The Golden Blaze: An Interview with Blair Underwood
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By Wilson Morales
Blair Underwood is one of the few actors who folks love to see, whether it be on the big or small screen. From his first film, Krush Groove, to his recent stint on HBO's Sex in the City, he has received good roles that are memorable. Some projects haven't always been successful like the cancellation of many TV series, including more recently LAX, but that hasn't stopped him from trying again or going after different projects. He just finished a Broadway production of "Purlie" and is currently shooting "42.4 Percent" with Sanaa Lathan. In the meantime, in theaters right now, Underwood is playing the superhero dad in the animated film, GOLDEN BLAZE and he spoke to blackfilm.com about why he chose this project and what else he has on the horizon.
How did this animated film come to you?
Blair Underwood: Let me see, that was three years ago. It was one of those things that just came as a request to see if I would be interested in doing it and it seemed like fun. I haven't done a lot of things in my career that my kids can watch, because they are 8, 6 and 3, and they are pretty young; so given the concepts that the film was about a superhero, it was a black superhero, and it was a father and son type partnership. I thought my sons would love this especially, and that's how it came to be; something fun to do and I really enjoyed doing voiceovers. I haven't done a great deal of it but this was a chance to do more and bring it to that part of the business and even more so, but the fact that it was a black superhero was really the catalyst to me.
Were you offered the lead role first and then everybody else came on?
BU: I don't even know, I think Sanaa (Lathan) was signed on, which is ironic now we're working together for the first time on camera but I think Sanaa had signed on first.
So how strange is it to work on a film where you actually don't have to work with the cast but just do the voice over?
BU: You know, it's just shifting gears. It's just different discipline, just doing the voice over. I guess I've done about 5 or 6 audio books in the past and I do the animated voice for a show called Fatherhood on Nickelodeon. So it's just shifting gears, this is what it is, the voice over, a hat you put on right now as opposed to worrying about going through wardrobe, and having to look a certain way. You just got to let your voice do the talking for you.
Growing up, who was your favorite superhero?
BU: Superhero? My favorite superhero was this old Japanese black and white live action show that very few people remember, but lots of people remember Ultra Man. It was Ultra Man. It was the one that came on before that. It was John Sokko and his giant robot. I wanted to be Johnny Sokko and I wanted my own giant robot because Johnny Sokko would open up his watch and he would talk to the robot in a nearby building across town and the rooftop would open up and the giant robot, which was like 40 feet high would fly out and save the world.
What do you think about the superhero films that are out now? There are making more every year.
BU: Yeah, I think it's cool. It's something that was very interesting to me to be a part of and all of them again because of the relationship. Some of the superhero movies are better than others. I won't go into detail but this animated one, the story line is very cool and the kids seem to love it. My son had his eighth birthday recently and we had a chance to borrow the film and show it to all of his friends that was at his birthday party and they loved it. I was a little nervous. I said they might not even like it, and say his daddy's movie is wack, but they loved it. It was great and it really made the party.
Although the characters are African-American but the theme is universal, what do you think is the message behind the film?
BU: The message behind the film would be to love your family, and love your father because the end of the story the little boy who loves his father but he's embarrassed by him because he's a nerd and he's a geek and not cool like some of the other fathers and he becomes the Golden Blaze and then he becomes cool but, more than anything, it's about strengthening the relationship and the bond of parent to child.
Now you just recently came back from New York after performing in Purlie. How did that turn out?
BU: It was incredible. First of all, it's one of the most intense experiences I ever had because it's 10 days of rehearsal, and five performances. We met on a Monday morning which I think was March 21st and by that Friday afternoon we were running through the entire piece. Now it's a fully realized production but for the fact that we're holding our scripts in our hand and some of us used them, and some of us didn't and you have to by union rules hold the script. You don't have to use them but you gotta hold them. But it was intense, I mean the caliber of talent on that stage was - Anika Noni Rose who won the Tony last year for Carolina Change, Lillas White who won the Tony Award, John Collins, and a lot of Tony Award winners and just the cream of the crop in terms of New York theater stage talent and we had five performances. Two packed houses. I guess the theater sat 2,700 people every night so it was an amazing experience.
Are there any talks of it coming back to Broadway?
BU: Yeah, the hope is they would like to bring it to Broadway next year, so we'll see that's to come in the end of the finance year and everybody else and also real estate and what theaters are available at the time but I would like to come back with
Looking back, this is the 20th year since you made your film debut in Krush Groove. When you think of all of these rap movies that have been out over the years, can you talk about coming from Krush Groove to where you are now?
BU: Well, it's just a great feeling. Krush Groove was a movie at the time. That was my first break. I just got to New York. I was right out of college and I was happy to have a job. You never know how things will last, if they will last, and how people will use them in the future. It was a fun movie for young people at the time in the 80s; but it struck a cord with people and it has lasted so I'm very proud of being a part of that. To be still standing 20 years in this business is a great feeling, I can't even tell you. I think one of the most difficult challenges in show business is the challenge of longevity and to constantly, not necessarily reinvent yourself but realize and reveal what's already been there - like doing stage and singing and dancing in New York. I haven't been that far out of my comfort zone in a while. Now, my earliest training was in music theater. My major in college was music theater, singing and dancing and acting. And that's only because when I doing dinner theater in high school, I was talking to a woman who had been in the business for a while and I said I want to act, that's all I want to do with my life, I want to be an actor and she said if you're serious then you need to hone every discipline you can, you need to learn how to sing, you need to learn how to dance, you need to learn how to act. I said if that what it takes to be as diversified and versatile as possible so that you have more opportunities for more employment then I'll do it. So then as I went to school and I trained in that so it was nice to come back and now to answer your question 20 years later it's very interesting to people's surprise - I didn't know you did those things.
When you think about Krush Groove and in terms of test of time and the rap movies that are now?
BU: Compared to the movies of today it's kind of hard to say but there was such an innocence to Krush Groove because it was near the birth of rap. Rap had been around in the current popular culture form only seven years at the time. I remember talking to Russell Simmons at the time and he said seven years ago they said this wouldn't last and here we are and we're still kicking and here it is now 27 or 30 years later and it's still, not only is it still kicking, it's just the culture of America, popular culture and beyond. So it's a source of fun and a source of pride to have been a part of this little movie that could. It didn't cost a lot of money. I think it was $3 million at the time, I don't think Warner Bros. that distributed the movie knew that it would at all last and they would make some money, it did at the time.
Are you upset about the cancellation of your TV show, LAX?
BU: I'm not upset. I'm disappointed because any time you take on any endeavor you want it to be successful, but not upset because - I'll tell you what 20 years teaches you - is that if one thing doesn't last something else will come down the pipe and to go from that and to do these films now - I'm going to Tyler Perry's next movie, Madea's Family Reunion in July and a couple of other things on the back burner. It opened up time for me to do other projects so that's why I'm not upset. I'm disappointed because you put your time and energy into a certain character or a project and the product and you just never know. It's really a luck of the draw or fate or destiny, whatever you want to call it, but you don't know if you're going to resonate with people or not. All you can do is do the best you can and I did that. I had a great time. I made a product and I was not embarrassed by it at all so you do it and you move on.
Now, let's talk about the film you're shooting now, 42.4 percent. What's your role in the film?
BU: My character is Mark who starts to date Sanaa Lathan's character and Kenya is a successful beautiful and fine woman of the 2005 era but she puts the mandate out in the early stages of the film that she doesn't want to cross the color line, she doesn't want to date across the racial line. She'd rather find a black man if she can and her brother, played by Donald Faison, says you know, I got one for you. So he introduces me to his sister who is Kenya and we date for a while. That's all I say for now.
Isn't it interesting that the tables are turned whereas some of the roles you have had and I can't think of any other African-American actor who's has been romantically involved on-screen with several white women than you. There was "Full Frontal" with Julia Roberts, "LAX" with Heather Locklear, and obviously, "Sex in the City" with Cynthia Nixon.
How is it that they come to you for these roles?
BU: They're coming to me for these roles because I'm an actor. You have to understand that I also worked on Set It Off with Jada Pinkett Smith and other actresses that I've worked with in the past, Sheila E in Krush Groove, Sally Richardson in Poverty. Alfre Woodard in a few different projects. So people are smart enough to know that "he's an actor."
Are you looked upon differently? Do you ever get any fan male in regards to your role in Sex in the City?
BU: Yeah, but it's all been great. You don't know what to expect. But it was received much better than I thought it would because I didn't know I was going to do it anyway. It made sense; but Sex in the City was a different kind of phenomenon because of the show itself is a phenomenon and to me that's successful that long because to resonate with women across the board for six years and have only one African-American actor pass through for one episode. Not unlike the show Friends, it just didn't make sense why we're not represented. So I think when my character Robert came on the show there was more a sense of - from what I heard and what I felt, thank God we're finally being represented and then it's about how did he play the character, how is an African going to represent that character and is he going to do it right. So no, I tell you what I found is because you're right; I have had a chance to work with great actresses black and white. In terms of the black female audience, usually if you're true to that character but more so in your body of work if you've proven that you love your sisters and you proven you will come back home like in 42.4% they'll give you a pass when you jump ship. I hear it all the time. I heard we'll get you a pass because we know you're married to a black woman. You're married to a sister so we'll give you that pass but also just in the work itself on screen, they know as an actor and those who know me but also if they look at the body of work, it is the bigger picture. And also my pet project which is My Soul to Keep.
Are you doing the film adaptation to "My Soul to Keep"?
BU: Yes, it is set up at Fox Searchlight. This is the ultimate love story with a black man and a black woman. I call it the ultimate love story. It's about an immortal that lives forever.
So when is that going to go into production?
BU: Well, the studio says, and we hope, this year, by the end of this year, the Fall. We're shooting for this Fall and that's been a six year development right there.
Do you have a cast in already?
BU: No. They're budgeting the script right now. Once everything is budgeted they'll do their dance in the studio, and they'll put it out. Well besides myself, but as far as the female lead, they have their list of who they want and once the budget is set, they'll go out to her and them.
So what sort of roles do you look for? The good thing about your background is that you're doing theater, you're on a T.V. show, you're on the big screen, so it's not like you're missed as opposed to some actors you want to see all the time.
BU: Well, thank you, Wilson and that - just what you said which goes to the longevity question, that is the thing I'm most grateful for in this industry to be able to spin in those different mediums, with television, film and the stage - at this stage of the game. But for me it's got to be right. I don't want to do anything that I'm going to be embarrass by or my kids would be embarrassed by it for that reason, so that's that matter. Some things may be more adult, more sexually explicit like Sex in the City than others and they'll watch those when they get older; but in terms of their being embarrassed by the message or the type of people or characters I'm portraying, that's what it comes down to for me, I'd rather say no and have said no and do say no often. I walk away from projects if it doesn't feel right; if it's not the right team of people pulling in together or if the script isn't right. It could be a great idea but the script doesn't work. It could be a great script but the director is not the right person for me to work for at this time. So there are a lot of elements that come into play and a lot of variables, but more than anything it's got to be a great script and a great character. And then the other things would fall in line like the right team put together. Sanaa (Hamri), who's directing 42.4%, did a music video for a Mary J. Blige and I played an abusive husband and I was so impressed with her, who as directed many music videos for the top names in the music industry but I was so impressed with her ability to really find the character in this two minute video. It's a music video but she was real specific on the character that Mary J. Blige was playing, and that I was playing in this video and I told her whenever you get to jump to the big screen I'd love to come with you and she honored that.
Is there anything else down in the pipeline?
BU: I have two deals. I have one book coming out with Simon Schuster in October and it's a children's book actually. It's called "Before I got here", and it's basically about the conversations kids have when they just blow your mind and you realize that they remember another time and place before they came to this Earth and it's really a compilation of their conversations and they were inspired by my kids and things they said to me.
So in going back to Golden Blaze, what is the draw to seeing this film?
BU: Good family entertainment and chocolate.
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