Being Mary Jane is heading to the Big Apple — and star Gabrielle Union tells EW she is ready for the “massive reset” on her hit BET series.
Tuesday marks the fourth season premiere of Being Mary Jane, capping off an eventful few months for the actress that included appearing in the controversial Birth of a Nation and producing the holiday comedy About Christmas. She also recently settled a wage dispute with BET: Union filed a lawsuit against the cable network in the fall, claiming BET was combining seasons 4 and 5 to reduce her pay. In late December, the network said it “reached an amicable agreement with Gabrielle Union and looks forward to sharing the new season of Being Mary Jane with its loyal fans beginning January 10, 2017.”
Always refreshingly (and admirably) outspoken, Union talked to EW about her future on the series, Mary Jane’s move to New York, and speaking her mind in Hollywood.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where does season 4 pick up?
GABRIELLE UNION: Well it’s told in a bit of flashbacks in a sense. You find out after [Mary Jane’s niece] Niecy experiences police brutality, Mary Jane, in trying to take a more hard line in dealing with police brutality, is fired/pushed out of SNC. Kara [Lisa Vidal], on the heels of her own sexual harassment lawsuit from season 3, has also left. Kara has bounced back a bit faster in that she’s become a producer for a top morning news show, not unlike the TODAY show or Good Morning America. She brings Mary Jane on as a correspondent and basically allows her to truly start over. But it’s in New York. It’s her first time in a long time of being away from her family. She really wants to use this as an opportunity to reset her life.
The previous three seasons were set in Atlanta. How does New York change things?
Well, her being away from home, much more of the focus is work-oriented as opposed to season’s past. There was a greater balance of work-life so you saw a lot more of her family. But you also saw the codependency of it all. Moving it away from Atlanta to New York is the biggest difference: she’s not codependent in the BS. She’s actually stepping out on faith that maybe her family can get it together on their own without her constant — she would say help, they would say meddling. It really allows everyone to grow. New York is really just a massive reset button. Everyone says if you can make in New York, you can make it anywhere. You see Mary Jane struggling to make it.
You mentioned Mary Jane gets a job at a morning show and gets to work for her idol. But their relationship isn’t exactly friendly.
A lot of these [stories] are drawn from our collective experience. I think especially with women where you come into a situation and you’re like, “Oh my God, I have this incredible opportunity to be mentored by someone I respect.” Because there’s that “There can only be one” mentality, the idea that the person sitting at that one seat is going to help you push them out of that seat is naïve, in a sense, and wishful thinking. There is only one seat at the table in a lot of businesses and corporations and the person that occupies that seat is like, “F— you! I’m not helping you! You can’t be this stupid.” And that’s what Mary Jane runs into.
She also gets a new potential love interest, Lee (Birth of a Nation’s Chike Okonkwo).
He’s a Brit. He’s Nigerian. Not only is there a cultural difference that Mary Jane has ever experienced before, there’s a geographic, exotic thing that Mary Jane is immediately drawn to when she hears his accent and she sort of fetishizes him. She quickly has him star in her sexual fantasy, very Eyes Wide Shut. But you will definitely see more of Lee this season and more of their cultural differences come into play. The idea of black masculinity — can you define it? That storyline plays out in her bedroom and on the show. There are a lot of prongs that come off of Lee. We really take the show in a lot of interesting directions, and because the show is set in the world of morning news, which now isn’t just news — you have to cover the Kardashians as you cover Putin. It opens us up for a lot more stories that we’re able to cover from reality TV culture to hip hop music to black sexuality.
Creator Mary Brock Akil stepped away last season from being showrunner. Has that been difficult?
Like most shows where the creator is hugely successful and wants to do other things, we kind of knew it was coming. My first order of business as also an executive producer was I want someone who’s not only a close friend but who’s been a collaborative friend for years. I really wanted Will Packer [Straight Outta Compton], who’s also an Atlanta native… Together we were able to find Erica Shelton, an amazing senior writer from The Good Wife. To be able to bring Erica over to our show has been huge.
You sound creatively reenergized by this season. You’re in season 4 — how much longer would you want to do this?
Just in us talking, we definitely could go on through season 6 or 7. Story-wise, we definitely know where we want to take it. We definitely have enough material to carry on for a few more seasons. If the audience will have us, we’d definitely be game for that. Sometimes it’s the creative part; it’s not due for a desire to continue having a steady paycheck. It’s creatively, “Where are we going? Where are these characters going?” Certainly with the move to New York, it’s opened up so many worlds to Mary Jane. The move to New York has really energized every character. Erica has presented us with so many juicy storylines and we all want to see where they go and they all lend themselves to more seasons for sure.
You were very open during the Birth of a Nation press tour regarding director Nate Parker’s sexual assault allegations (which he’s denied). Do you feel a responsibility to be outspoken as a public figure?
I was definitely raised to be the person who stands up for the kids who were bullied and to stand up for myself. Growing up as a handful of people of color in predominantly white towns, you were constantly faced with crazy, very bold racism. And being put in a position daily where your integrity and your dignity and your very existence is questioned and mocked and ridiculed. So I had to learn how to stand up for myself very early and to do it often. I just had to carry that into my career. Being raped at 19 and then getting into the business fresh off the heels put me into a position to speak out for sexual assault survivors. It’s just an extension of how I was raised and just sort of being not afraid to speaking my mind.
Being Mary Jane airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on BET.