’s a lot of people. There are so many steps, it’s hard to believe that terrible ideas actually make it to your living room.

These 10 bizarre shows were all flops, but they’re still kind of amazing.

1. My Mother the Car (1965-66)


The title kind of says it all. Kind of. The premise was that the main character (Jerry Van Dyke)’s deceased mother was reincarnated (see what I did there?) as an automobile. And…that was pretty much it. Even with such a bizarre concept, it’s possible the show could have been successful if placed into the right hands. But it wasn’t, and the show was cancelled quickly. However, both Simpsons executive producer James L. Brooks and Mary Tyler Moore co-creator Allen Burns have this show on their resumes. 

2. The Second Hundred Years (1967-68)


There was actually a lot going on here. First, the main premise is that in 1900, a gold miner was trapped in an avalanche and preserved in a state of suspended animation for 67 years, after which he’s thawed out and resumes living in 1960s California as your standard time-traveling fish out of water. To make things more complicated, he moves in with his son, who is now 67 and physically older than his own father. To make things even more complicated, his 67-year-old son also has a son, who is the same physical age as his grandfather (33), and played by the same actor. Did you get all that? Neither did audiences, and the show was cancelled. 

3. Me and the Chimp (1972)

We couldn’t find a video for this show’s theme, but you can listen to its musical genius here.

Even star Ted Bessell (a regular on That Girl) hated this one, and it’s easy to see why. The premise here was that a NASA lab chimp is adopted by Bessell’s family and chimp-themed hilarity ensues. Jackie, the chimp, was apparently quite difficult to work with and CBS yanked it after one season. Maybe it was a decent lesson in what not to do, though, as producer Garry Marshall would go on to give us Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, and Bessell would win an Emmy for his work on The Tracey Ullman Show. The show itself lives on in infamy, and has been frequently invoked as the worst show of all time. 

4. AfterMASH (1983-85)


The premise of this show is summed up in its quite literal (and perhaps unintentionally ominous) title: It takes place after the events of MAS*H, which ran for 11 seasons and, in that time, won 14 Emmy awards. Understandably, but not wisely, CBS was just unwilling to let go of such a popular franchise, and so it came up with this. AfterMASH follows the exploits of three of the original show’s characters (Potter, Klinger and Mulcahy) at a veterans’ hospital in Missouri, after the Korean War. Which sounds kind of…depressing. The show was a Top 10 hit in its first season, probably because audiences were already familiar with the characters and the success of the original show. But there was only so much steam to the spin-off, and halfway through season two, NBC’s The A-Team drove it off the air. 

5. Mr. Smith (1983)


When a circus orangutan is separated from its trainer, it ends up drinking a top-secret substance that gives it an IQ of 256, which leads to it landing a position as an adviser to the president of the United States. We couldn’t make this up if we tried. The result is an ape in a suit voiced by executive producer Ed Weinberger, creator of Taxi and, later, The Cosby Show. This show was, one supposes, a lapse in judgment. 

6. The Charmings (1987-88)


This one could have been good. Its culture-clash theme was that Snow White and Prince Charming move from the land of fairy tales to 1980s Burbank. The show could have flourished, but it was bogged down by bad scripting. Not only that, but it aired opposite of Family Ties in its second season. Unable to compete with that show, The Charmings folded. 

7. Cop Rock (1990)


This was a musical crime drama. …that is pretty much all you need to know to understand why it failed. Police procedural Hill Street Blues creator Steven Boncho was behind this one. Randy Newman even provided the music…but it was doomed.

8. Homeboys in Outer Space (1996-97)


If the title doesn’t make you cringe, I don’t know what will. The premise was that two astronauts, played by Flex and Darryl Bell, traveled around in space in a car-shaped ship called the “Space Hoopty.” The car was controlled by a computer named Loquatia. The consensus was that while it might have worked as a sketch, it didn’t have enough substance to be a full-fledged sitcom. Despite that, it managed to hang on for 21 episodes. 

9. The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (1998)


It’s very possible to derive humor from tragedy, but it has to be done carefully and with a considerable amount of intelligence. This was not the case here, where American slavery was the topic. The show follows the titular character leaving his native England and coming to Civil War-era America. Desmond, who is black, winds up working as Abraham Lincoln’s butler. A comedy touching on the painful subjects of slavery and racism could have been great, but this show’s gags were clumsy at best and offensive at worst, and the show only lasted a few episodes. 

10. Cavemen (2007)


In a classic example of how certain things are best left in certain forms, someone attempted to turn the cavemen from the early 2000s Geico commercials into sitcom stars. While they could be passably amusing in 30-second format, the cavemen naturally weren’t cut out for 30-minute format. Audiences seemed to understand that from the get-go. The Writers Guild strike in November of the same year provided an opportunity for the show to be cancelled. 

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