Actor Blair Underwood may be the most underrated actor in Hollywood. He’s put together a two-decade career in TV, movies and on stage while somehow staying ahead of the tabloids and the blogosphere. His 17-year-marriage to Desiree DaCosta has produced three children and not a single scandal. The Petersburg, VA native grew up in a military family and studied acting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He’s been on both mainstream TV shows like “L.A. Law” and “The Event” and black movies like “I Will Follow” and “Set It Off.”
The 47-year old actor is now starring in two significant works: “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway and onscreen in “Woman Thou Art Loosed: On The 7th Day.” Director Neema Barnette says she created the role in “WTAL” specifically for Underwood, who she considers “a strong black man and a great person.” Outside of the film world, Underwood produces the Tennyson Hardwick novels with renowned writers Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes. We talked to Underwood recently about his career, love, work and passion. Here’s what he had to say:
Over a two-decade career, you don’t have to look back at anything you’ve done and feel embarrassed. Was that a happy accident or was it planned that way?
Most of my work has been in the mainstream. What stayed in people’s consciousness was “L.A.Law,” which was the #1 show on television for 8 years in the 80’s. I’ve done 9 different series in the last 27 years. Those were all mainstream shows. What I always tried to do was balance it out with independent films like “Women Thou Art Loosed.” If I want to do it, I’m going to do it. For me as an actor, the thing I’m most grateful for is longevity and to have the ability to work in different mediums – film, television, mainstream independent and stage. I’m very grateful for that and I don’t take it lightly.
How have you been able to engineer your career to be able to do all these kinds of things?
It always amazes me when people say things just kind of happened. Longevity doesn’t come by accident or luck. It does take some strategizing. It does take some planning. And for me, the plan was I promised myself and my wife and kids I’m not going to do anything that’s going to embarrass me or you. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to embarrass my people or my race. And if the part is not necessarily an upstanding part, that’s OK as long as the overriding message at the end of the day is something that’s not negative for me or my people.
You’ve got a film out and you’re opening on Broadway this month. How would you describe the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” to black audiences who may be newer to it?
It’s a literary masterpiece that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 written by Tennessee Williams. It is the story of Blanche DuBois played by the incredible Nicole Ari Parker who comes from a very wealthy family who owned plantation land. She comes to live with her sister, Stella DuBois, who is married to Stanley Kowalski, though we’ve changed the last name for this version. This woman comes to live with her sister and brother-in-law. It’s the portrait of a woman in a slow descent into madness. All the family is dysfunctional and it deals with the family finding ways to deal with each other’s pathos and dysfunction over a summer in Louisiana. It’s one of the greatest American plays ever written because it deals with the reality of our human condition.
There’s some sniping about this adaptation since Williams didn’t have black people in mind when he wrote it, but it seems like family dysfunction is something that black people can certainly relate to and that it makes perfect sense as an all-Black play.
It’s really uncanny how well it fit with the color-coding issues that we’ve had in the South, and dealing with that an in context of where this play is set. It’s set in New Orleans. You know that is a ton of gumbo of the French and the Spanish and the African culture and all the sounds and tastes and music, jazz, and all of that is mixed in there. Tennessee Williams lived in the French Quarter when he wrote this and knew this world and understood this world. Most people who know their history know that Stella DuBois and Blanche DuBois come from a background of money and privilege because of the fact that there were free people of color in the South, especially in New Orleans, who owned plantations and slaves. There were the mulattos and the octoroons and the quadroons. If you understand that history, then you know it’s not a gimmick in any way.
You’ve been married for 17 years, which is like 117 in Hollywood years. How have you maintained both a private and a happy marriage all these years?
I give her all the credit – well, I give her most of it. I’m not going to give her all (laughs). She’s extraordinary and I’m grateful that I picked the right one because that’s half the battle. Something said ‘Don’t mess up, don’t walk away. Lock it down!’ and I locked it down and I try to keep it locked down. But she’s amazing and we get each other and from the very beginning we understood each other and neither one of us are trying to be in the tabloids. We’re just want to love each other, be together and raise a family together.
We have to mention for the sake of the hip-hop community that you started your career playing Russell Simmons [in Krush Groove, his film debut].
(Laughs) Fa sho, Fa sho.
Have you maintained any connection to the hip-hop community?
I love hip-hop. When we shot “Krush Groove” in 1985, hip hop was about seven years old before it hit the mainstream. It’s amazing to me the success that he and all of them have had. I see LL all the time. Our kids are at the same school now. I just saw him a couple of months ago and he and I talked about that that we’re still standing by the grace of God. I run into Russell every now and again. We have a mutual respect for each other.
Giving that you’re producing a book series, are there any projects you’d like to get made?
Yes, I’d like to do “My Soul To Keep,” [by Tananarive Due] and the Tennyson Hardwick series I do want to turn into film. I’m doing “Streetcar” until the end of July and then there’s conversation about taking it to London for another six months so I don’t know what time I’ll have this year yet to do anything else.
I understand it’s very important to get your tickets early for “Streetcar Named Desire” because pre-orders are what keeps a Broadway show going.
They really monitor how well a show is doing by advance ticket sales. Right now the tickets are selling incredibly well, but we’re only there until July 22nd. So you really don’t want to wait until the last minute to buy tickets. It’s exciting and the audiences are loving it and we’re getting standing ovations every night. It’s exciting too, because it’s the first time in history that it’s been done with a multicultural cast on Broadway. It’s been done in regional theatres since the 50’s but this is the first time on Broadway. So it’s very important that people get their tickets ahead of time.