My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha's own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.
Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.
Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union's at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.
A definite presence at her hubby's Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He'd returned from the injury list to score 27.
“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”
Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.
She's lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.
"I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too," she says.
Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock's character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea's idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan's Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen's pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there's his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life's become.
"It's really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame," says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. "The story follows a day in the life of Chris' character and it just happens to be when he's got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.
"It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it's also really, really funny."
Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.
"I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I've run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well," says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.
Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.
"Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring.
But honestly I felt bad for the man because it's like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well."
She says the the spirit of Rock's free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
"I think people are going to be surprised. It's a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set."
She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn't accessed before on screen.
"Sometimes when the leader's been where you've been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they've been an actor. That's really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven't."
Just as Rock didn't need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she's taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she's gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. "The silence has been deafening," she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to "victim-shaming," something she can't abide having survived rape as a college student.
Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.
"I couldn't ask for a better reception to be honest," Union says. "We knew we did great work but it doesn't always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome."
Mary Jane's the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women's rights advocate.
University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, "Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has 'quietly' established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts."
Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.
"Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did," she says.
Union enjoys how Mary Jane's story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it's like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.
"I'm proud of it," she says. "It's the most I've ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I'm really pleased.
"For us being their (BET's) first original dramatic series we're all sort of learning together and it's been a great partnership. It's not my way or the highway, it's very much a collaborative effort and BET's been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we've all kind of handled it well."
She's glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera She acknowledges "we've seen improvements," noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, "it goes in waves," adding, "Like right now we've got a lot of women heading up their own shows" – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – "so it's improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we'll kind of be back at the drawing board."
Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they're likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.
Then there's the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.
"It's tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It's been looking good and I'm pleased with the writing for sure."
The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union's satisfied she's getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.
"The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She's definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I'm excited about."
Now that Union's proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That's important because until Mary Jane it'd been a while since she got top billing. She's at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she's fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.
It doesn't hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he's been raising. They looked every bit a family.
Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper's 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.
After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle's mother describes as "wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities," adding, "I was happy that Gabrielle was happy." Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter's maternal instincts kick-in:, "Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane's household to his two sons and to his nephew." Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, "I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be."
Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union's hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.
Besides being a wife and mom, she's branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie's adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.
After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.
"I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It's just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It's a different conversation. I'm still learning, I'm a novice, so I'm trying to say less and learn more."
Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She's only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.
"I absolutely don't want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I'm definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we're (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else."
Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union's well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she's aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy's Little Girls and Good Deeds, she's appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she's been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.
Union says it's a bonus "anytime you can work with your friends and we've been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it's like stealing from the studio."
In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
"Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective," says Union.
The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education.
Union came away inspired by "the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that."
She's discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.
"When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I'm always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They're usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi's education. I know you're not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn't help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.
"She's a bright girl and she's doing well, she's thriving. We're happy about that."
Union's passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union's mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle's sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle's enjoying the new family dynamic.
"It's like we're starting over and I've kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It's kind of like we're going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother's keeper and you're only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that's the next man's responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family."
Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.
"The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they're not fully getting all of my spoiling. They're great kids, I really love them."
About her daughter's generosity, Theresa says, "She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world."
Now that her mother's no longer living in Omaha, it's an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union's ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they've done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn't change how they roll.
"Not to us, maybe for other people who aren't expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I'm lucky that my family's really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don't want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it's more how other people perceive us. But for us it's just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We're definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.