Beyond Tinseltown, Actor Blair Underwood
Blair Underwood says that in Hollywood, actions speak louder than words.
by Edward Gilbreath
Actor Blair Underwood is living proof that what you see isn't always what you get. Indeed, Underwood has portrayed everything from an attorney on NBC's hit series L.A. Law to a heroic astronaut in the hit 1998 film Deep Impact to a deranged death row inmate in the 1995 thriller Just Cause to playing Jesus Christ Himself in the 1992 short film Second Coming.
God is expanding Blair Underwood's ministry beyond Tinseltown.
His leading-man charm and commanding presence in front of the camera have made him one of the most respected African-American actors on the scene today. But there's more to him than talent and good looks.
"I'm a Christian first and foremost," says the 37-year-old actor without a hint of pretentiousness.
He gushes about his wife, Desiree, and their three young children (two boys and a girl). He talks candidly about the entertainment industry and his determination to avoid sending amoral messages to audiences.
"I've never been swayed by this community [Hollywood] or its peer pressures," he says. "There are a lot of negative influences, but there are things I just won't do, certain places I won't go. I don't care if I'm going to miss out. I won't do it."
Drawing a Line
A question that often gets posed to Underwood, and other Christian actors, is how they square their faith with the sometimes dubious roles they are asked to play. Does Underwood, for instance, have any qualms about starring in R-rated films or playing unscrupulous characters?
Underwood attends a movie premiere with his wife, Desiree.
"I'm a Christian, but I don't have an issue with playing characters who are 'evil,'" he says. "I think it's important that we have portrayals of evil, so that we can juxtapose it with the good to show what goodness and righteousness are."
Underwood says his determining factor in deciding whether to be involved in a film is, "What is the overall message of the film?"
He says that he recently watched Rosemary's Baby, a classic horror film about a woman who raises the devil's child. That, he asserts, is the kind of movie he'd never do: "Because in that film, Satan wins. In the final scenes, they say, 'God is dead.' I wouldn't be a part of that. But I don't have a problem playing a bad character in a movie where the evil is exposed and defeated."
Though Underwood has played "evil" characters and starred in films with R ratings, he tries to avoid productions that contain gratuitous sex and violence.
"Subtlety is always best," he says. "There is such a thing as overkill."
When the first of his three children arrived on the scene four years ago, Underwood had to reevaluate his criteria for accepting roles. Now, as his kids get older, he's been amazed at how adroit they actually are separating "pretend" from "real life." Still, he knows it will get more complex as they grow older.
He explains, "They haven't seen anything that I've done yet, but when they do I'll have to be very intentional about explaining that Daddy is an actor."
"I'm not going to do very graphic love scenes," he adds. "Just kissing a woman other than Mommy can be awkward for a child to watch."
In the Company of Angels
Three years ago, sickened by the dearth of quality programming for minority viewers, the NAACP threatened to boycott the major TV networks until they aired shows for people of color and promised to hire more minority writers, directors and technical people to work behind the scenes. The networks responded by promising to do better.
Suddenly black characters were, sometimes inexplicably, added to already developed shows. Some shows were developed from scratch.
Among these was super-producer Steven Bocho's City of Angels, a drama about an inner-city hospital in Los Angels. It was the only drama on the schedule that season to feature a mostly African American case. The NAACP reserved its judgment until after the show's premiere.
Boncho, who had worked with Underwood on L.A. Law, developed City of Angels with the actor in mind. He would play the chief surgeon of the money-starved hospital that still manage to serve its patients.
It was ER with a little more soul. A promising premise, with a solid cast to boot. But the stakes were high. Perhaps too high.
"We felt a heavy responsibility to succeed," he says. "There was obviously a lot riding on that show, and a great many eyes were watching us because of the NAACP protests."
Unfortunately, after only 28 episodes, the show died - the victim of low ratings. Looking back, Underwood has mixed feelings about the show's demise.
On the one hand, he understands the ratings game - if the numbers had been higher the show would have survived. But he questions the whole ratings process.
"The Nielsen Ratings system is an enigma to me. I've worked in this business nearly 20 years, and I've never met one person who has even seen a Nielsen box. So I don't even know who these people are who are determining the ratings for the rest of the nation," he says.
"I mean, come on. It's like that old fable about the emperor who wore no clothes, but no one said anything about it. Yes, we would have been around longer with better ratings. But who was truly determining the ratings?"
Underwood can get passionate about the subject, but he doesn't waste much time worrying about it. He's got better things to do - such as continuing to do good work whenever he gets the opportunity.
Though he's not troubled by the sitcoms that tend to make up the bulk of black programs, he does think there needs to be more dramatic programs to bring balance to the current offerings.
"The audience is definitely out there," Underwood says. "It just need to be the right project, and it needs to be marketed properly."
Man of Action
Some critics of the industry point to racism as the reason why African American actors and projects are not given a shot in the Hollywood system. But Underwood is reticent to make such charges.
"Racism does exist, no question," he says. "But Hollywood is primarily driven by economics. Turning a profit is the bottom line."
There are more important things to focus on, he believes. "I heard someone say once that excellence is the best deterrent to racism. So my focus is on doing quality work and creating opportunities for others to do the same."
A decade ago, Underwood began taking matters into his own hands by forming his own production company, Eclectic Entertainment. He has since developed several projects.
Sister, I'm Sorry (1997) was a short film "about men taking spiritual responsibility for a lot of wrongdoings we've done to women in the church and in society in general," Underwood says.
Then there was Second Coming (1992), another short film that Underwood wrote, directed and starred in as Jesus.
Underwood wanted to provide a balance to the Renaissance-era depictions of Christ as a blond-haired, blue eyed man, images that most of us implicitly accept as fact. What if Jesus returned today but did not look like the "Jesus" that most people are accustomed to?
Second Coming did stir a lot of discussions about the nature of race and religion. With the help of his pastor and others, Underwood hopes to continue making independent films that can speak to crucial issues.
"I guess you can say it's a sort of ministry," he says. There also are signs that God is expanding Underwood's ministry beyond Hollywood.
In the summer of 2000, Underwood was contacted by the Christian relief agency World Vision about taking a missions trip to Ethiopia. He had recently purchased the film rights to a novel by journalist Tananarive Due titled My Soul to Keep, a supernatural thriller about a man who has traded his soul for immortality.
Underwood planned to play the role of the lead character, who is an Ethiopian. "When the World Vision invitation came, I took it as a greater sign that it was time for me to go to Ethiopia," he says.
Underwood visited the country and was immediately taken by both its beauty and tragedy. He saw the poverty and hunger that still ravages the people. And he met Genet Geletu, an 8-year-old girl, who the Underwoods now support monthly.
Because of Genet, Underwood says his trip has had a deep effect on both him and his family. "I plan to go again, someday," he says.
As he lives out his vocation in Tinseltown, Underwood knows the entertainment biz will sometimes run counter to his faith. But, again, he's not concerned.
"I've learned that in this town you have to witness more through actions than words," he says. And he plans to continue doing that, not just in Hollywood but wherever God takes him.
Reprinted with permission from New Man, Jan/Feb 2002. ? Strang Communications Co., USA. All rights reserved. www.newmanmagazine.com