Blair Underwood: Say Hello to the Tough Guy

Fri., Jun. 15, 2012 12:12 PM EST
by A.R. Shaw

Blair Underwood has vanquished the good guy. Those clean-cut, suave characters he’s known for portraying? Bye-bye. Underwood has taken his bad boy persona to Broadway, and he’s doen it with a vengeance.

In the lead role of Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, Underwood is gritty, brutish and and extrememly volatile. At times he’s callous and coldhearted when uncovering the truth about his nemesis, Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker). But in the end, he’s the anti-hero who audiences can’t help but feel some compassion for.
His captivating, and at times disturbing, portrayal has led to success for the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic play. Originally set to end a limited run on July 22, the run was extended throughout most of the summer and will end on Aug. 19.

The performance also shows exponential growth for an actor we first saw in the ‘80s rap flick Krush Groove, and then as Jonathan Rollins in the award-winning drama, “L.A. Law.” But Underwood and the cast of A Streetcar Named Desire have all dealt with the controversy surrounding the adaptation. The play drew disparaging remarks from prominent critics who were upset by the multiracial cast.

New Yorker writer John Laher wrote: “No more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson.”
The comment, which derives from a position of white privilege, proved that racism still plays a major role in the arts.
Underwood believes that success can always serve as the best revenge. “You’re going to have people who will fight for black rights, fight for immigration and will fight for our neighborhoods, but say, ‘Just don’t marry our daughters.’ ” Underwood said. “Having a multicultural cast is analogous to marrying some people’s daughters, because they don’t want it. But that’s OK. That’s what progress looks like, and progress is never easy. Change is never easy. And I don’t read reviews, but I know a lot of people loved the play.”
Aside from Laher’s snide assessment, A Streetcar Named Desire has received praise from most critics and generated considerable Tony Awards buzz.
So It’s only right that we hear from the man who has taken Broadway by storm.

What initially attracted you to be a part of this adaptation of A Street Car Named Desire?
You have to understand that it’s considered one of the greatest roles for an American actor, or any actor. It’s among the top four or five plays in American theater. So an opportunity to play this role of Stanley Kowalski, and for females, Blanche DuBois, is one of the most coveted roles someone can get in American theater. It’s just a great opportunity to do it with a multicultural cast.

The Stanley character is different from most of the characters that you have played in the past. How did you prepare for such a dark role?
I see Stanley as someone who was very clear about who he is and what he wanted. He’s very simplistic, but very complicated. He’s a man’s man. All he wants is to play cards with his boys, drink beer and for his home life to be right and make love to his wife with no interruptions or static. When his sister-in-law moves in with him, it throws everything out of whack. At the end of the second act, he starts to fight back and decides that he’s going to destroy her and by the end of the play he does.

There is a very disturbing scene in the play involving your character and Nicole Ari Parker’s character. As an actor who must do this every single night, how do you remove yourself from the trauma associated with that scene?
The rape scene is very graphic and not only disturbing to watch, but to do. It’s less disturbing when you’re in character, but when you’re removed from it and step back and knowing you have to do it every night, it is an interesting thing. You have to drop down and anchor down into that character. So by the time you get to that scene in the play, we’re both in that zone and you do what [you] have to do. It’s important to tell the story and our job as actors is to communicate the story to you guys and the audience. But it is a psychological mind-set that you have to adjust to. We’ve been doing this for about two months now, so it was much more difficult in the beginning. But as with anything, the more you do it the more precise and marginalized you become. So it’s just a fascinating conversation to have, because the conversation is really about should we have artists of all cultures and races be allowed to do the work of other artists of different cultures and races; or should we just stay assigned to our own culture? I feel as an artist they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The biggest difference between film and the stage is that we’re all connected more because the actors are in the same room. Would you agree?

This is why I love the theater and love being on that stage. Because we’re all in the room together and we take that ride together. If there’s danger, you feel it. If there’s joy, laughter and comedy, you feel it — or if it’s ugly, you feel it. And you’re right, it’s a completely different dynamic than watching something on film or television that was shot maybe weeks ago, months ago or years ago. There’s a disconnect, but when you’re in that theater and house together, it’s electric and it works.

What are your thoughts on the criticism of the play that stems from racism?

I find a lot of this journey now metaphorically is similar to or analogous to having our first black president in the White House. They said we didn’t have enough black and brown people to put Obama in the White House, yet it takes all different types of people to do that.  At the same time you do have that faction politically, but also artistically — especially in this New York community — who don’t want to see people of color doing Tennessee Williams.  You have to understand what A Streetcar Named Desire is in the annals of American theater. It’s one of the greatest, Pulitzer Prize-winning plays in American theater. The White House is a coveted position for any person in the world. So you understand what doing A Streetcar Named Desire means, and you understand that there are certain factions who will hold fast because they don’t want to see black people doing that.

Speaking of President Obama, you got a chance to meet him while he was a student at Harvard. What do you remember most about him during that time?

I’m glad to have had the opportunity to meet him then. He was very quiet around the time I was on “L.A. Law.” The partner of the firm was reading my résumé and my character was the president of the Harvard Law Review. So because of that connection, the law students of Harvard invited the producer of the show and myself to come visit them. So that’s why I was at Harvard at the time because he was a student there. I also met Hill Harper, too.

How do you balance a busy schedule with fatherhood and being a devoted husband?
My wife and I talk at least every other day and we Skype a lot, which helps. But we also travel a lot and they’ll come out here to New York sometimes. We have Mondays off from Broadway, so after Sunday night’s show, we get on a plane and fly to L.A. and we have 24 hours with the family. I wake up, take the kids to school, have dinner, tuck the the kids into bed and I head back to New York. What I have found is the most important thing is being present and relevant in their lives. Sometimes that means you can’t be there physically in front of their faces, but make sure you’re on the phone and talk to them. It really starts with the desire, the need and the intensity to reach out and stay connected to the people you love so much.

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