Actor Blair Underwood

Actor-producer-author shares what it’s like to play a Black president and explains why Black artists need to create their own film projects.

Blair Underwood was a Carnegie Mellon drama major when he signed on to play a lawyer in the hit series, L.A. Law. That 7-year stint helped open doors to a variety of critically acclaimed performances in roles on the big and small screen, including the U.S. president in NBC's The Event. He's also showcased his talents as a director, producer and author and has his own production company. Underwood is involved in numerous charitable organizations, which include the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and as a founder of Artists for a New South Africa.



Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Blair Underwood to this program. In addition to his role in the NBC prime time drama, “The Event,” he stars in a new film called “I Will Follow.” The project is the first from the newly-formed African American Film Festival Releasing Movement. More on that in a moment.
First, though, here now a scene from the show that airs on NBC Monday nights at 9 called “The Event.”
Tavis: What’s up with all these Negroes playing the president? Every time I look, there’s a Black man on TV playing the president.
Blair Underwood: You know what? That’s funny. I was doing an interview the other day in London and that’s how they look at America. You all always have Black presidents on TV and in the movies?
Tavis: Yeah, 400 years later (laugh).
Underwood: 400 years later (laugh).
Tavis: That’s how that works. What do you make of the fact, though, that here we are, 400 years later, with an African American president and now these roles on television have opened up where you can actually play Blair Underwood, the president?
Underwood: It’s about time.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Underwood: No. It’s great because, you know, I did a film about 15 years ago called “Deep Impact” where Morgan Freeman played the president.
Tavis: It was on cable the other night.
Underwood: Is that right?
Tavis: I saw it, yeah.
Underwood: So many of the questions at that time was, “Do you think that we’ll ever see a Black president?” and it was a fantasy at that time. I mean, the year before he was elected, it was a fantasy. So actually to see that, it opens up a whole other world for actors to play. Of course, Dennis Haysbert in “24.” We’ve seen the portrayal, but now that it is a reality, it’s not a leap at all.
Tavis: I don’t know how much fun these days the actual president is having, but how much fun are you having playing one on television?
Underwood: I’m having too much fun. I get all the pomp and circumstance, I get all the love and none of the stress (laugh).
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Underwood: No, you couldn’t pay me enough.
Tavis: For those who’ve not seen the show, the back story is to the series?
Underwood: Yeah. Well, to the series, it’s called “The Event.” It deals with a couple hundred people who have been in prison for 66 years and, when this newly elected president comes in, he wants to release these prisoners. They, we find out, are non-humans. We learned this season’s show that just aired this last week that they lived here before, and they’re trying to take it back.
That’s the biggest quandary right now because, as leader of the free world, I take issue with people trying to take over the country. You know what I’m saying?
Tavis: You have had a long – my word, not yours – longstanding – by longstanding, I mean you’ve come back a few times to NBC. How does that work? I mean, how does a network fall in love with you so much so that, over the course of your career, literally you keep finding these projects where you end up back on that network? I was just thinking today that Blair’s done so many things for NBC.
Underwood: I don’t know, man, because I really think that every time I came back was a different regime. But you’re right. “The Cosby Show” and “L.A. Law,” of course, was my biggest break, then “LAX” and now “The Event.” I don’t know. I think it’s almost coincidence or just – if you believe in coincidence. I don’t necessarily always believe in that – but destiny or whatever it is. But I’m just glad to be working.
You know, I say that. Of course, I’m glad to be working. Of course, I’m glad to have a job. I’m also glad to have a job in doing something I love and I’m excited about. The great thing about playing the president is any time that character comes on screen, the stakes are high. You know, actors love that. You know, give me something to sink my teeth into.
Tavis: We’ve known each other for so many years.
Underwood: Yeah, same age.
Tavis: Yeah, same age. Twenty, 25 years we’ve known each other. Does the struggle ever get any easier? What I mean by that is, when you said a moment ago that you’re glad to be working, there are times over the years we’ve known each other when you’ve been working.
I see you on TV every week. Other times where you weren’t seen as much. Does the struggle ever get any easier? Is it worth going through all these years of the up and down to do what you love doing?
Underwood: Always worth going through the up and down.
Tavis: Right.
Underwood: You know, I’ll say it gets easier. Never simple to do; but it gets easier only because what I’ve learned throughout the years is to diversify.
You know, Darrell Miller, my attorney – I’ll give him a shout-out – said years ago to me that he’d done kind of this unofficial research on the wealthiest people in America and he realized that they all have at least seven revenue strings, at least seven ways to make money. Once that clicked in my head, I realized that acting is just one thing that I loved as a passion, but it’s just one thing that I do.
That’s when I started to diversify and think about producing and directing and publishing books and, you know, speaking engagements, whatever it is, but just other ways to make money as long as there’s not that stress especially when there’s, you know, Desiree, my wife and kids and this family, other responsibilities. There are other ways to make sure that they’re taken care of. So it alleviates a lot of that stress. So in that sense, it’s become easier.
Tavis: Speaking of diversifying, I’ve been anxious to talk about this new project that opens today in select theaters around the country called “I Will Follow.” I want to have you tell me all about this.
I want to play a clip first, though, because it just so happens that you are here on a week where we’ve been in the news for a conversation we had on this program some nights ago. I had the conversation with another Black actor, Anthony Mackie.
Underwood: Mackie, sure.
Tavis: I had a conversation with Anthony because of some comments that he made on the internet that I read about that were a bit controversial. People were talking about it, so I just happened to be next in line to talk to him.
So I asked him about this issue of Blacks in Hollywood on this program and his comments came on the heels of the “New York Times” piece about the lack of Black folk at the Academy Awards nominated this year and Forest Whitaker had a comment and others started commenting about it. But I want to get your take on why it’s so important to be doing this project, “I Will Follow.”
Underwood: You got it.
Tavis: Before I do that, though, here’s what Mackie had to say to me on this program just a few nights ago.
Anthony Mackie: “We have more Black people graduating from college than ever before. We have a Black president, so who are we and what are the stories that we’re gonna tell to represent ourselves because we’re no longer gang-banging drug dealers and we’re no longer upper middle class, beat, you know, suburban socialites, so what are we? And if we don’t tell those stories, then we can’t expect someone else to tell them for us.”
Tavis: That’s just a small snippet of what we talked about. One, your thoughts about that comment. I want to get into this wonderful project, “I Will Follow.”
Underwood: Yeah, I love that because, you know, you asked was it easier. It’s become easier. That’s my personal journey, but the bigger journey for us as a people has become much more challenging because we’re much more fractured in television. You know, we’re relegated to certain networks and mainstream.
Listen, when I started in this game in 1985, the biggest show on television was “The Cosby Show” in 1985. Where is that? You know, we don’t see that anymore. So, yeah, to his point, it’s so important that we create – some are directing and producing – create our own opportunities.
Say what you mean, I think the last time I was here, we were talking about Tyler Perry’s film, “Madea’s Family Reunion.” Say what you will about Tyler Perry, critics and whatnot, but that brother puts people to work. He’s given people employment. He’s given people opportunities. That’s really what it’s about, so we can tell our story.
Tavis: Speaking of telling your story, tell me about this project. Before you get to the project, about the entity, the organization, that was created to birth this project.
Underwood: Yeah. This is all about a dear friend of mine and ours. Her name is Ava DuVernay. Let me give a big shout-out to Ava DuVernay. She is such a warrior and a go-getter. She created this entity called – let me get it right. It’s a firm. It’s an acronym – African American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
Tavis: You got it. You did it! Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding (laugh).
Underwood: What she did was, she directed this film. It’s called “I Will Follow,” opens tonight in five markets, California, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle. But basically she created opportunities for films to be seen and she’s coupled with Black film festivals and AMC theaters to be able to bring these films to our community.
I mean, it’s really as simple as that. Because if other people aren’t doing it, we have to do it for ourselves, and she’s that person out there doing it for us for now.
Tavis: She’s not here on the set to ask this question, but what’s your sense talking to her and working with her of the difficulty or the ease – you tell me – of getting Black folk to understand what the mission of a firm is and to sign up to be a part of these projects?
Because, again, back to what Mackie and I were talking about, this can be done. It just means that everybody ain’t gonna make top dollar when you do it, number one, and it also means that you can’t spend $200 million dollars on the budget to make it happen. So are people getting that, buying into that, and being willing to do what you’re doing?
Underwood: I think, by and large, because people realize that, you know, if you’re a creative entity, you want to work. We all want to work, but especially if you’re creative and you’re theatrical and you have to express that somehow. And if the opportunities are not coming to you and you have a chance to do it, you’re right. You have to have that conversation with yourself. It can’t be about the money. It can’t be about fame and fortune. This is about just flexing.
I mean, really, this film, “I Will Follow,” my character is almost a cameo in the film. This is Sally Richardson’s film. It’s a beautiful film. Ave wrote the script and she directed the film. It’s about Sally dealing with the death of her aunt and coming to grips with pain and grief and I play her boyfriend who’s not as empathetic. He just wants her fineness with him in New York.
So, yeah, I mean, these films are the stories that need to be told, but we as an audience have to support these films. That’s what’s most important. We have to show up and, you know, give a couple dollars to come see it and then we’ll see more of those films.
Tavis: One of the things I’ve always loved about you – I’ve told you this many times and said about you when you’re not in the room – I love the choices that you’ve made over the course of your career –
Underwood: – oh, thank you.
Tavis: – for the kinds of characters that you want to play and, more importantly, for the ones that you don’t want to play, the stuff that you turn down which I’m aware of. But I raise that to ask in those instances where you have played a character that was not so – trying to find the right word here – so kind, so gentle, so upstanding in the community, was that like a conscious choice on your part?
I mean, you play these characters everybody loves all the time. How important is it to an actor to get out of that every now and again and to play somebody that we hate?
Underwood: To play the non-noble Negro.
Tavis: I like that (laugh). I was trying to be charitable about it and you went right at it (laugh).
Underwood: That’s right, that’s right. Wow, man. For me, it was critical because, you know, I had done seven years of “L.A. Law” which was really my biggest break.
Literally, the week of our last taping after seven years, I went into this film called “Just Cause” where the character – we talked about his – you know, was a serial killer and a pedophile. So that kind of helped turn the corner to play different characters and open up a whole slew of other characters along the way. But it’s important. For me, it’s about the big picture. It’s the long game.
You know, one of those bad characters I played, again, was in “Madea’s Family Reunion.” This guy was beating his fiancĂ© and it was terrible. Even then, the critics said, “Why you doing a Tyler Perry movie?” This was only his second film at the time. But what happened with the big picture, I did a series for HBO called “In Treatment” where I played a man who was in therapy, which was interesting in and of itself to see a Black man in therapy.
Some of the best reviews I ever got in my career opened up the next level of opportunities and specifically the producer and creator of “In Treatment” said, “When I saw you in Tyler Perry’s movie, to see that character who was conflicted and angry and all those things, I knew you could play that role.” So it really fed into the next big level.
Tavis: So back to “The Event” before my time runs out here in five seconds. For those who have not seen it, what is it about the series that’s pulling people in? Is it the intrigue?
Underwood: Yes, it’s intrigue, but it’s also a hybrid. It’s “24” and “Lost.” That’s the best we can say.
Tavis: Nice combination.
Underwood: It’s a political thriller, science fiction and knowing the number of them all in one.
Tavis: And a brother is president.
Underwood: And a brother is president. Afro-Cuban, no less.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. That is an interesting twist on this character.
Underwood: Yeah, yeah. Well, they wanted the Latin aspect. It was always conceived to be Latin. When I signed on, I said, “We still gonna make him Latin?” “You could be Afro-Cuban.” It’s really been an eye-opener for a lot of people. I have more people say, “Well, come on. You’re Black. How you gonna be Latin?” Okay, Latinos come very darker than me.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. And Negro read a book (laugh). How can you be Black and Latin?
Underwood: Brother, you’d be amazed.
Tavis: Yeah, don’t show your ignorance anywhere (laugh). I digress. His name, Blair Underwood. The show is called “The Event” on NBC. Blair, always good to have you on this program.
Underwood: Man, it’s great to see you. Appreciate it.
Tavis: Good to see you. Congratulations, man.
Underwood: Thank you.

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Last modified: October 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm