For two decades, Gabrielle Union has been entertaining us with her acting in over 70 films and television shows. Recently, she has also found her way into our homes through social media, developing a huge following on Instagram (6.5 million followers), Twitter (3.12 million followers) and Snapchat, where she gives daily glimpses of her life to a similarly large audience.
Union is currently starring in Being Mary Jane, a hit show about a television news anchor and all aspects of her life. For her role as Mary Jane Paul, Union won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special. She is also set to appear in upcoming films such as The Birth of a Nation, Almost Christmas and Sleepless.
Despite her impressive success, Union might be best known among NBA fans as the wife of perennial All-Star Dwyane Wade. Union is a huge sports fan – she grew up in a family that was obsessed with Nebraska Cornhuskers football – and she shares her opinions on social media quite often. Now, in addition to focusing on her busy career, Union will be moving to the Windy City as Wade makes the transition from the Miami Heat to the Chicago Bulls.
Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Union to discuss her career, activism, social media dominance, the move to Chicago, her reaction to Wade leaving Miami and much more.
Alex Kennedy: You earned a degree in sociology and did a number of things before turning to acting. When did you realize that you wanted to be an actor and start looking at that as a full-time career?
Gabrielle Union: “When I made money (laughs). It wasn’t for the love of it initially, it seemed like a great way to delay adulthood for a while. I started while I was still in college. I kind of always looked at it like, ‘Well, I could always go to law school.’ That was my plan back then. But I was making $6.60 as the book buy back supervisor at UCLA, so I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can make more than that!’ And pretty quickly, I was like, ‘Ah, I can make a living doing this.’ So I never looked back. But even in the back of my mind, I always had that thought of, ‘If I don’t love this or I’m broke, I can still go to law school and carry out the rest of my initial plan.’”
Kennedy: Growing up, who were some of your favorite actors? Since you weren’t in love with acting at a young age or thinking of pursuing that career, I’m sure you weren’t looking up to certain actors or studying them or anything. But still, who were some actors you enjoyed when you were younger?
Union: “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t looking at acting like, ‘I love Meryl Streep. As a child, I watched Helen Mirren and took notes.’ I never looked at it that deep. I’d probably say Eddie Murphy because I liked his movies (laughs). Oh, and Vivica Fox had a guest-starring role on 90210 and that was big for black girls who wanted to see themselves reflected onscreen. Having Vivica on my favorite show was huge. But I definitely wasn’t looking at acting or actors like, ‘Wow, that was a great scene!’ (laughs) I just wasn’t looking at movies or shows in that kind of way.”
Kennedy: Who are some of the actors that have mentored you and helped you improve your craft?
Union: “Jennifer Lewis, right off the bat. Jennifer has been amazing. She just wasn’t interested in watching me, or any of the other actresses she’s mentored over the years, fail. In our town, it can be a little cutthroat and some people take joy in other people failing. But she’s just not one of those people. Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold have been really helpful and not just on the acting side, but also on the business of Hollywood and how it can kind of take an emotional toll on you. If people aren’t looking out for you, you can kind of lose your way in a number of different ways. Regina King is awesome. Having her directing episodes of Being Mary Jane now is great because we’ve been friends for a long time and she has looked out for me for so many years. I’ve been lucky to have those ladies.”
Kennedy: Speaking of Being Mary Jane, it has become a huge success. Congratulations on that. What has it been like to dive into that role and how rewarding has it been to see it take off the way it has?
Union: “Normally, we don’t see characters where we get to see 360 degrees of their life. You see them at work or you see them at home with their friends or spouse. But it’s rare that you get to see every angle of their life. What I love about Being Mary Jane is that you see her at work being that boss bitch. Then, you see her on the toilet. I like the fact that you see her masturbating and sexually free. I love that she doesn’t have the best, easiest relationship with her family. The family dynamic is complicated. She’s just so interesting and she’s definitely someone I would want to know. I’d want to sit next to her at a bar or sit next to at the airport during a delay. She fascinates me and I enjoy her. And I’m glad other people enjoy her as well.”
Kennedy: I think with your activism, positivity and the way you use your platform, you’ve become a role model for a lot of people. What is it like to have that kind of support and know you could be positively influencing the next generation?
Union: “Hmm. Well, it’s nice to have a voice. For so long, women have been silenced. Black women, women of color, have been silenced. It’s nice to have the respect of people and be respected because you opt to use your voice in a positive kind of way. It just feels nice and it’s humbling. But it’s sort of doing the right thing and being patted on the back for it. I feel like, ‘We’re all supposed to be doing this, but thank you! I appreciate it!’ Some say ‘role model,’ some would say ‘decent human being.’ But I’ll take either (laughs).”
Kennedy: One way that you reach that next generation is through social media. You have a huge following on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat among others. What’s been the key to building your social media following and how nice is it to have that huge platform to reach your fans?
Union: “I can only go based on comments and feedback, but I seem to be pretty cool (laughs). I just try to be entertaining. There are a lot of Snapchat [accounts] that I just scroll through where I’m like, ‘Okay, I can’t unfollow you because you’ll know when you try to chat me, but you’re just not that interesting.’ Like, me watching you lip sync isn’t that entertaining. I’d rather watch you sing badly. So I thought, ‘Maybe people would like to watch my bad singing!’ So I bad sing a lot. I joke with D [Dwyane Wade] a lot. I don’t know, I just try to be as normal as I can be, but interesting at the same time. If I can give me a chuckle, I’ll try to do that too. It seems like people have responded to that!”
Kennedy: You’ve done a ton of great work, but I’ve seen in interviews where you’ve said that Bring It On boosted your career to that next level and sort of made you a mainstream name. What was it like becoming a household name and having all of that attention come your way?
Union: “I think initially it just feels really good. Initially. Then, it can feel weird and I think everyone is changed by it in some kind of way. It’s a bizarre thing at times. Because sometimes I just want to sit in a sports bar and have a beer. And if someone is looking, in my head I’ll be thinking, ‘Why are they looking?’ I immediately think there’s a booger in my nose because why else would you be looking at me? (laughs) It doesn’t quite compute, at least for me and my friends in Hollywood. Once it gets to be normal, that’s when you know you’ve lost your mind. I’m glad for 20-plus years, it’s felt a little weird. But on the positive side, it just lets you know that people have seen your work and taken something away. And not all of the stares are positive. Provided that people respect your space and safety, it’s pretty cool.
“One time, I was with my girl who played a character that had some questionable things. We were in Miami in a club and this girl slapped the piss out of her. She yelled, ‘Why did you go with that white boy?’ And I know her boyfriend and I’m like, ‘Huh? I know her boyfriend and he’s a large black man.’ But she called her by the character’s name, and the character was dating interracially and this woman hated it. So she slapped the crapp out of her. That was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It makes you realize that there are some people who don’t know reality from fiction and that’s frightening. That was the first taste I’ve ever gotten where it was like, ‘Oh shit,’ and you see the downside of that attention. As much as I love playing questionable characters, some people take it to a scary point when they don’t realize it’s fantasy. A lot of people think you are your character. For years after Deliver Us from Eva, people would come up and be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think you’d be nice! You play these bitchy characters so well!’ But they’re characters! Sometimes people forget that.”
Kennedy: Are there any actors that you haven’t worked with that you’d like to work alongside in the future?
Union: “There are many. Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster. Also, this new girl who was in Chi-Raq, Teyonah Parris – she is just super talented. Zoë Kravitz is another. I could just name a thousand because there are so many great actors. And now with cable and web series and things like that, there are so many avenues for people to express their art. You don’t have to wait for somebody to give you your big break; you can create your own. A lot more people are [getting] the opportunity to be seen. Also, there are a thousand actors I’d love to work with whose names I don’t know, but I love their work. I’m like that weirdo in L.A. who will creep up at them in CVS and be like, ‘I LOVED YOU IN RAY DONOVAN.’ I’m a creeper. But yeah, there are so many to name.”
Kennedy: In a 2008 interview, you talked about the lack of roles for black men and women and I think that’s a really important topic. Eight years later, do you feel like there has been progress made on that issue?
Union: “We’ve seen more progress in TV, for sure, and it’s hard to just focus on the roles for black women when there are so many women of color who are way worse off than I. So I’ll open [my quote] up to all opportunities for all women of color, in front of and behind the camera. It’s improving, but we’re nowhere close to being a real representation of the way the world looks. We just aren’t. I think the more inclusive the people who run the studios and networks – the people who greenlight projects – then the more inclusive the casts and directors and producers and writers will be. We need to think it holistically as opposed to just casting, because there are so many levels in which people of color are grossly underrepresented.”
Kennedy: I’m sure you’re used to criticism due to your career, but sports fans can be pretty insane. Maybe not slap-your-friend crazy, but I’m curious if you’ve had to deal with criticism from rival fans and crazy people online since marrying Dwyane?
Union: “Never in person. Ever. I’ve gone on the road a few times to games and you never know how opposing fans will be. But it’s really been kind of a lovefest in person. I think it goes to show that when people have the chance to say something to your face, they opt for kindness. Perhaps the anonymity of social media [lends itself to the negativity]. I mean, I rarely get criticism from people who use their own name in their Twitter handle. It’s usually an egg or some nonsensical name. Very rarely is it normal people like Allen Smith from Pittsburgh. No, it’s generally egg haters. And when I do get it, I retweet it with something funny attached. Or I’ll be like, ‘Mom, is this you?’ I don’t take online hate that seriously, unless it crosses a line. What I’ve seen my female sportswriter and sportscaster friends endure is not even sane. Nobody has threatened to rape me or kill me or both. I don’t get that kind of crazy negativity that a lot of women I know in sports get.”
Kennedy: It’s sickening. I’ve seen what women like Jessica Camerato, Kristen Ledlow, Rachel Nichols, Ramona Shelburne and others have to deal with in their mentions and it’s disturbing.
Union: “Cari Champion and Jemele Hill are good friends of mine and they’ll get everything all of the other women get plus a dose of racism as well. It’s the vilest shit I’ve ever seen or heard. It’s insane. So, no, I don’t get it to that degree. I don’t even get the same stuff that fans have given Ayesha Curry, which is vile and gross. It’s insane.”
Kennedy: You brought up Ayesha and that kind of leads to my next question about the wives of NBA players. What are some misconceptions about being an NBA player’s wife?
Union: “I think there are some stereotypes, but I mean some people live out those stereotypes (laughs). I do think there’s this idea that we’re all the same though. If one person opts to speak out, they’re a sinner; if one person opts to stay quiet, they’re a sinner. There’s the idea that everyone is a dim gold-digger who is just in it for a buck. Women who are married to professional athletes get a bad rap.”
Kennedy: It’s weird to me that you’re all grouped together and people make so many generalizations.
Union: “Right, it’s like saying, ‘All men are like this. All women are like that.’ There’s so much diversity within the wives of athletes. There’s just an enormous amount of diversity. I could go through so many stereotypes, but I’d just like for people to know that there are lovely, intelligent, amazing women who happen to be married to an athlete. And being married to an athlete isn’t the most interesting thing about them. You have to actually get to know people beyond, ‘Oh, this is Dwyane Wade……. and his wife.’ A lot of people will dismiss you, or act like just marrying this guy was some accomplishment. No, that’s not an accomplishment. Having a successful marriage is an accomplishment. I don’t liken getting down the aisle with graduating from UCLA (laughs). We didn’t luck out or hit the jackpot. D and I happen to be each other’s best friend, so we lucked out in that sense. But him being in the NBA or me having a job and my own money, that wasn’t a major selling point. Well, I guess you’d have to ask him (laughs). I’d like to think that it wasn’t a major selling point. There’s just a lot more to us than the stereotypes or the reality shows.
“Also, this idea that women can’t formulate their own ideas when it comes to sports is the biggest load of shit I’ve ever heard. If I tweet something about sports, sometimes people will say something like, ‘Okay, Dwyane can hand the phone back now.’ The thought that we aren’t watching the same games as everyone else, the thought we aren’t capable of having sports knowledge or having a high sports IQ is absurd. The idea that we’re somehow speaking for our husbands or saying things that they wish they could say is insane. If I’m at the game, then nobody is freaking telling me what to say, obviously. I’m from Nebraska, where if you don’t know Cornhuskers football, it’s preferred that you just don’t speak. I come from the kind of family where you have to know sports. So my opinions are based on facts, not just willy-nilly like, ‘Oh, I like this guy better than that guy or this team better than that team.’ I’m pretty honest and reasonable as it pertains to anything, including sports.
“And this idea that, ‘Women need to stay in their own lane’? Get the fuck out of here with that. My lane is whatever the fuck I want it to be. How about that? For myself – and I’d imagine any other wife of an NBA player – I’m watching at least 82 games each season. Even if I didn’t have any sports knowledge, by the end of 82 games, I probably would’ve developed an opinion! I probably would’ve been able to see patterns! I probably would’ve been able to spot tendencies. From that alone, I’d be able to put together a 140-character tweet!”
Kennedy: It pisses me off that you have to deal with that kind of stuff.
Union: “Yeah, and it pisses me off that [Stephen Curry’s wife] Ayesha has to deal with this stuff. And it pisses me off that people have ‘decided’ who [LeBron James’ wife] Savannah [Brinson] is just because she opts to not be heavily involved with social media. Whether or not you use social media doesn’t define your soul! You know what I mean? There are dope, cool, amazing mothers and businesswomen – let them live! But this idea that your tweets define who you are or that your lack of tweets define who are is insane. And for people who say that ‘a woman should know her place,’ stop it. Stop. It. My place is where I determine it to be. If I opt to use my voice, good! If I opt not to use my voice, that’s okay too!”
Kennedy: Dwyane obviously surprised people this offseason by joining the Bulls. How much are you looking forward to the move to Chicago and the new opportunity for Dwyane and the family?
Union: “It was shocking. There’s no way around that word. It takes some getting used to. We had just built our dream home in Miami and everyone sort of had their life in Miami so it’s big move for everyone. We all love Miami so much and Miami will still be one of our homes. For Chicago, I think the biggest thing for everyone was winter. There was the fear of winter. It was like Game of Thrones, ‘WINTER IS COMING!’ (laughs) Once we moved on from that, we just found our home and we got the boys in school, it was good. We were afraid because we were thinking, ‘Oh, the boys are about to start high school and how is that going to work?’ And they were, by far, the most eager [to move]. They’re like, ‘Ah! Cool, let’s go!’ As long as they got to keep their South Florida AAU team, they were cool with it. Everyone is just kind of jumping in. We can either dip our toe into the pool or cannon-ball and we’re cannon-balling. I think they like that they got to practice at the Bulls’ facility too. They love it, they’re excited. The first month was cool; hit me back later and we’ll see if they still love it (laughs). No, we’re all really excited.”
Kennedy: You mentioned the dream home in Miami and Dwyane obviously had a ton of history there. When did you start to realize that Dwyane leaving Miami was a possibility?
Union: “Even when we were on vacation, I think me and everyone just kind of assumed [we’d be back]. Like, ‘It looks kind of bleak right now, but they’ll work it out. They always work it out! They’ll work it out.’ It probably wasn’t until Denver’s offer came in that I realized. That offer was… a lot. Then there was another offer and another offer and another offer. And it was like, ‘Oh wait, hold on. Are you thinking about this?’ I mean, how can you not? When there’s an offer on the table that is, what, $13-15 million more than to stay home, it’s like, ‘Wow. Okay. Wow.’ But even still I thought, ‘I’m sure they’ll figure it out. They’ll figure it out!’ Really, even down to the hour that he made his decision, I just thought they’d work it out – like everyone else thought. But Chicago made the moves necessary to make his offer work. He didn’t go with the most money. Some people are saying it was just about money, but he would’ve taken Denver’s offer if that was the case. Denver’s offer was a lot, a lot – considerably more than even Chicago’s offer. It was just about finding a place where he’s comfortable, and he’s comfortable at home. Then, the rest of us had to get comfortable with it (laughs). It just seemed like after the season he had and then the postseason, he was just so excited – more so about his body and his health and that he was able to take his game to a different gear. Moving was the last thing on his mind, but yeah…”
Kennedy: You know Dwyane better than anyone. How determined is he to make this work in Chicago and silence his critics who are doubting him and the team?
Union: “I think more than making it work to silence the critics, he wants to put himself in a position physically, health-wise, to continue playing at a high level. That’s very important. Getting to know Jimmy [Butler] and [Rajon] Rondo is very important. But they haven’t even played together yet, so I don’t know where the criticism is coming from. You have Jimmy, who is an up-and-coming star and on the Olympic team. You have Rondo, who led the league in assists. I don’t know how a guy leads the league in assists and is an assist machine, but somehow gets no credit. You have my husband, who is already top five in shooting guards in the last two years in the NBA, but if you factor in what he accomplished and the amount of minutes he played, he’s one of the most efficient players in the league. What is there to criticize? But I get it. Everyone needs page views and things like that, and criticism does a lot better than raving endorsements so I get the business of criticism. But it’s kind of absurd. Now, if a few months in around the All-Star break it looks nuts, then, by all means, criticize! (laughs) But to criticize how it’ll work when these guys haven’t played together is just insane, in the same way that anointing the Warriors champions for adding KD. It’s like when the Big Three came together in Miami. Everyone was like, ‘Ugh, they’re going to win it all. Change the rules! We have to stopppp thissss!’ Cut to different teams winning championships. I mean, the Warriors have to get used to this because they haven’t all played together. Even in the Olympics, where you have three of them, it’s still not the whole team. They need time to get to know each other, to gel, to figure out the system and how it works with all of these moving parts.
“It’s all exciting though. I think the Warriors are exciting. Just like I think the trio of Jimmy, Rondo and D is exciting. I think Carmelo [Anthony] D-Rose, Joakim [Noah] and Kristaps [Porzingis] in New York is exciting. Seeing how the Spurs will do without Timmy [Duncan] is exciting. There are a lot of great storylines. To critique now is the lowest-hanging fruit. I’d rather err on the side of excitement.”
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