Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she's doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.
"Probably since 2006 I've been concentrating on making sure I'm happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest," says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. "I've got a peace of mind I've never had and I'm just really happy."
It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She's still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She's the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network's first original dramatic series.
The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.
Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.
It might as well be describing Union's real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane's another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, "I don't mind creating positive images for women of color." She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.
Gabby's no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they've become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.
But it's a project that didn't require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She's one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.
The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.
Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don't.
Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter's work.
Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.
"Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter," says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. "He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist's trip with him and he's also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he's often said about that is he wants to 'bring fresh eyes.'"
In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and 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.
During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.
Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project's ambitious aim as "turning oppression into opportunity" through programs and efforts that "seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action."
Union says the experience opened her eyes to the "very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam." She says she went "open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war." She adds she was most surprised by how "for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans."
Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities.
"But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues."
At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as "a bridge between the audience and the experience."
"We knew we didn't want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They're not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union's done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States."
Union's heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she's spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.
When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.
"I just couldn't say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I'm on the President's Committee to stop violence against women.
"I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression."
The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry's Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.
While not apparent at first there's a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she's doing because they're all projects that matter to her.
Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They've also collaborated on the network's Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.
Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she's gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she's lately assumed.
She says she's long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it's the best TV pilot script she's read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn't land (Kerry Washington got the lead).
Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.
Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.
"Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different)."
Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn't necessarily need her friend's counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).
"I asked Sanna about it and she said, 'Baby, if it doesn't scare you, you shouldn't do it.' And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I've tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I'm like, 'Oh, gosh, there's no way in hell I'll get that,' and most often I don't but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good."
Union's embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.
On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, "one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor." Thus, it exposed her. "Yeah, it's scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me."
"And if you're going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters," says Union. "She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class."
Union says, "It reminded me so much of my mother's story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could."
The star's parents divorced years ago.
Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a script. she wasn't asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.
Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.
"I love her, she's a great girl."
Dueyn's family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.
As Kristof shares in a voice-over, "Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who's so bright and so capable but she's a long way from any school...and that is far from unique in the developing world."
Union explains in her own voice-over, "I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she's just rolling by herself. I asked, 'Does anyone ever bug you as you're riding home?' and she said, 'Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.'"
Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.
Sometimes the abuser's right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn't sell her entire allotment.
"It's probably a lot worse than even what she's shared because she can't control it," Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. "With Nhi everything she's feeling you can see. She's trained by her father you don't tell the neighbors what's going on, you don't tell your teachers, you don't tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.
"For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education's a safe haven. (School's) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it's a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening."
"That's a story that was very, very close to Gabby's heart because Nhi was really working and struggling," says Chermayeff.
As Union tells the facilitator, "When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you're raped it's the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing."
The actress says she came away from Vietnam 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 says Nhi's situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.
Union's helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children's biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.
"It's like we're starting over," Union says . "I'm coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and 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."
For more on the documentary, visit www.halftheskymovement.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com