INTERVIEW: Gabrielle Union On BET’s ‘Being Mary Jane,’ Offers Marital Advice

Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul in BET's "Being Mary Jane." (Photo: BET Networks/Quantrell D. Colbert)

Strong black woman is a phrase that many people either utter with pride or cringe at its very mentioning. Whether you embrace or reject it, one thing’s for sure: there’s a growing number of them on TV. Over the past several month’s we’ve seen Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills on Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” Angela Bassett as Voodoo Queen Madame Marie Laveau on FX’s “American Horror Story: Coven” and of course, everyone’s favorite, Kerry Washington as fixer Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.”

And now there’s a new girl being added to that bunch: Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul on BET’s “Being Mary Jane.”

Mary Jane, like the other characters mentioned, is complex, multidimensional and far from perfect but is excellent at her craft and handles her business. You know, she looks good on paper yet other areas of her life are a mess. She’s a TV anchor on an Atlanta-based network and goes through relationship joys and ills with her lovers, family members and co-workers. She also faces some realities about herself.  “Being Mary Jane” debuted as a 90-minute TV movie last July and will premiere its first season tonight at 10 p.m EST on BET.  It was born from the creative mind of Mara Brock Akil, who created “Girlfriends” and another BET staple, “The Game,” with her husband, director and producer Salim Akil. “Being Mary Jane” is the network’s first original scripted series. 

Union’s joined by veterans Richard Roundtree and Margaret Avery as her parents Paul Patterson Sr. and Helen Patterson, Omari Hardwick as her married ex Andre Daniels and Stephen Bishop as David, another one of her exes. At one time it looked as if Union had more in common with her character–attractive, successful, unmarried with no children–but just a few weeks ago, her luck changed. Her longtime beau, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade proposed to her with a “monstrous” engagement ring, as described by some. And even though dust is being kicked up related to news of the new, publicly-revealed mother of his 5-month-old son, the two appear to be brushing their shoulders and moving on together.

“There’s nothing good that comes from spreading negative stories and gossip or half-truths or not-truths,” Union says about the media’s coverage of gossip that “trashes black celebrities” instead of focusing on uplifting celebrity news.

Speaking of, Union has “Think Like a Man 2” set for this spring, an untitled film previously called “Finally Famous” with Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Hart and Cedric the Entertainer that’s due out some time this year and is looking for projects for her production company, Stew U Productions, with writer-director Nzingha Stewart. 

“I’ve optioned a number of books and articles. I’m always looking for material. There’s a lot going on,” she continues.

I met up with Union, who was participating in a multi-city promotional tour for “Being Mary Jane,” on a blustery winter day last month in Chicago (pre-engagement) where we discussed the pressure some women feel to get hitched, spirituality in black TV and cinema and marital advice she offers.

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What can you share about how the writers plan to develop Mary Jane as a character?

I know where she’s going, at least for the first season. You’re going to see a lot more strife at work where she’ll try to assert herself a lot more in terms of trying to fight the good fight and get quality, hard-hitting, important stories. She’s on a network that’s fifth out of five networks and the pressure is on to deliver ratings–and to save her job. And this after she’s already been fired from CNN. So she’s under a tremendous amount of pressure at work and she butts heads a lot. Her love life does not get less complicated–but you’ll see her just try to find that true, genuine love without the moral dilemmas. And she’s also wondering if marriage is even for her–not even if it’s a possibility but if marriage was staring her in the face, is it even something she would want. She’s wondering if kids are in her future? So all of this along this path.  She’s also dealing with being one of the primary caregivers of not just her parents but of her extended family. That doesn’t get any less complicated. And then her friends, as they become more aware of some of her decisions that have not been so great, you’ll see how it affects her friendships. Because friendships–we like to think they’re unconditional–but when you are truly doing things that are morally reprehensible it tests the boundaries of friendship.

A lot of women–and even men–are raised to want to get married and have children but you say that Mary Jane is questioning whether she even desires that lifestyle. Why is that a struggle for her?

Her parents have been married for a long time but her mother has become kind of cantankerous. You see that there is a bit of strife and it kind of calls into question whether it is even worth it. In one of the first couple of episodes, you see other women kind of become interested in her father even though her mother hasn’t passed away but they smell blood in the water, like they’re trying to go for it. And she’s very protective of her father, very protective of her family but wondering if this is something that’s even going to be for her. Especially being involved with Andre (played by Hardwick) and seeing that whole thing and wondering, ‘Is that what marriage looks like?’ Is it her parents’ relationship ups and downs or many of her other friends who have marital issues? For me, as someone who has been married and divorced, when you’re engaged, everyone talks about how amazing it is and they talk about the dress, they talk about who’s going to marry you and all of this other stuff but nobody ever tells you how hard it is and then you get married, and they’re like, ‘It sucks, doesn’t it?’ And then you’re like, ‘Ah, you didn’t say any of this when I was dress shopping and we were picking out center pieces and all of that other stuff. You didn’t tell me the truth about it’s really difficult and it’s work, it’s another job.’ You may have work, you may have kids and then you have another job when you come home. And putting in that kind of dedication … it might not work.  Marriage isn’t for everybody just like they say college isn’t for everybody, neither is marriage. And you have to figure that out before you do it.

A lot of people have been in the same position as Mary Jane where they’re looking at the marriages around them and feeling it isn’t the ideal that  they’ve been fed. But it seems that more black women are becoming obsessed with this notion of “doing it right,” you know, get married first then have a baby, to avoid the stigma of being a baby mama, single mother or labeled a welfare queen–

Well, you even have to decide if you want kids. For so many of us, you know, career women put off children. It’s like, when is it ever a good time to put your career on hold? Even though so many companies have great maternity leaves and everything else,  you’ve seen the women who’ve come before you and for a lot of women, what happens is that it’s not the same. They don’t really stick a pin in your job and it waits for you. They start to rely on you less and think you’re not going to be as dedicated. There’s a lot of assumptions that go into being a mom and a career person. For a lot of women looking in, it’s like, ‘I value my career. I value everything that I’ve worked for. I’m not ready to take what appears to be a step back or I’m not ready to re-prioritize.’ Especially when we’ve put our career first for so many years. It’s a tough thing to even decide if you want kids, you know. And if you do, do you decide to try to do it alone? Do you wait for this perfect person who’s supposed to come along? And the older you get your standards–for some of us–they keep going higher because we’ve lived and we’re like I don’t want to deal with that or that or that. Or they just drop and they’re like, man, he’s here. He blinks; he’s good. That’s real life for a lot of people. Pretty much everyone I know, and even for my married friends, it’s just that reality and that idea that you’re not complete without a ring. I’ve had the ring, I’ve given it back. You think it’s the end-all, be-all and it’s not.

What do you say to black women who have that attachment to the idea that they’re incomplete unless they have that ring? I’m running into a lot of women who believe that?

It’s a reality because we’re fed that from a very young age. It’s like we want to be the princess that gets saved and your life isn’t complete unless you have this fairy tale. And the reality is marriage is as great as you make it. But it is not the end-all, be-all to your life. The whole idea, you know the “Jerry Maguire” moment where it’s like, ‘Oh, you complete me.’ Well, you better be damn near close to complete, your egg better be cooked before you try to slice it in half. Otherwise, you’re just inviting someone else into more problems. If you’re still trying to work out your daddy issues or your mommy issues or whatever other trauma that you’ve experienced, you haven’t found yourself, this idea that, ‘Oh, we’ll just figure it out’ or ‘You complete me, you’re my better half’…We need to be two wholes walking side-by-side together and if we can’t be two whole people walking side-by-side together, we’re the walking wounded and we can’t help anybody. And then you create more wounded people.

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During the first episode, I noticed a Buddha in the bathroom and in the season premiere, I noticed Mary Jane reading “Ask and It Is Given”–had you read that book before?

No, these are all Mara [Brock Akil] things. I mean I have Buddhas all over my house. Yeah, like my house in L.A. and my house–we have all sorts of religious things. Buddhas for me, after traveling all over the world, it is peace, it is joy, it is unadulterated sanity, clarity and openness. So I have them all over the place to remind me of that. That’s one of the things I share with Mara.

Seeing the incorporation of nontraditional religious items like the Buddha statue and “Ask and It Is Given” presents “Being Mary Jane” in broader scope than how most black-centric shows and movies tend to be presented.

Well, it’s broadening our horizon. As a group of people we tend to be at the very least very spiritual. Some of us explore that spirituality with organized religion and some of us explore that spiritually by communing in nature. But to be open to all of it and to be accepting of all of it, and to be accepting of the diversity–at least that’s my personal goal, and clearly that is something me and Mara kind of share. Like with ‘Being Mary Jane,” this idea that it’s not one size fits all whether that be religion, love, career–there has to be room for a variety of choices and no one choice is better than the other. We’re all in this world together, we’re all trying, we all want the same thing: we want to love, we want to be loved, we want success, security, safety. And that doesn’t really change whether you’ve got Buddhas in your house or crucifixes or you have nothing. We all have a shared humanity. You see that reflected–certainly the diversity of spirituality–among her friends when you see the episodes showing them. Everyone embraces something different yet they all are friends and they all are respectful. It’s not a ‘thing.’

In the show, we also see siblings who grew up in the same household yet only one–in this case, Mary Jane–appears to be the successful one. That presentation might ruffle some people the wrong way.

How you feel about the family dynamic depends on where you’re at with your family. If you are like the person that other people always have to help, you’re going to be a little sensitive. You’re going to look at it differently because you’re seeing yourself reflected and you don’t like it. And if you’ve been put in the Mary Jane position where you are the one–though raised the same and given the same opportunities–seem to be the one who emulated your parents’ success the most, you can be incredibly resentful of always having to solve other people’s problems or come to the rescue. But you’re seeing yourself. And if you’re somewhere kind of in between, it could inspire you to be something different. Because sometimes, if you’re the person that’s always getting the help, you lose the perspective of being the person that’s always having to help. And when sometimes you just need to see it and you’re like, ‘Damn, I don’t want to be a burden on someone.’ Everyone’s situation, just like in families, it evolves. Your luck can change, you’re effort can change. Your goals can change. Your decisions can change. And so you see some of the ebbs and flows and successes and losses just within the course of Mary Jane’s family and how the dynamic is ebbing and flowing. We don’t always hit it out of the park but the way her family is set up is to not let anybody fall too far. Even tough love has its boundaries in her family. So it’s interesting to watch and it’s more interesting for me to be a voyeur, to see how other people are receiving it. And sometimes you just see a blank face because it’s too real, it’s too painful. And sometimes it’s refreshing and sometimes it’s like, ‘Thank you, somebody gets it.’ But depending on where you’re at in your life … it can be a bumpy ride. It also can be an inspiring ride depending on where you’re at.

Last year, you joined Viola Davis, Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad on “Oprah’s Next Chapter” to talk about your experiences as a black woman in Hollywood. You have more blacks in nonstereotypical roles like “Being Mary Jane,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Scandal” and Michael Ealy in “Almost Human”–

I was going to say “Person of Interest” (starred Taraji P. Henson) but I can’t believe they killed her–they killed Carter!

Right, that’s on TV. Of course, people talk about this being another golden age for blacks in film. Where do you see black people in Hollywood in terms of images on-screen and even just getting work?

This is something Richard Roundtree just spoke about. With more people of color having production companies and more actors taking a more proactive approach in shaping and creating those images, you’re going to see a myriad of images and stories, depictions of every aspect of black life because you have such a wealth of diversity of people with production companies now. They’re figuring out how to get things made whether it be webisodes all the way to films and everything in between. There are so many more mediums to explore and to sell our wares that we have a lot more control over it. Some people say they have slave movie fatigue, well, then, you don’t have to see it, there’s other things coming. But the reality is that we have done so well and we’ve been doing so well. Sometimes the light is shining on us a little brighter than at other times but it’s not for a lack of ability and it’s not for a lack of work. A bunch of movies starring people are made every year. Whether they get small distribution or they get wide distribution, how long they’re in a theater–that is something that we control as a black public. So you want to see different portrayals? Put your money where your mouth is. Go to see different. Seek out these films. Get them on Netflix. Tune in to people’s webisodes. There’s so much going on, you just have to support it.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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