It’s happy hour time on a late Sunday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, and Gabrielle Union is wearing the sunset, a satin dress that shifts from twilight blue to dusky peach, end-capped with a pair of goldenrod sandals. Union’s got a grin on her face and a skinny, spicy margarita in her right hand, a reward her Breaking In character Shaun Russell deserves for battling four goons who’ve snuck into her family’s rural fortress, where her son’s toy drone is out-teched by her estranged dad’s spy cameras and shatterproof windows.
Breaking In, directed by V for Vendetta’s James McTeigue and in theaters this weekend, is cruel, relentless, and cathartic. In Union’s first fight, the desperate mom wrestles, bites, elbows, and kicks her attacker, before stabbing him with a broken wine glass. There’s another hour of escalating brawls to go, but the wine glass feels particularly poetic: Last fall, Union broke herself open with her memoir We’re Gonna Need More Wine, where, alongside pieces about her childhood heroes (“All my first lessons about sexuality came from Saint Judy Blume”), she wrote a brave, brutal piece about being raped at gunpoint when she was a 19-year-old UCLA student working at a Payless shoe store. Breaking In’s badass Shaun seems like a full-circle handspring from Bring It On’s badass cheerleader Isis. But in reality, Union’s been flexing her vulnerability.
Five years ago at Essence’s Fierce & Fabulous awards, Union stood in front of a ballroom of women and admitted she’d taken her badass reputation too far, especially while competing with her colleagues for the few worthy black female roles. “I used to revel in gossip and rumors and I lived for the negativity upon my sister actresses or anyone who I felt like whose shine diminished my own. I took joy in people’s pain and I tap-danced on their misery,” said Union. “It’s easy to pretend to be fierce and fearless because living your truth takes real courage.”
Today, Union’s got plenty of reasons to brag, like the two-year first-look deal her production company, I’ll Have Another, just signed with Sony, and her new NBC pilot LA’s Finest, in which her Bad Boys II character Special Agent Syd Burnett ditches Miami for the LAPD. Yet, she’s dedicated to love. Her Twitter feed is a party toasting the women who awe her — famous and non — and she’s just resolved her 17-year feud with Jada Pinkett Smith. It’s tempting to accuse Union of having it all. But truth-telling margarita in her hand or not, Union’s seizing opportunities to get real.
In Breaking In, you’ve got your plain T-shirt on. You’re barefoot. Your loved ones are hostages of money-grubbing crooks. This is your Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
I’m glad you noticed the shoeless thing. I fought it. I lost that battle. I was like, “In the black community we don’t do barefoot outside.” We really don’t do barefoot inside, it’s just not a thing in our community. And they were like, “No, no! She got home, she took off her shoes.” But nooooo, we just don’t do that. The audience is gonna be like, “Ewwwwww.” Literally, there was some person’s poor job where anytime you could see the bottom of my feet — because they’d turn black — they’d wipe off the bottom of my feet. It can’t distract people. And then the second she has the bad guy tied up, I’m like, she needs to take his shoes. We can’t do a whole movie with this because people will be like, she’s still barefoot! She’s running barefoot! Which was not my favorite part.
Did you really skid down a hill barefoot?
I didn’t. My stuntwoman [Jénel Stevens], who was fresh off her job in Wakanda, she was full of vibranium, and she slid down that hill onto the truck. I’m not equipped — I got a wonky hip — so I like the professionals to do the real tough stunts that could possibly maim me. And she’s amazing.
We did see you flex your muscles smashing up a wall with a sledgehammer in a Miami episode of HGTV’s All Star Flip with Dwayne. Does that count as CrossFit?
Is CrossFit where you do the thing on the tire?
Where you get exercise just doing things you’d do anyway if you were a caveman who needed to move tires?
Yeah, I was trying to keep my physical exertion to the very minimum. I was like, “Oh, we’re gonna do this shit? Oh, okay, yes, this is awesome. I thought we were going to be more supervising.” We don’t ever get to work together, me and my husband, so we just had a blast.
Was there a stunt where you were like, Oh, this is easier than I thought — I’m a natural?
Anything fight-related. Not that I’m a brawler in my past life. It’s just nice to be able to fight in a very primal, feral cat kind of way, where you’re not trying to be cute, you’re not trying to mug it up, and it’s not super-choreographed. Just very primal, very animalistic. I have a lot of pent-up anger, so it was perfect — it was perfect.
You’ve been getting more interested in executive producing, now producing. Why this story?
This is actually me and Will’s third project. I brought him onto Being Mary Jane in season four or season five, and then we executive-produced Almost Christmas together. He’s just an easy person to work with. He gets what I’m thinking, we have an easy shorthand. And I had told him I wanted to do more action, so if you get something action-related, let me know. He was like, “I think I have the right script.” I was like, “Is there a dude that saves the day?” He said, “No, you save yourself.” And I said, “You had me at hello.” That’s really what appealed to me. And then I obviously wanted to produce it to make sure that nobody showed up at the end. [Mimes paging through a screenplay.] Wait … wait … a husband comes!? Oh, he gets his ass kicked and she still gets to save the day — great.
Watching you kick ass in a house, I kept thinking about the passage in your memoir, We’re Gonna Need More Wine, where, after the attack when you were 19, you talk about being ruled by fear and not leaving your house for a year.
It’s been — shit — 25 years, since. Somebody else asked me today about the scene with Ajiona [Alexus, who plays Shaun’s teen daughter Jasmine] where the bad guy was like, “I’m about to have some fun with your daughter,” and if that was on purpose. I explained that women live in fear of sexual violence every day. It’s just something that’s in the back of your mind whether you’re walking from the subway to your car, or walking from school to home, or walking through a club and you’re like, Pleeeeease don’t let anybody fucking touch me. It’s just a constant, everyday concern. And in this case, a lot of violence against women encompasses sexual violence, and I did not want the moment to pass without us addressing that in a not-super-gratuitous way. But just reminding people this is what women live with every day. That fear. That worry. It’s just one of those shitty, sucky things that people don’t think about.
We don’t know what it’s like to not to think about it.
Yeah, it’s like, Oh, gotta brush my teeth — hope nobody fucks with me today! Nobody grabs my ass on the train. Nobody invades my personal space or demeans me or says something sexist. I hope today’s the day that I find out I actually do make half of what the guy I trained makes. These are all real sorts of larger issues that we deal with on the daily. Also, we have to be superheroes for our families and ourselves every day. We have to do little heroic things, big heroic things, we gotta somehow figure out how to move heaven and earth to advocate for our kids and provide for our children and provide for ourselves.
Very rarely does somebody on a white horse, or a cape, show up to save the day. We have to figure it the fuck out — and we do. And we generally don’t have the same resources, we don’t have the same attention, we’re not getting paid the same. But we have to still be excellent and hope that one day somebody notices. And for moms, we make moms the most sexless, powerless, mute group. “Somebody has to come save mom and the kids!” Nah, not today. Mom and the kids are gonna save themselves, because that’s how strong we are everyday. I don’t know why that doesn’t translate onto screen, that we’re actually quite capable. I love that in the movie, the bad guy is constantly like, “She’s just a mom. She’s just a woman.”
Shaun gets underestimated by everybody — even her son when he says, “Mom, even you could figure out the security system.” How do your parenting styles overlap?
I think Shaun is much more traditional. Until she’s not. We don’t do bickering in the car at all. That would have been shut down in a different tone. We also don’t do narcing on each other. If he’s going to get in trouble, let him get in trouble because he screwed up. But not because you told us. You guys have to learn that you’re family — you gotta stick together. And if he took out the golf cart without permission, we better figure it out on our own. Sometimes we parent after sangria and we’re like, “Did that even make sense? I don’t know if we even answered his question?” We figure it out. It’s a lot of trial and error. There’s no fricking handbook, and the handbooks that are out there, they don’t apply to most of the situations that pop up in our lives. They just don’t.
Your book is called We’re Going to Need More Wine. What wine are we drinking?
We have a Wade wine that’s very big in China. My husband now is on his third wine, his fourth wine. [Wade’s line of “deep dark ruby reds” is indeed available in the States for $240–$1140 a case.] But we drink a lot of it in America to make sure it’s good for [mock-professional voice] overseas distribution. So between his wine and my wine, Vanilla Puddin’ [a “fun, elegant, stylish and approachable” $16.99 chardonnay], we keep it in-house. Last summer, I was very much on frosé. I didn’t even know that was a thing! You know when people say something and you try to go along with it like, “Yeah, yeah, I love frosé — what the fuck is frosé?” and they’re like, [whispers] “It’s frozen rosé.” Well, I ordered some and thank god now I know what the hell is coming! Normally, I’m just like, “Tequila rocks and don’t cut it with anything.” But this is a spicy skinny margarita with a little agave, jalapeño.
Have you ever tried rosé gumdrops?
Wait — what is that? What is that? They’re like gumdrops?
Like a rosé gummy bear?
Like an edible? Like a rosé edible?
Yeah, but not like a weed thing.
But it’s like an alcohol? An alcohol edible. That’s a thing? I don’t get out enough — what the fuck. Where do they sell these?
That expensive candy store where everything is like four pieces in a tiny plastic box and people give them to each other to look fancy.
Can you get buzzed?
Oh. Probably why I haven’t searched.
When did you have time to write your book? Your cell phone between takes?
A lot of it was written in therapy, as homework for my therapist. And then we had to rewrite it and put it in book form. And then sift through it: “I’m not ready to talk about that, I am ready to talk about this, not that, not that, but this.” Getting to a place in therapy, in my spirit — I can write anything, but the releasing it to the world, that was years of therapy to get to this point. And even then I was like, This is such a good essay but I’m not prepared to talk about that on a talk show. I’m really not prepared for people to be flip with my pain, so I’m going to hold off on that till the next one that’s gonna be called We’re Gonna Need More Tequila, where we really get into some shit.
Did you know that Judy Blume also lives in Florida?
She’s not far from you — she’s in Key West and she runs a bookstore.
Don’t tell me that because you know I’m going to make a pilgrimage. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret! Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself! That’s my childhood.
I was so impressed by your 2013 speech at Essence’s Fierce & Fabulous awards. You’re facing all these people and admitting about how competitive you were with them when you were younger. What was it like up there at the microphone before you opened your mouth?
Oh fuck! Fuck, that’s Oprah and [TV life coach] Iyanla Vanzant and everyone I’ve ever worked with, everyone I’ve ever loved, everyone who’s ever supported me, everyone who’s ever hated on me — they’re all in the same fucking room! And I’m going to just be honest and hope that it is received. First, it was like just mouths open and just, you could see people crying. Have I said too much, oh shit, fuck, too much, too much, not enough? And by the end it was just validation that hey, truth is actually okay. We don’t have to speak in weird fucking clichés all the time. It’s okay to actually speak your truth and stand by it and be like, I wasn’t always a peach. There’s been days I’m a rotten apple with a worm sticking out. And we can evolve. We can do better. Let’s call a thing a thing, let’s acknowledge it, let’s make amends, and do better.
LA’s Finest, your new Bad Boys 2 spin-off show, co-stars Jessica Alba — you two have a connection going back to when you were an intern in the entertainment industry finishing your sociology degree at UCLA?
My manager represented her, which is weird because she was more of the working actor. She was on the roster. At the time, there was not a lot of people of color so when an audition would come in, we’d be like, “Who can we send out? Ooh! The Latina!” And I was like, “She’s a teen with two kids and she’s trying to get out of a gang?” “She’s good for it!” “Okayyyyy.” Jessica’s preteen and teen IMDb was playing the troubled teen when she’s a boss chick. Later in life, we always met up at the bar. There’s those people who you’re always like, Who’s at this bar; who’s at this party? “Hey Alba! Cash! What’s up?!” We always found ourselves hanging out together having the same reactions to what was happening in the room. So it was a natural extension of being like, “I know you’re running a billion-dollar company and you just gave birth to your third human being, but can you in your spare time come work with me? Because I think having two women of color executive-produce and star in this show could be kinda fucking dope.
Are you ever thinking about getting into politics?
No. No. I am definitely working with grassroots organizations to flip districts. Right now there’s a few of us — Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross, Uzo Aduba, Aisha Hinds — that are trying to get Stacey Abrams elected the next governor of Georgia. But I work more on the local level, whether that’s judges, sheriffs, just trying to really encourage people to vote in their best interests.
People point to Bring It On as your breakout role, but what role do you think meant the most to you as the actress you were becoming?
Probably Cadillac Records, because I proved to myself that I could do something other than be the tough bitch and the leader and the “girl on the right side of the tracks who falls in love with the boy on the wrong side of the tracks.” I played a woman who has her heart ripped out just because she fell in love with a guy. She just stayed out of love and allowed herself to be trampled on. A woman forever lives Michelle Obama’s, “When they go low, we stay high.” I hate the high road, personally — I like a fast pass on the low road!