Actress Joy Bryant

The former fashion model and About Last Night star comments on building her acting career on both brains and talent.

Joy Bryant made a seamless transition from the runway to the big screen. Raised in the South Bronx, she was a young student of A Better Chance, an organization that encourages minority talent, and later attended Yale. While in college, she was discovered by a modeling scout and had a successful career as a fashion model for several years. She started acting in small roles and, after her breakthrough performance in the feature, Antwone Fisher, has appeared in several high-profile films, including About Last Night. She also stars in NBC's Parenthood. Bryant supports various nonprofit organizations and is one of Oxfam's Sisters on the Planet Ambassadors.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Joy Bryant is making something of a career these days of exploring the give and take of relationships in the NBC series, “Parenthood,” now in its fifth season. She plays a wife who’s put her career on the back burner to raise her children.

And in a new movie, “About Last Night,” she plays a woman who has just about given up on romance when she meets the man who may be able to change her mind played by Michael Ealy. We’ll take a look at a scene from “About Last Night” which also stars one Kevin Hart and Regina Hall.

[Clip]

Tavis: All right [laugh]. I’m all for a good remake. I’m all for putting a different spin, different look, different face on an old project. You saw the first iteration of this?

Joy Bryant: I did. I saw it a long time ago actually, but when I was too young to really understand what it was.

Tavis: To really get it, yeah.

Bryant: And when I was offered the movie, I went back and I watched it and I read the play just to sort of see where our movie was going to fall into.

Tavis: So without giving the whole thing away, for those who didn’t see the first one and will go see the second one, what happens when you like colorize the cast?

Bryant: Oh, it just gets sweeter [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah [laugh], with Joy and Kevin and Regina and Michael, like what happens?

Bryant: Well, you know, aside from the magic, what’s really great about that is that I think that it shows that, you know, listen, we’re people. We’re human beings who have relationships. We happen to be Black, but it’s really about the relationships that we have with one another. It’s not about anything other than that.

So everyone kind of relates to being in love and having their heart broken. I mean, that’s kind of a universal thing.

Tavis: Yeah. I was teasing you when that clip was playing. Kevin’s like everywhere.

Bryant: Yeah. Isn’t it great?

Tavis: I mean, it is. I was laughing with one of my producers the other day. We had Kevin on this show back in 2003, 2004 or something and nobody had heard of that little Negro. And now he’s like…

Bryant: Now he’s killing it.

Tavis: He’s killing it everywhere [laugh].

Bryant: Killing it.

Tavis: Every time I look, I see Kevin Hart in a commercial, in a movie. Number one for like three or four weeks in a row at the box office, the other flicks, now this one’s coming out.

Bryant: Huge.

Tavis: So the timing for this could be good. So you’re still doing “Parenthood?”

Bryant: I am.

Tavis: How is that coming along?

Bryant: It’s amazing. It’s the greatest job ever. I love it.

Tavis: Yeah. Why do you say that?

Bryant: Well, I get to go to work every day with great people, great material. I’ve learned so much from everyone and everything that I’m doing on the show. I live 12 minutes from the studio.

Tavis: Well, that’s the best part right there. No L.A. traffic.

Bryant: Yeah. I got a great schedule. They treat me very, very well over there like family and I hope it goes on for a very long time. It’s a sweet gig.

Tavis: You know what’s amazing about this show for me – I shouldn’t say amazing, but it’s fascinating for me is a better word – fascinating for me, Joy, how this show is doing remarkably well, five seasons now.

Bryant: Yeah.

Tavis: “Modern Family,” another show with all kinds of stuff going on remarkably well. And yet there was all this dust up recently about the Super Bowl ad with the interracial – you know this story? There was a big dust up about a Super Bowl that had an interracial family in it.

Bryant: Oh, the Cheerios?

Tavis: Yes. You remember this?

Bryant: I didn’t know it was the Super Bowl.

Tavis: But there was so much conversation about it. There have been articles written about it, internet talk. They couldn’t stomach like the cereal commercial with the interracial family. I’m raising that with you for obvious reasons. What do you make of this conversation still ongoing in our society?

Bryant: I just think – I mean, we’re not a post-racial society no matter what anyone wants to think. But it is a sign of progress that I can be in a relationship with a white guy on a show and not be a big issue within the show.

Like our entire story line is not about the fact that he’s white and I’m Black, and I’m Black and he’s white, and our kids – I mean, that comes in from time to time because it’s life. But it’s not the central issue. And we can kiss on air. 20, 30, some odd years ago, that was super taboo.

So it’s just a sign of progress and we’re still gonna have people who are ignorant and people who don’t understand or have a problem with it, which I just don’t understand. But, you know, it’ll change in time. It’s changing.

Tavis: Yeah. So there’s never any trepidation on your part about playing the character?

Bryant: No, not at all, not at all.

Tavis: I could talk to you for hours about your work.

Bryant: Good. Yay!

Tavis: They don’t give me that kind of time. Don’t get too excited.

Bryant: Want to have coffee?

Tavis: Yeah. Don’t get too excited. But as I read more of your backstory, as I do for all of our guests when they come on the program, I was fascinated and am fascinated by your relationship with your grandmother.

Bryant: Oh, pretty fascinating.

Tavis: For those who watch this show enough, they’ve seen a thousand times that I can’t wait to get into the backstory of peoples’ lives. Tell me about your mama, tell me about your daddy, tell me about your grandparents. That’s where the good stuff is for me.

Bryant: That’s right.

Tavis: I’ve said so many times and I believe this, that we are who we are because somebody loved us.

Bryant: Oh, definitely.

Tavis: We are who we are because somebody – and it’s so clear that your grandmother had a profound impact on you. So tell me about your grandmamma.

Bryant: My grandmother, Lorraine Bryant, man, if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be sitting here even talking about her. My mother was really young when she had me. She was a teenager and my grandmother raised six kids of her own plus helped raise her sister’s kids. And when I was born, she went on welfare to stay at home and raise me.

Tavis: This is what city?

Bryant: The Bronx, South Bronx.

Tavis: The Boogie Down.

Bryant: The Boogie Down.

Tavis: Just wanted to get that out there. Go ahead.

Bryant: That’s right. Let’s get that out there [laugh]. So it’s because of her that I’m here. She read to me every night. She always told me that it didn’t matter if I was a poor Black child from the Bronx. I can be anything that I wanted to be. Just work hard.

I mean, of course, there’s obstacles along the way, but just to start from there, that that belief or just giving me the permission to dream because where I come from, you know, that’s not really – dreams are very far and few between. So education was the key for me to break out from that and that was the only way, according to her.

So I studied hard. I did well in school. She exposed me to so many things. I mean, just on a fixed income, she saved her pennies every year. I was able to go to the circus once a year. I was able to go to Rye Playland in New York. I was able to go to Coney Island and get one hotdog and one chocolate shake and that’s what I got, a malt every year. Yeah, I was able to get into A Better Chance.

Tavis: It’s a great program.

Bryant: Yes.

Tavis: ABC, yeah.

Bryant: Yeah. And because of that, I got a scholarship to Westminster School in Connecticut and then, from there, I went on to Yale. And then she died in my freshman year.

‘Cause like my whole thing going to Yale was I’m going to go to Yale, I’m gonna major in Economics, I’m gonna get a job in corporate America or work on Wall Street, I’m gonna make a lots of money. I mean, I am on five, right?

And then I’m gonna take my nana out of the ghetto and we’re gonna live happily ever after. And then she died in my freshman year and it just made me sort of like question what am I doing? Why am I here?

And that’s when I dropped out and started modeling. While this is – where I am right now as an actor, I never thought that I would be here. You know, the things that she taught me, the tools that she gave me, made me who I am and I will never – I mean, I got a tattoo with her on my neck.

Tavis: So it’s the modeling then, of course, that led to the acting?

Bryant: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay. Did you make the right decision that you left Yale?

Bryant: Yes, definitely, definitely.

Tavis: You say that with confidence.

Bryant: For sure.

Tavis: Why?

Bryant: I think I only regretted it two years after I left because my friends were graduating then and I was like, damn, if I had just had stayed. But I wasn’t happy and I took the chance. And I felt like I was kind of keeping the seat warm.

I worked my butt off to get into that school and I was paying my own way through loans, work study, some financial aid. And here was an opportunity, so I took it and it worked out.

It could not have worked out, but, I mean, I think that, you know, successful people take risks. Here I am, a poor Black kid from the Bronx, dropping out of Yale acting like I got it like that. Well, sometimes you got to fake it until you make it.

I mean, I’m not sure now if I would make such a risky decision, but it worked out and I never regretted it at all because of the life that I have now and the things that I’ve learned, and it worked out. It could not have.

Tavis: What do you make of that and that your avocation turns out to be one of acting? How do you juxtapose that beginning with this ending?

Bryant: I mean, you know, when I was younger, I would watch TV and movies and stuff and I’m like, oh, yeah, I could do that. But I never saw myself as being an actor. I just thought that, oh, yeah, that’s kind of cool.

I actually thought I’d be an astronomer when I was little, studying the stars. And I think it’s actually kind of interesting that like…

Tavis: You’re a star.

Bryant: I’m kind of, well, it’s not the star I was planning on, but it’s not so bad. But I think that, you know, we can have a plan. One of my friends said, you know, stick to the plan until the plan changes. You know, we can have plans for ourselves, but you have to remain flexible because life is gonna throw you some curve balls and you take it and things will never be the way that you necessarily planned.

Or it’s like you pray for things and you’ll get them, but they won’t be exactly the way that you had in your mind. So I think like from getting into acting, getting into modeling, going to Yale, all these things, I just basically took the opportunities that were in front of me and took the jump.

Tavis: You know that old adage. We plan and God laughs.

Bryant: Right.

Tavis: So it all works out.

Bryant: That’s right.

Tavis: It’s a long way from the Boogie Down, a long way from the Boogie Down Bronx. Joy Bryant is in the “Parenthood,” she’s in this new movie, “About Last Night.”

Bryant: Oh!

Tavis: What…?

Bryant: We did this for you.

Tavis: Oh, cool is that? Aw, look at this. Can you see that? There you go, “About Last Night”.

Bryant: M&Ms with like our faces and stuff on ‘em.

Tavis: No.

Bryant: Totally.

Tavis: Are you serious?

Bryant: Yeah.

Tavis: Hold on. I gotta see this.

Bryant: It’s got tape on the side.

Tavis: Uh-oh. I gotta open this ’cause it’s got…

Bryant: And then you can like take the M&M out and it’s like we’re talking. You’re gonna talk to the M&M so that we’re talking for hours.

Tavis: Oh, I see it.

Bryant: Yeah. So we like totally hang out.

Tavis: I love M&Ms, but…

Bryant: Can you see me?

Tavis: Hate to bite a chunk of your face, though, yeah.

Bryant: No, you can’t do that! Aw, isn’t it sweet?

Tavis: [Laugh] You know what? Before I get in some trouble, I’m getting out of here right now. All right, thanks for watching [laugh]. Goodnight and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: February 17, 2014 at 2:00 pm