By Wilson Morales
From his role as attorney Jonathan Rollins on the NBC legal drama ‘L.A. Law,’ to his current role as President Elias Martinez on NBC’s ‘The Event,’ Blair Underwood has had the pleasure of playing unforgettable characters on the big and small screen for over twenty years.
In those years, the Washington state native also had some short stints on a couple of series where his love interest on-screen always sparked debate, such as playing the love interests of Cynthia Nixon‘s on HBO series ‘Sex and the City,’ Julia Louise Dreyfuss‘ on ‘The New Adventures of Old Christine’ and as well as Heather Locklear‘s in NBC’s short-lived ‘LAX.’
For Underwood, the film that ignited his career and gave him that leading man status is when he took on the role of Russell Walker in the rap film, ‘Krush Groove,’ which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.
Black Voices caught up with Underwood as he reflects back to his first year in the business and the film that gave him more than he could ever imagined to his current portrayal of a U.S. President of color.
What was your approach when you made ‘Krush Groove?’
Blair Underwood: For me, I was right out of college. I actually had to leave college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and money was tight. My parents had made too much money for financial aid and there wasn’t enough to sustain me and my brother. I ended going to New York on my own to make something happen. ‘Krush Groove’ happened in my first year in 1985. Things happened pretty fast. ‘The Cosby Show’ came first and then ‘Krush Groove,’ followed by ‘One Life to Live.’
How much did you know about the rap world at the time?
BU: Not a lot. I knew about Run D.M.C., and just heard about the Fat Boys, but never heard of Russell Simmons. It was all new to me.
At the time of shooting, for the most part, you were the only professional actor on set. How was it working at the time when you’re dealing with rappers who barely have any acting experience?
BU: That’s true. We had Run D.M.C, Kurtis Blow, Sheila E., the Fat Boys, and they were basically playing themselves. Russell made a cameo. LL Cool J was sixteen. He did a cameo. So, it was Def Jam’s young roster at the time. It’s interesting because even though I’d had some training just in college and I started doing local dinner theaters in high school, the whole idea and concept of working with cameras and being on a set was completely foreign to me. I mean I hadn’t really done much of that at all. So, I was a novice in that respect and they were, you know, necessarily, new to the whole acting game. So, I think it was new to all of us, really. And I was up front — for me, I would have to say, it was a huge deal because these people were stars in my eyes. Especially Sheila E., from the Prince camp and, again, Run-D.M.C. They were huge at that time. And on the set, I mean every time we went on location there’d be all kinds of high school girls hanging out by the trailer to the Fat Boys and Run, especially. So, as I said, I was just the no name kid who was trying to execute his first shot in this game — this game called Hollywood.
When you look back, is there any particular scene you recall you had the fondest memory of shooting?
BU: Oh, most definitely. The love scene with Sheila E. Come on, now! Listen, that was my first screen kiss, my first love scene, and I feel very fortunate to have done that. Though, it’s funny ’cause I saw Sheila a couple weeks ago. And it was so great to see her again twenty-five years later. And I actually got to introduce her. And we were joking about that in the introduction, just about my first screen kiss, first everything. But if you remember the movie, actually, there was a love scene early in the movie. Then at the end, when everybody, all smooth, warm and fuzzy- and we’re by the elevator and Sheila comes up and she gives me a big kiss. We shot that first, before the love scene. Michael Schultz was the director who had also done ‘Car Wash’ and ‘The Last Dragon’ at the time – he’d done it before that. He said, ‘Okay, Sheila’ – this wasn’t in the script. He said, ‘Why don’t you come and you guys kiss. You kiss him.’ She put a whammy on me that I will never forget. That’s why when you ask me what I remember to this day, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
Twenty-five years later, rap is a different- it’s not the same. It’s not as heavy as it used to be. Do you listen to any of these guys now?
BU: I do. You know who I like, actually? It’s melody and it’s rhythm, but I like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. They’ve been around for a minute, but definitely them. I like Jay-Z. I like what he’s doing. LL Cool J. LL’s actually a parent and our kids go to the same school. So, I see him. He, like so many of these people we started off with have, went off into acting and did incredibly well.
Congratulations on getting more episodes for ‘The Event.’ I think people are starting to catch onto it.
BU: Oh, thank you. And I’m so happy. This last Monday, finally they let the numbers (ratings) stay but that also ticked up a little bit. So we’re happy about that. You know, it’s tough. It’s the toughest, most competitive night of the week. We got ‘Monday Night Football’, ‘Dancing With the Stars’ – which is the #1 show on TV, in terms of audience. And then, also, we got the #1 comedy on TV, ‘Two and a Half Men’. And last week or two weeks ago, it’s the baseball playoffs. So, in spite of all that, I’m just very pleased and happy that the show’s still getting very respectful numbers.
What’s it like playing the President?
BU: Let me tell you something. Wilson, it never gets old. It never gets old. It’s a lot of fun. I can’t even hide it. I can’t even perpetrate. I tell you my favorite set, of course, is that Oval Office. And every time we shoot there, we usually, in between takes, go back to trailer. I’m like, ‘Why are we going back to the trailer? I wanna get on the couch.’ It’s the most relaxing place on the set. But that office is pretty. The office of the Presidency and what it represents is pretty amazing. I’m having a great time stepping into those shoes week to week.
Have you ever met President Obama?
BU: I have. I actually met him twenty some years ago when he was at Harvard. And then I campaigned for him. And then last I saw him was at the State Dinner at the White House in November of last year. his first State Dinner with the Prime Minister of India.
Why is your character an Afro-Cuban and not simply an African American?
BU: Well, because we have an African American, they wanted to do something unique, but more specifically, you’ve seen the show so you know a lot of it has to do with identity. And they really wanted to do and they loved the idea. The character and the script was written four years ago. And it was always envisioned as a Latin First Family. And when I came on they said, ‘There’s no reason, aesthetically, you couldn’t be Afro-Cuban’. And anybody who knows that, as I know you do, Wilson, Latinos go from the darkest dark complete to the lightest light. We very seldom see that. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine who are half Black or half Latino have said to me, ‘Thank God. It’s nice to see that portrayal.’ It’s because they’re most often not cast as Latinos because traditionally Latinos are cast, lighter skin and straighter hair. And the reality is, five hundred years ago, the slave trade started in Cuba in 1521. So, for five hundred years, African blood and Cuban blood has been mixed. So, this President- they wanted a sense of a President who was the son of immigrants. And that’s who he is.
If you wanted to tell anybody why should they watch ‘Krush Groove’ twenty-five years later, what would you say?
BU: You know what, it’s a nice piece of nostalgia to remember where rap came from and started from. And really more than anything, what you’ll take away from that is the innocence of the time.
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