Joy Bryant has that lethal combination of beauty, smarts and an assured sense of self born from her Bronx, N.Y., background. The actress has been one of the more underappreciated talents in Hollywood for more than a decade, having made her breakthrough in the 2002 drama Antwone Fisher and landed major roles in other high-profile projects like Honey, The Skeleton Key, and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. She’s now paired up with heartthrob Michael Ealy in the romantic comedy About Last Night, and she says that once she saw who was on board, she had no reservations at all about the role of Debbie Sullivan, famously played by Demi Moore in the 1986 original.
“When I found out they were doing a contemporary funny remake [of the film], it was a no-brainer for me,” Bryant says. “Equally important was being able to work with Kevin [Hart] and Mike and Regina [Hall]. We’ve all known each other for a while, but I’ve never worked with them before. They’d all worked together and Mike and I have mutual friends and Regina and I always saw each other out socially, so to have the opportunity to go to work and play with them every day was something that I was really, really excited about.”
The film is a frank and funny look at sex, one-night stands, and relationships and Bryant was well aware that the original never shied away from intimate moments. But the former model wasn’t intimidated by love scenes or frank subject matter. Not at all.
“I think it’s pretty obvious when [sex scenes and nudity] are gratuitous,” she explains. “But if it makes sense — people do have sex — I don’t have a problem with that, as long as it’s not gratuitous. If it’s not necessary, then we don’t need to do it. But I have a healthy comfort level in terms of my body in regards to shooting those kinds of scenes. Not that I think I’m all that! [laughs] But I’m cool with it if it serves the purpose of the piece.
“I knew going in there was a lot of sex in the original movie. I already knew that!” she continues. But she says that she and Ealy found a very easy comfort with each other very quickly. “We didn’t know each other very well, but we have mutual friends that we’re both really close to, and we met before — so that kind of made us ‘homies by proxy.’ So that was natural. The chemistry was already there and we came in with trust and feeling comfortable with each other. We didn’t have to act that. It was just there. You want to be comfortable with the person you’re intimate with, right? Well, it’s the same thing on set. It wasn’t a big trip for me. I think it all made sense. All those love scenes! [laughs]”
It’s pretty easy to understand why Joy Bryant doesn’t get intimidated very easily. She’s been thrown into strange waters numerous times in life, and as a result, she doesn’t allow herself to get too shaken by anything. In her early teens, Bryant began attending a private school in Connecticut, worlds away from the South Bronx that she knew so well.
“The [worlds] were total opposites of each other,” she recalls. “I went from there and went to Yale [later], but when I went to Yale, it wasn’t as much of a culture shock as it was when I was 13 years old going from 167th and College Avenue up to Shrewsbury, Connecticut.
“And I think that for me, while going from the South Bronx to a predominantly white, rich school and area was a huge trip; but the thing that struck me most was not so much the racial differences — it was the economic differences. It’s a class thing a lot of times. Racism comes into play but when I was there, it was like ‘Oh, I’m that poor?’ ” she says, chuckling. “My 13-year-old roommate had a credit card. I didn’t know adults who had credit cards! Going between the two [environments], you’ve got one foot in one world and one foot in the other. There were times where I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb in both worlds. When you’re in that environment on scholarship and don’t do well, you don’t get asked back. Whereas, someone else coming from means who doesn’t do well can just go to the next best thing. There was a lot of pressure at a young age to not get your a– sent back home.”
Joy excelled at the school and went on to Yale before she dropped out to pursue modeling. Now, looking back, she feels as though all of those experiences helped thicken her skin — as well as expand her worldview.
“When I dropped out of Yale and started modeling, having had exposure to a world outside of my neighborhood was great,” she says. “I always loved getting out into the world. When I was younger, I loved going into Manhattan and down to Greenwich Village. I thought it was so cool, it was the hip place to me, like ‘s–t is happening down there!’ I got to expand my horizons.”
Those horizons led her to Hollywood, where having a thick skin can be a tremendous asset. Bryant learned how to prevail despite detractors, distractions and dismissals.
“Getting into Yale, I’m already used to competition. It’s not easy to get into Yale,” Bryant says. “The possibility of rejection or having the odds stacked against you or a lot of people are gunning for your spot — that whole dynamic I understood. Coming into Hollywood, I wasn’t shaken at all. Not that I’m going to be the most successful actress ever, but I’m not scared. I’m not scared of rejection. Modeling prepared me for that. Sometimes the rejection can be so brutal and in your face — you have to get a thick skin. Coming into this business, I wasn’t really tripping on anything. What I view as mine to have, I will have. And I can wait it out.”
Waiting has paid off for Joy Bryant. She’s one of the principal stars on the hit NBC series ”Parenthood,” and the experience of working on that show has also helped boost her confidence as an actress.
“Being on a TV show, especially one like ‘Parenthood,’ an ensemble cast with some really talented actors — it’s great training for anything. Comedy, drama, anything,” the star explains.
In a life filled with transition, Bryant embraces the stability and peace of mind that come with knowing who she is. Her road has been quite a journey, and as she looks back, she appreciates every twist and turn.
“Everything leads you to the next step. I went to this great school that got me into Yale. Instead of Wall Street or wherever I thought I was going to go, I got into modeling. That exposed me to so many places and things and from there, I went into acting. In acting, I’ve done well for myself and I love what I do and I’m looking forward to more of it. But it’s also led me to other things. I produce and I write and I’m able to express myself in a way that gives me happiness. It’s afforded me a great quality of life. … And I’m looking forward to continuing to grow and who knows? Maybe the next step for me is to write the Oscar-winning script! That’s what I’m looking forward to.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself, especially in the last few years,” Bryant explains. “I’m more comfortable in my own skin and that’s great. [I feel] like I belong where I am and where I want to be — giving myself that permission. It took a really long time for me to even call myself ‘an actor.’ Acting is a great profession, but I wasn’t sure if I could even call myself that. Knowing more about what I want and don’t want came with maturity and getting older. I’m turning 40 this year and I feel like this is the best time in my life!”