The US actress on racial stereotypes in the film industry, friends who became enemies, and the advantages of self pleasure
By Davina Hamilton
SHE HAS amassed an impressive list of credits in a career spanning over 15 years. But no character that Gabrielle Union has played has divided opinion as much as Mary Jane.
The eponymous character of the hit TV series Being Mary Jane is a strong and confident career woman; a popular news anchor, who, on paper is the type of success story every young woman could happily aspire to be.
But with the show putting a microscope on every aspect of Mary Jane’s life – from her penchant for alcohol to her tendency to be judgemental towards members of her family; her complex love life and her passion for sex toys – she is a character that is loved and loathed in equal measure by fans of the series.
“Most of my friends are like Mary Jane,” Union laughs. “Super ambitious, seemingly have it all, but they’re total messes – that pretty much sums up all of my girlfriends! I describe them as perfectly imperfect people; flawed people who don’t get it right most of the time – and thank God. I wouldn’t wanna be friends with a perfect person.”
Considering whether she has much in common with her character, Union, whose film credits include Bring It On, Bad Boys II, Think Like A Man and it’s sequel Think Like A Man Too says: “We’re both very outspoken, sometimes to our own detriment. We both have large families and an interesting family dynamic. And certainly in my younger days, I had an adventurous love life!
“The friends I have now have come about through hardship and adversity and they’ve stood the test of time. But when I started out in Hollywood I had ‘frenemies.’ [The friendship] is all good until you start working and maybe someone else isn’t working – and then you find out where you really stand within that friendship. That’s kind of where Mary Jane is.”
Acknowledging the critics who have said Mary Jane’s life is filled with too much drama to be realistic, 42-year-old Union feels that most people’s lives would seem pretty messy if they were constantly put under a microscope.
“The thing about Mary Jane is that you see her in all aspects of her life. And I think if you were to put a magnifying glass on every aspect of our real lives, it’d be pretty damn dramatic! But we don’t like to admit that, you know what I mean?
“We’ve seen Mary Jane on the toilet, we’ve seen her throw up, we’ve seen her wrap her hair, we’ve seen her with a pressing comb. We’ve seen every part of her life. I mean she masturbates at work – we don’t see characters masturbate, certainly not at work!
“I like that she’s real and the people that like her, like that about her. But I think the people who like to keep skeletons in the closet – and who probably have their own skeletons in the closet – don’t like that we’re showing so much of her life, because it’s saying a lot more about them than a fictitious character who, to me, is rooted in reality.”
Union, who married 33-year-old basketball star Dwyane Wade last year, was herself at the centre of drama when, in 2013, it was revealed that Wade had fathered a child with another woman while he and Union were reportedly on a break. The actress stood by her man and the couple are still going strong.
Though Union wasn’t keen on talking about her personal life, she admitted that she – like most people – will always be happier to discuss the positive aspects of her life than the negative.
“I don’t lead with all the crap that’s happening in my life,” she says. “I’ll lead with: ‘We just bought a new house, we’ve been married six months and it’s been great!’ I don’t say: ‘We had a fight about the top of the toothpaste not being on!’ You don’t lead with that.
“I think that’s what people might find a little scary or unrealistic [about Mary Jane] – how realistic she actually is. I think the lives we purport to have are often very unrealistic.”
Still, Union admits that she did have to double take when she first read the script and discovered the level of Mary Jane’s sexual desires.
“I remember the first time I saw the script and I was like, ‘She’s gonna masturbate at work? Er…ok.’ I’ve not masturbated at work. But I’m a strong proponent of masturbation. In theory, I think it’s the safest sex there is! I mean, you’re not gonna start any rumours about yourself or call yourself a ho! So I’m a big proponent of masturbation, I was just a little shocked she was gonna do it at work!
She continues: “But, you know, she’s a single woman, she’s in her late thirties, she’s comfortable in her own skin and she’s certainly comfortable with her sexuality. More power to her. I would hate to play a sexually repressed character; that would suck.”
Other roles that she isn’t interested in are those that conform to racial stereotypes. All too aware of the type of characters that Hollywood is “most comfortable” seeing black actors play, Union says she’s grateful she doesn’t get offered stereotypical roles.
“Playing victims or mealy-mouthed characters – those offers just don’t come to me, nor do those roles speak to me,” she says. “I’m a ballsy person, I’m an outspoken person and I’ve always used my platform to speak about pertinent issues or relevant issues in our community. I’m not interested in playing the person who’s in the corner – unless she’s low key like a serial killer. You’ve gotta give me something more!
“Earlier in my career, I’d be offered the role of the type of character I’d describe as the ‘A-sexual Confucius’: You never see her with any kind of love interest, but she’d always have sage advice! I don’t wanna be that Confucius or Yoda-type character, though producers seem most comfortable putting black people in that space.
“It’s either that or: ‘You’re gonna be the sassy desk sergeant.’”
Slipping into a Southern drawl to imitate the type of character she was describing, Union continued: “You know, the one who always got a wise crack or a smart-ass thing to say; who always says ‘mmmm hmm’ and ‘ooh girl!’”
Returning to her normal accent, she said, firmly: “I can’t do that. I mean, what are we gaining from that?”
In a bid to address the lack of varied roles available to black actors in Hollywood, Union and director Nzingha Stewart teamed up to launch production company Stew U. The company recently produced the successful TV movie, With This Ring, starring Regina Hall and Stephen Bishop (who, incidentally, plays David Paulk in Being Mary Jane). And Union is passionate about undertaking more production in the future.
“We’re working on more film projects that employ more people of colour and that feeling is a lot better than acting,” she says. “Being in a position to employ people is a good feeling. It’s great knowing that worthy actors who had been under-utilized are getting a chance.”
Originally posted on The Voice website in March 2015