Blair Underwood stars as Charles Joseph Walker, husband of hair mogul Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madam C. J. Walker in the Netflix limited series “Self Made.” He also has a guest role in the latest season of “Dear White People.”
Underwood recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Charles Bright about starring alongside the likes of Octavia Spencer in “Self Made,” his approach to a dark character in “Dear White People” and what an Emmy nomination would mean to him. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: The first question I wanna ask to you, Blair, is in regard to “Self Made,” how do you process playing someone like C. J. Walker who seems very noble at first but then is revealed to have a much darker side to him?
Blair Underwood: Charlie, that’s a great question. How do I process playing a guy that has a darker side to them? Well, first of all, I think you just have to dive into the reality and the actuality of who that person is. What was important to me was to really establish how C. J., Charles Joseph Walker, and Sarah Breedlove, who became known as Madam C. J. Walker, that they loved each other. From all historical accounts, C. J. was there before she made her money, before she became famous and in fact, he helped her very much because he was a promoter, he was a marketer he was a salesman and he brought a lot to the table. I thought it was important to show that this guy was there for seemingly the right reasons in the beginning and actually did love her. That’s much more interesting when that relationship goes awry and he starts making choices that he should not have if he were a man of fidelity and a man who loved his wife but it got very complicated. As you can imagine, a man in the early 1900s, a black man at that time in the early 1900s in the shadow of his wife, it was very difficult. Then you introduce alcohol into it and ego and all of that stuff. To answer your question in terms of processing it, you just have to take that ride and these characters, dark characters or bad guys, people often ask, “Why do you like playing bad guys?” In a nutshell, because they’re more interesting to play because of the complexities we’re speaking of right now. There’s good in him. There’s also not so good and bad in him. That’s much more interesting to play than just the character who you know what to expect and everything is what you would intend for it to be in terms of playing a good guy or a heroic character. I like those too, but I like to mix it up.
GD: I hear you on that one definitely. One of the interesting things about the series is you have this incredible cast there and I’m wondering what kind of atmosphere does having castmates like Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish and Garrett Morris bring to the shoot of that kind of thing because I have to imagine especially those three, it has to add another degree of excitement to shooting that series.
BU: Man, Charlie, I have to tell you, I think I had more fun on this set than I’ve had in years, probably decades, partially because I’m a history buff. I love the clothes and the cars and going back in time, but in addition to that, to work with Octavia Spencer, who of course is a phenomenal actress but is silly as she wants to be and hilarious, Tiffany Haddish, Garrett Morris, and Bill Bellamy, by the way, hear me when I say it was hard to keep a straight face on that set most of the time. We had a ball. It was a lot of fun.
GD: I’m really glad to hear that because having those personalities together seems like it would be the most conducive to having the best creative experience as well.
BU: It really was. You put that group of people together, all this comedic talent and dramatic talent too by the way, but to put all these talented people together in the same mix on the same set and you hope that it’s gonna be a good time and people are gonna get along and hit it off, and we really did, which was great all around. A lot of fun.
GD: Another thing I think is really interesting about this series is it brings to life for people who may not know about it, the plight of black hair in general. Recently we’ve seen a lot of stories that highlight discrimination or prejudice related to black people and their hair, probably the most famous one was the case of DeAndre Arnold, the high school wrestler in Texas. Was he a wrestler? I’m mixing it up with another one.
BU: With the locks.
GD: Yeah, he had his dreadlocks. He was recently at the Oscars where “Hair Love” won the Best Animated Short Oscar. I was curious if you’ve ever experienced anything like that during your career.
BU: No, I can’t say I’ve experienced discrimination on my hair per se. I’ve had pretty tame hairdos. In terms of backlash or resistance to my hair, no, but I will tell you that I’ve been very creative with my hair throughout the years. Back in the ‘80s I had it processed for a while and I’d have what we call a permanent, permanently make it straight, which would actually grow out in about two weeks. I tried all kinds of different things. I had dreadlocks for a while. I had an afro in junior high school. That’s the thing and that’s why especially African Americans can relate to this story. At least it’s intriguing and compelling because you’re dealing with black hair. Our hair in the black community, it’s a very important, critical part of our expression, how we see ourselves, how we present ourselves to the world. So for someone like Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madam C. J. Walker, to come along, and you have to understand we’re coming out right out of being enslaved, we’re coming out of the Reconstruction era, late 1800s, early 1900s, like 40 years after that, there was a time in African American history where it was very important and critical for us to present ourselves in the right way so we could evolve and grow up the social ladder, social status. So it just made sense when Madam C. J. Walker came along to say we can help you with your hair to make it grow, number one, but also to have it styled in certain ways and make it presentable to the world and respectable. That’s another conversation that goes into what they call now respectability politics or the politics of respectability whereby you try to live a respectful life, speak the King’s English and do the right thing so that society will see you and respect you. So at that time especially, that was very prevalent in the black community.
GD: I actually wanna just transition to talk about your role on “Dear White People,” which was another very interesting role, also had a bit of darkness to it. It’s kind of similar to my first question but how do you approach playing someone who’s accused of something very dark but still play up the ambiguity as to whether or not he actually committed what he’s been accused of?
BU: I think in playing up the ambiguity of it all, you start from the notion of you gotta stay rooted in reality, number one, make it honest and believable and authentic. But more than that just from a presentation standpoint or a performance standpoint, it’s always best to keep the audience guessing. In as much as you can keep them off-kilter, they don’t know what to expect or what’s real until it’s time for it to be revealed in the end. That was one of my questions coming into the project because Yvette Lee Bowser, who’s an executive producer on the project, is a friend of mine and she extended the invitation to come on the show and I said, “Well, what kind of character is he?” And this MeToo movement with this young student that he’s accused of… I wasn’t sure in the beginning would it be clear if he did actually have this sexual act with a student or was he only accused of it and he did not do it. That informs how you play it in the beginning but I’ll just say from a performance standpoint it’s good to keep the audience guessing for as long as you can.
GD: When you went in to start shooting it, did you already know what the final outcome was with that character and did you use that to play up that ambiguity?
BU: Yeah, I did know when we started, now that I think back on it. I did know that he actually did do it, have sex with a student, but it’s still ambiguous the way it’s written. You don’t know if it was consensual or not. My approach to playing characters who are accused of heinous things is to always deny it and deny it vehemently and deny it as if your life depends on it. And then like I said, if the tables turn, and you learn later on that this person actually did do these things, it’s always more interesting if you’re convinced, even if the character’s convinced they’re innocent. That happens a lot, too. I’m a big fan of crime dramas and “Dateline” and all that kind of stuff. So often, either these people are lying but then you have those people who actually believe that they’re innocent and they’re being railroaded and they’re playing the victim. That’s interesting ‘cause you look at these people like, “We have all the evidence against you, how are you gonna sit there and act like you didn’t do it?” But sometimes people believe they were either justified or they’re being railroaded in a certain way.
GD: I wanna turn also to the scope of your career in general. You’ve had this amazing career in general. You’ve had this amazing career, all these different projects and working with so many different people. One of my favorite things to ask people who have had that kind of breadth in their career is I’m wondering if there’s anyone you haven’t worked with yet who you would jump at the idea of getting to collaborate with them?
BU: Oh man, Charlie, it’s been a great 35 years in this industry and I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of people I’ve wanted to work with, but yeah. Steven Spielberg I’d love to work with, Sidney Poitier I’d love to work with, Al Pacino I’d love to work with, Will Smith. I’ve known Will for years but never had a chance to work with him. There’s a whole slew of them. I feel, Charlie, in a lot of ways that I’m only getting started right now. I really feel like it’s a new beginning at this point. Who knows after this coronavirus. We’ll get through it, we’ll come out on the other side and things will get back to business. When that happens I look forward to whatever this new chapter is. I tend to look at my life in decades or at least in seasons. It’s been four beautiful decades and a lot of beautiful seasons along the way but I’m ready for the next chapter, the next challenge and hopefully that brings a lot of these people that I would love to work with I haven’t had a chance to work with yet.
GD: I was actually really surprised when I was doing research for this to learn that this could be your first Emmy nomination if you managed to get in, which blew my mind. I could’ve sworn you had been up for something at some point but I guess it’s one of those things where everything just bleeds into each other with my mind. If you managed to get in for either “Self Made” or “Dear White People,” I wanna know what would that mean to you to achieve that kind of recognition in this industry?
BU: To be nominated for an Emmy would be amazing. I’m grateful I actually have a Daytime Emmy for producing but not for acting, and acting’s what I’ve done for 35+ years. It’s always nice. I’m a firm believer that you do the work for the sake of the work and for the sake of entertaining and educating and possibly being thought-provoking to and for an audience. In other words, you can’t do it for the rewards. If that’s the reward, that’s gonna take you down a whole other path and trajectory and making different kinds of choices but that said, when your industry and your colleagues acknowledge you and acknowledge the work that you’ve been doing, it’s very special. It really is. It would be something very cool.
GD: Well, Blair, I can’t thank you enough for joining us. This has been fantastic. We wish you all the best this Emmy season. Thanks so much, Blair.
BU: Thank you Charlie, you are the man, I appreciate you. Big love to Virginia and our Commonwealth!