Gabrielle Union was a UCLA sociology graduate trying to make it as an actress when the 2000 cheerleading hit "Bring It On" made her a star. Since then, the former University of Nebraska soccer player has appeared in everything from Hollywood blockbusters ("Bad Boys II") to series TV ("Night Stalker," "Ugly Betty") and Tyler Perry films ("Daddy's Little Girls").
This week, the 36-year-old Omaha, Neb., native co-stars in "Cadillac Records," a film about the legendary blues and R&B label Chess Records, in which she plays Geneva Wade, Muddy Waters' girlfriend and eventual wife. We caught up with her during a publicity tour for the film, which opens today.
Q. "Cadillac Records" is mainly about blues and R&B from the '50s and '60s. How familiar were you with the music?
A. My family played that music in the house. They played Etta James [played by Beyonce Knowles in the movie], we called it the dirty nasty music, this music my parents would slow drag in the kitchen to when they didn't think we were watching. It sounded like hootchy-kootchy music.
Q. In the past, you've been outspoken about the lack of good roles for minority actresses. Is that still the case?
A. I think with the economy, now it's sort of worse. You're now competing against white actresses who are now underemployed. Now, when casting agents say please "submit all ethnicities," that used to be code for black, but now it means you're competing against a lot of white actresses,
you're fighting for scraps. There's just not enough work.
Q. You've worked with a number of directors, from big-time guys like Michael Bay (on "Bad Boys II") to first-timers. What's your idea of the qualities that make for a good director?
A. The ones who are great directors have planned and prepared and have effective communication skills. The ones I have not enjoyed the experience, generally don't know what they're doing, and have passed off responsibilities to the first assistant director. They may not have gone to film school; maybe they are not passionate anymore.
Q. At age 19, you were raped at gunpoint. Since then, you've been a passionate speaker on the topic of violence against women. How did your advocacy come about?
A. I didn't get it until it affected me. I was fearless and ignorant, and then I was raped. It's hard to articulate what a rape survivor goes through, and when I was coming out of that, I was on a TV show where there was a character who was a serial rapist, and I was supposed to be next, and I begged the producers not to let me be raped. Then I did a cover on Savoy magazine, and I said I can talk about something that happened to me that has had a profound effect on women. And since then, I have not stopped talking about it. And whenever I talk about it, I get people who come and say, "Me, too." And my goal is to never hear "Me, too" again.
Q. You divorced pro football player Chris Howard two years ago. Given your looks, I assume it's not hard for you to meet men.
A. I was not a good-looking person for a long time. I had the braces, I looked like E.T. - that was my nickname. I was very thin, so I had to develop a personality, I couldn't rely on my looks. I get a lot of foot traffic, in terms of people feeling like they can come up to me, but in terms of connection, not too much.
Q. So what do you have coming up after "Cadillac Records"?