Gabrielle Union Changes the Game
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Even more revealing might be the February cover of Essence, which for the first time shows Union and Wade posing together as a couple. Union is a frequent presence at Heat games, and the two Twitter often from celebrity functions and clubs, but “we hadn’t done [photo shoots] together because it means somebody gets overshadowed, and we’re both very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Union says.
It seems that fans liked seeing the pair out and about together, however. “We kept hearing on Twitter that when people saw pictures of us at events, they really responded to us as a dark-skinned couple of color.” Even in Miami, with its cosmopolitan mix of Cuban, Brazilian, and European cultures, Union believes there is a prejudice against African-American women. “When you go to clubs, or watch television, whether it be Telemundo or English-speaking television, if you pay attention to which anchors are chosen, there definitely tends to be a preference for lighter-skinned, finer-haired women of all ethnicities.”
It’s a subject all too familiar to her. Union is famously outspoken about the difficulties black actresses face in Hollywood, where roles that once might have been automatically cast with African-Americans are now going to white, Middle-Eastern, or Asian women. (For his part, Tyler Perry recently came under criticism for casting Kim Kardashian in his next film, The Marriage Counselor.) “It’s great for the other groups that are getting a chance to play more roles, and ideally, I’d like to think there were enough roles for everyone,” says Union. “But we’re trying to get [filmmakers and producers] to consider that the doctor, the lawyer, even the lead could be an African-American woman.”
“I’ve been lucky: For the past year, I haven’t really auditioned for anything; the parts I got were straight-up offers. But I’m not so grand that I wouldn’t audition. In fact, I wish I could audition more. There are a lot of people who won’t give me a chance because I was in Bring It On a thousand years ago. They don’t think I can be more than the sassy sidekick. I guess they didn’t see Cadillac Records or Neo Ned,” the highly rated 2005 indie film in which Union played an asylum inmate claiming to be Adolf Hitler reincarnated. “I try not to play the coulda, woulda, shoulda game. But there are so many great shows I wish I could be part of. I would love to be a black person in Middle Earth! If we can have hobbits, then there can be black hobbits, too, right? If the craziest part of our imaginations can come up with Gollum and hobbits and quests for rings, there should be somebody there who looks like me,” pointy ears and all. And remember Cold Mountain? Renée Zellweger? That was a black woman [in the book the movie is based on]. So clearly, we can re-imagine books.”
Her two newest films, her 26th and 27th in a dozen years, play not only to her strengths but to her spirit. Union loves romantic comedies, calling them the most natural outlet for her talents. “There’s just something about a romantic comedy, whether I’m in it or not,” she says. “When you leave a Julia Roberts movie, or a Sandra Bullock movie, or a Diane Lane movie, you’re filled with hope and joy, you just want to hug someone, you want to go on a date, you want to spread the love. You feel inspired to make things a little better. There are not too many genres that inspire that feeling.”
And she does spread the love. She considers Robinne Lee and Essence Atkins, both of whom she met making Deliver Us from Eva in 2003, her “sisters.” “We talk almost every day; we talked this morning!” She remains close to her costars from that breakout 2000 teen hit, Bring It On, Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Bilderback, Bianca Kajlich, and Eliza Dushku. “In terms of the social calendar, it’s tough,” she admits, “but when I see them, it’s all love.” “Early in my career, my mentor was Jenifer Lewis,” she says, who was “always there for advice, for tears, for laughter.” These days, she has a “tight collective” of actress friends, including Sanaa Lathan, Regina Hall, Regina King, Tichina Arnold, Atkins, and Lee. “It’s funny because we’re all up for the same roles, crying over the same spilt milk. We have this joke: ‘If I don’t get this role, I hope you do, because I need a loan!’”
Union sets high standards for herself. She has turned down several offers to appear on Broadway because she says she doesn’t have the necessary “skill set” for theater actors. “Maybe one day when I have the time to intensely study and practice… meanwhile, I’ll be in the audience.”
With all the projects she is balancing, it might come as a surprise that her five-year outlook has just recently undergone a radical change. “After going to see my girlfriend Essence [Atkins] do an ultrasound in the third trimester, and seeing it in 3-D, I broke down in tears.” (Atkins gave birth at Christmas.) “I was never someone who thought about having kids—I mean, they’re great in theory, but I never imagined having one [myself]. Maybe over the next five years I could wrap my brain around becoming a mother and what that would mean in terms of sacrifice and dedication.” She laughs again. “I don’t do anything impulsively, so more toward the five years out than the one year.”
Styling by Jordan Johnson and Jill Lincoln for Rachel Zoe Studio
Hair by Kiyah Wright
Makeup by Motoko/Ex:Beaute
Manicure by Lisa Postma for celestineagency.com
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.