In spite of my long-held appreciation of any moment Gabrielle Union steps onscreen, always leading with a set of cherubic dimples to disarm her scene partners before a cool confidence comes in for the kill, I’ll admit I was perhaps a little too enthusiastic in telling her the morning after her latest film “In Our Nature” premiered at SXSW that I’d been waiting to see her in a dramatic role such as this ever since she showed such poise in “Bring It On.” Over a decade later, Union has become a go-to-leading lady for the shamefully narrow spectrum of African-American-led films such as this weekend’s adaptation of the Steve Harvey self-help book “Think Like a Man” and an always welcome supporting player in any number of TV hour-longs or light-hearted comedies.
However, in Brian Savelson‘s directorial debut, which will be premiering at the Sarasota Film Festival this weekend, Union gets an opportunity to play to her strengths without any preconceptions as Vicky, the whipsmart girlfriend of an upper crust attorney (John Slattery) who is thrown off her game when their plans for a weekend retreat at his cabin is complicated by the arrival of his estranged son (Zach Gilford) and the son’s fiance (Jena Malone). A psychologist by trade, Vicky’s attempts to calmly rationalize the roundabout of relationships in varied need of rebuilding may be too much for her to handle, but it isn’t for Union, who savvily expresses the collision of the character’s personal and professional perspective in dealing with the family she’ll inevitably be a part of.
It’s an exciting performance from an actress who appears to have been eager to prove it and in either an instance of coincidence or kismet, the performance is the kickoff for a year in which Union will be showing off her range, whether it’s in a soon-to-shoot drama pilot for BET or in stepping behind the camera to direct a segment on Vietnam for the documentary adaptation of Nicholas Kristof’s book about the oppression of women, “Half the Sky” to air on PBS this fall. In the midst of Union’s busy schedule, she was gracious enough to talk about the opportunity to play against type, the perils of filming in the great outdoors and how her personal experience of entering into an already established family played into her turn in her new film.
What attracted you to the film?
Brian wrote such an amazing, nuanced character of Vicky — if there’s nuance and depth to a character, they don’t want me, usually. So I felt so honored, not to make it sound super grand, but I generally had never predicted or considered auditioning for a role like this. For Brian to have enough interest to offer it to me, I was blown away. So that alone, I was like I’ll take it. But I fell in love with the character and the story, and the fact she doesn’t disappear. It’s not like she’s amazing and you don’t see her for an hour-and-a-half. She’s an integral part of the storyline. It’s a painfully real character piece with a dynamic between father and son, significant others and how it all comes together in a kind of broad way.
Unfortunately, I know a little too much about your personal life, but it’s well-documented that you’ve stepped into a family of your own in recent years that wasn’t of your own making. Was that something you were able to draw upon for this?
Yeah, my parents got divorced after 30 years of marriage and my dad remarried pretty quickly and my stepmother has been nothing but kind to me and nice. I’ve not been maybe so kind and nice [in assuming that role] [laughs], so I was able to for the first time see what she was dealing with through the script and also what I hope is not going to happen to me as someone coming into the life of kids that are not my own. You realize that we’re all just people just trying our best and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
But I think that’s what drives Vicky to put up with a lot of Zach’s character’s B.S. and mistreatment. She just wants to him to like her and sometimes the psychologist flies out the window and she’s just a woman that’s going to be in his father’s life forever. She’s also the mother of a child of a broken home, so she can kind of see Zach’s character in her child, so she wants to proceed with caution, but at the end of the day, she wants to be liked and accepted, which I can absolutely relate to.
Brian said he anticipated a strenuous shoot, given that it was such a small production with such intense emotional scenes. Did it deliver on that promise?
Strenuous only in that there was very little cell phone service or internet service, so you felt cut off and we were way up in the Catskills. Woodstock was the closest major city and if you’ve ever been to Woodstock, it’s not too big. [laughs] So we were thrown together up in the woods and we all got very, very close, which I think helps to inform what we’re able to bring because by the end of the first week, we had spent time together not just on set, but after work, we all ate dinner together every night, drank a lot of wine together and worked on our scenes together. As different people came up, all of our significant others came up, so we really got to know each other.
Did you share your character’s distaste for nature?
I’m from Omaha, so I appreciate nature on my terms. [laughs] I’m not a big bug fan. I would never swim in a pond like [Vicky does], certainly not getting my weave dunked into a pond like that. And when the real bears showed up on our set unannounced, I was terrified, mortified.
So there were bears besides the one that you see in the film?
Yeah, [the crew] would be making the food and the animals could smell it, so when we first see the cub, everyone’s like oh wait… It was cute for two seconds, then it’s like a mother is coming! A mother is coming! So that was more terrifying.
You actually signed on recently for what should be your first TV lead should the pilot for “Single Black Female” [about a talk show host in Atlanta] go forward at BET. Is this an exciting time for you?
I’m incredibly excited. [The show is] a drama, which I’ve really wanted. I really wanted “Scandal” last year and Kerry [Washington] got it, but every black actress wanted that because it’s rare to have a starring role, a show that is yours that a black actress is the star of. Then Kerry got it and this pilot came along where it’s funny, it’s dramatic, and I could relate to every aspect — maybe not the sperm stealing part — but I could relate to pretty much every aspect of the character, so I took that opportunity and ran with it. We start shooting at the end of April.
It doesn’t even seem like a consideration anymore, but is taking a television show versus pursuing films something you think about?
I want to work. And luckily because it’s cable, I have a very short schedule. We’re going to shoot very quickly, but I’ll have eight, nine months to still do film and this last year, I was able to shoot a pilot and do four films and a documentary in Vietnam, so nowadays, you can kind of do it all. But the way that they’re writing, especially for cable, is so strong, and as actresses of a certain age and of color, opportunities are few and far between, so I’m absolutely not going to thumb my nose at any opportunity to be able to be creative and to take care of my family.
You mentioned going up against Kerry Washington for the role on “Scandal,” which I imagine that’s happened quite often. Is it still frustrating to be on the same list time and time again?
Actually, [recently with] “Think Like A Man,” that role was weird because it was not supposed to be black and they made an exception for me. [laughs] So that was nice, I wear geek chic and [am] very much into sci-fi and gaming and it’s a very different character than I’m ever allowed to play. My love interest is Jerry Ferrara in a black romantic comedy, except it’s so not that, but that’s how it’s being publicized. But for the most part, maybe 50/50 in my career, I might’ve just been the best person for the role whether it was written black, so [“In Our Nature”] was refreshing, squeezed in between two urban films. It was great they weren’t like, “Well, if Gab does it, we’re going to have to reconceive it,” which is what I get a lot.