Gabrielle Union's Role Call
Before making a big-screen breakout in Breaking In (out May 11), Gabrielle Union is breaking down the most memorable roles of her 25-year-career. “Hollywood is painfully frustrating and like Groundhog’s Day for a lot of us,” admits the 45-year-old actress. But with one series wrapping, another possibly beginning, and her new film, Union is busier than ever, squeezing in just enough time to look back — and forward. So, let’s Bring It On.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Though she already had five years’ worth of TV gigs on her résumé, Union’s film debut was still “mildly intimidating”: The then 26-year-old was worried about playing a high school sophomore alongside her costars Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who were still in their teens. Luckily these “kid vets,” as Union affectionately calls them, instead taught her how to be professional and talented in the “most efficient way possible…. I always speak of that experience as such a magical time, because I really thought that was how every movie experience was going to be for me — and it was not,” she says with a laugh. “But that first one, it just set the bar so high.”
She's All That (1999)
After wrapping 10 Things, Union went straight into shooting another teen classic that turned out to be just as delightful an experience. “That whole summer was no egos, a lot of humility, and f—ing fun,” says Union, who starred opposite Freddie Prinze Jr., Rachael Leigh Cook, and Paul Walker. “What we forget about as we get older is we’re living the dream, like this sh— is fun.” That fun included impromptu bar trips with the late Fast & Furious actor. “He was so beautiful; you walk in and every head turned — men and women,” she says of Walker. “And he had this super disarming, chill surfer smile. We’d just sit at the bar for hours, having a beer and cracking up. It’s those little things that you take for granted.”
Bring It On (2000)
Union completed a generation’s holy trinity of high school movies the following year, even if the role of Isis had been her second choice. “Bring It On was the cheerleading movie that was the consolation prize because you didn’t get the cheerleading movie that you wanted,” shares Union, revealing that much of the cast had auditioned for 2001’s Sugar & Spice. But like her previous two projects, she remembers how much she enjoyed the Bring It On production, while also eventually coming to realize the film’s significance. “At the time, I was struggling to learn choreography, I wasn’t thinking about the larger message,” she admits. “This was a very subversive film about cultural appropriation and white privilege — provided there is blond hair and blue eyes attached.” The actress notes she found it “interesting” when fans viewed her captain of the East Compton Clovers as the film’s villain. “The leader of a movement to make these suburban girls accountable for the theft of our hard work is called a villain?” posits Union. “I think that’s very, very telling.”
Bad Boys II (2003)
While Bring It On was a consolation prize, the role of DEA agent Sydney Burnett in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys sequel was a job “everyone and their mother wanted,” says Union, noting that stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence both embraced her like a little sister. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, my career is about to take off — this is it!’ And then I waited and I waited and I waited.” Tired of waiting — and after a night of drinking and riffing on what her character might be up to now — Union brought the idea for a Sydney-focused spin-off to Bad Boys producer Jerry Bruckheimer. And while Bad Boys 3 has been stuck in development hell, a TV series was given a pilot order by NBC. “Thankfully, she was so underdeveloped because it wasn’t really about her,” Union says of the film. “There’s so much more to Syd than even I realized.” If all goes well, L.A.’s Finest, costarring Jessica Alba, should premiere later this year.
Being Mary Jane (2013-present)
Before bringing Sydney to TV, Union will wrap her five-year run as Mary Jane Paul on the BET original series, a role she was worried would never come. “After reading the pilot for Scandal, I really felt like, ‘Wow, is there really only going to be one dope, nuanced, complex role for black women?’” recalls Union. Then Mary Jane creator Mara Brock Akil and her husband and EP, Salim Akil, came along: “They were like, ‘No, we created another that we hope spawns more.’” Sadly, Union and Kerry Washington’s characters will sign off for good within a few months of each other. “When we announced that Mary Jane was ending, I was on my book tour and there was just such a sense of sadness for a lot of people, specifically for black women,” shares Union. “To lose Olivia Pope and Mary Jane Paul in the same year is devastating for a lot of people who wanted to be seen and represented in pop culture.”
Breaking In (2018)
After more than two decades in the industry, Union is finally the face of a major studio film. Still, the opportunity to star as Shaun Russell — a mother trying to rescue her children from home intruders — was a scary proposition. “That first day on set should have felt exhilarating, and all I felt was an immense amount of pressure, [like] I really can’t f— this up, because that means a loss of opportunity for the next generation,” says the actress. “White actors have failed repeatedly and failed into more opportunity, but as people of color, we’re not given the opportunity or the space to try and be average or to try and fail…. Success breeds more, and if I’m not a success, I pray to God that that doesn’t mean less.”