Gabrielle Union talks about BET’s Being Mary Jane and being a black woman in Hollywood

December 11, 2013

Gabrielle Union stars in “Being Mary Jane,” which debuts Jan. 7, 2014 on BET. (Photo courtesy of BET Networks/Annette Brown)

Actress Gabrielle Union, the star of BET’s original series, “Being Mary Jane,” is sitting in a room painted black at the W Hotel in D.C. She is in a cream-colored sweater, and dangling earrings. She is a Hollywood star, and yet, she explains, she is a woman still working on her own issues and using her stardom to help other women.

Union folds her hands on the table and talks about her low point, the day when she was so down she literally crawled under her bed with her dog.

“My whole metamorphosis kick-started in ’05 — getting a divorce, my show getting canceled, and this bout with racism that blew up in the media,” said Union, who divorced NFL player Chris Howard. “I was just feeling beyond down. I used to have this bed this high off the ground, and my dog would go under there. When I felt like crap, I too would go under there.”

Union, 41, who has been modeling and acting since she was a college student at UCLA, explained: “In our business, it can feel very isolating and lonely.”

One of her best friends, Essence Atkins, called her. “She has a knack for always sensing — wherever I am in the world — she has flown out of country to come get me,” Union said. “She was like, ‘You are not okay, are you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m fine.’ She said, ‘what is that echo?’ And I was under the bed…I literally could not get any lower than being under the bed with my animal.”

Union thought she had failed miserably at life. “Divorce, especially in our town feels like the worse public failure, where everyone begins to dissect you, ‘What is wrong with you that you can’t keep a man?’” Union said. “Or they create this parallel universe where you are the victim of this awful jackass, which is like easy to go with.”

Her friend Atkins came to Union’s rescue with trainer and life coach A. J. Johnson, and they helped Union recognize what she had contributed to her own happiness.

Johnson, who works on a “person’s mind body and spirit,” began training Union. “As I was boxing, she said,  ‘What is on your happy list?’ I was emotional, and I was fatigued, and I had these heavy….boxing gloves on, and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘Keep boxing. Tell me what is on your happy list.’ And I was like, ‘Ground beef, real butter and imitation crab.’”

Johnson took off Union’s boxing gloves and asked: “‘Did you say imitation crab?’ She said, ‘The real thing doesn’t even make you happy?’ She said, ‘If you don’t know what makes you happy and bull….makes you happy — imitation crab — how can you expect anyone else to make you happy? Of course you are under the bed with the dog. You have no clue. You are 31-, 32-, 33-years-old, and you had the nerve to get married when you haven’t done the work on yourself. She said you need to be as close to whole as possible before you bring someone into a lifelong commitment. Then we proceeded to do the work.”

Cut to years later, when Union was receiving the 2013 “Fierce and Fearless Award” at the 2013 Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon.

During that speech, Union admitted to living a pretense. “We live in a town that rewards pretending. And I had been pretending to be fierce and fearless for a very long time,” she told the crowd. “I was a victim masquerading as a survivor….I stayed when I should have run. I was quiet when I should have spoken up. I turned a blind eye to injustice instead of having the courage to stand up for what is right….I use to shrink in the presence of other beautiful women. I used to revel in gossip and rumors. …I took joy in people’s pain and I tapped danced on their misery….I lived to hear, ‘Hey if we’ll go black, it will totally be you — as if the routine exclusion of women of color in the casting process is okay as long as I am considered.”

Union said it was easy to pretend to be fierce and fearless, but, she said, “real fearless and fierce women admit mistakes and work to correct them. We stand up and use our voices for things other than self promotion. Real fierce and fearless women, we don’t stand by and let racism, and sexism and homophobia run rampant on our watch. Real fierce and fearless women celebrate and compliment other women. And we… acknowledge their shine in no way diminishes our light and in fact makes our light shine brighter.”

By the time Union took that stage that day she had done a lot of work on recognizing her truth. She had traveled the world with Johnson and worked on herself and her emotions. “She empowered not only me but my sister circle to call each other out,” Union recalled during the interview. “So over the years we covered hating on other women, how we felt about ourselves, our bodies, how we felt about our hair, our color; what we brought to the table — our relationships with our fathers; our relationships with our mothers; our past history with men. It allowed us to be honest.”

Being honest is a trait that Union wants to bring to her “Being Mary Jane” character, Mary Jane Paul,  a successful cable news anchor who seems to have it all — “a beautiful house, a fancy car, designer shoes” and yet something is missing from her life. The one-hour scripted series, which was created by Mara Brock Akil and directed by Salim Akil, is based on the hit movie, “Being Mary Jane,” which premiered in July. The television series debuts Jan. 7, 2014 on BET.

“It is so unlike anything you have seen on television,” Union said during the interview in a chic parlor room at the W Hotel. On the table were mini-quiches and a pitcher of lemonade. Union is known for such roles as a “mean-girl” cheerleader in the movie, “Bring It On”; her role in “Bad Boys II”; the mean sister-in-law in “Deliver Us from Eva”; the CBS drama “City of Angels” and most recently in the movie, “Think Like a Man.”

In “Being Mary Jane,” she says many of the episodes touch close to home, dealing with issues that many people in the audience will relate to. Her character, she says, is vulnerable — not all good, not all bad.

“With ‘Being Mary Jane,’ everybody is human,” Union said. “Within an episode you may be crying with her, and sympathizing with her, then you may be cussing her out from your couch, then you may want to give her a hug, or high-five her. She’s going to be a little something for everybody. It’s brutally honest.”

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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