Gabrielle Union: ‘We are underrepresented compared to white men’

‘Breaking In’ star and producer talks about her new film, and the long road ahead to achieve fair representation

Gabrielle Union, the producer and star of Breaking In is chatting amiably about representation. Well, of course she is. Breaking In, which features Union as a mom fighting to save her children from home invaders, feels like another landmark picture in a year that has already yielded A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther.

“This movement has been in the works for at least a couple of years,” says Union. “I think people in the industry finally get that people want to see themselves reflected on screen. Half the population are women. Women of colour may not be the biggest market. But the commercial potential is there.”

I’m halfway through a follow-up question about role models when a voice comes on the line from Los Angeles. The stern voice of a publicist: “Could we keep all questions to the wonderful film?”

This is a compound surprise. For one thing, at no point prior to the interview did anyone suggest that any particular topic might be off the menu. For another, I'm not sure that issues of representation and role models are irrelevant when discussing a 40-something, African-American action heroine in a thriller directed by V for Vendetta's James McTeigue.

Weirdest of all: this is Gabrielle Union, an artist whose fierceness can be expressed mathematically as Beyoncé to the power of Beyoncé.

Bill Cosby apologists

Right before our interview, she’s been chasing Bill Cosby apologists off her Twitter account with a series of characteristically frank tweets: “I was raped at 19. He rapes another woman B4 he turns himself in. He took a plea deal & got 33yrs. I sued Payless Shoe Source 4 $$$ as they knew the rapist was a former employee & didnt warn any1. I received a settlement. NO ONE has EVER accused me of using my rape as a cash grab. I dont talk about being a rape survivor to cash in or gain “rape fame”... I speak my truth in hopes of helping other survivors feel less alone, and to offer help & hope. If you are a rape apologist unfollow me now. You will not be missed. #MeToo.”

Released last October, Union's We're Going to Need More Wine, was a blisteringly candid collection of autobiographical essays that touched on losing her virginity, the politics of light and dark skin, black hair, yeast infections, and the "eight or nine miscarriages" and infertility issues she's endured alongside NBA star husband Dwyane Wade.

At Essence magazine's 2013 Black Women in Hollywood pre-Oscars luncheon, Union accepted the aptly named Fierce and Fearless Award with the words: "We live in a town that rewards pretending . . . I used to revel in gossip and rumours. I lived for the negativity inflicted upon my sister actresses or anyone who I felt, whose shine diminished my own. I took joy in people's pain and I tap danced on their misery."

Oprah Winfrey, who was sitting in the audience, described Union's speech as inspiring and noted that she "had never heard anyone be that honest in public or private about the competition and fierce drive to be seen and succeed in Hollywood".

So this is awkward. Not least because at a time when we've become accustomed to post-Trumpian cinema – Steven Spielberg's The Post, Jordan Peele's Get Out, and, lest we forget, FerdinandBreaking In feels like a post-MeToo movie. But are we allowed to talk about that?

“I wish I could claim that,” says Union. “But the film has been around for a few years. We finished shooting in August just before the Me Too movement really took off. It’s a great time for it to come out because there’s so much going on and there’s so much desire to see women saving themselves, instead of waiting for a man to save the day.”

A love letter to caregivers

Union, who is a step-mom to three sons, characterises Breaking In as: "A love letter to caregivers; we have to act like a superhero every day of our lives for our children. When they're in danger, adrenalin kicks in. There are a lot of people out there who are kind of like the bad guys in this movie, who think their criminal activity will be rewarded because they're only up against a woman. They underestimate her because she's a woman. They underestimate her because she's just a mom."

Following on executive producer credits on the movies With This Ring and Almost Christmas and the drama series Being Mary Jane, (for which she has received an NAACP Image Award), Breaking In marks Union's debut as a headlining producer. It's a natural progression for a long-serving actor who first came to prominence in the 1990s teen movies, Ten Things I Hate About You, She's All That and Bring It On.

"It wasn't anything that we thought of as a career path," says the Nebraska-born, California-raised star. "There's just too much uncertainty in the entertainment business. I was focused on getting an education and going to college and getting a normal job and having 2½ kids. When I gave this a try, I was not really thinking about it as a career at all. And my parents said well as long as you can make money. And that first year I got Saved By the Bell."

For the perennially youthful Union, high-school and adolescence was a prolonged affair. In her late-20s and early-30s, she was still getting cast as teenagers in Sister, Sister, the TV spin-off of Clueless, and Seventh Heaven.

“I have been lucky with the genes,” she says. “But playing teenagers when you’re 30 is not actually that appealing. Adult roles, by definition, reflect a broader experience. I was glad to finally graduate. It may be flattering. But it’s hard to play a 16-year-old and feel full of angst when you’ve got a mortgage.”

Early career

Union spent much of her early career running into the same black female actors at every audition. It’s no accident that she’s now promoted to headlining genre heroine.

In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and the MeToo and Time’s Up movements, issues of Hollywood diversity, or rather Hollywood’s lack of diversity, have become increasingly vexing. A recent report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies (confirming that women and people of colour are still underrepresented across all media) found that diversity, on both sides of the camera, had a positive effect on the bottom line.

The profit margins associated with diversity, notes the report (which was compiled before Black Panther took $1.33 billion globally) contradicts the "conventional studio wisdom" which holds that "black films don't travel", "a notion [that] has posed a longstanding obstacle to advancing diversity in Hollywood, particularly among film leads and directors".

“I think there’s hope,” says Union. “Change has been very, very slow when you actually look at the percentages of black women across the world and compare them to the percentages of black women in cinema, on TV, in journalism, and everywhere else. We are underrepresented compared to white me. This isn’t a Hollywood issue; it’s a global issue. There’s a lot more work ahead of us. We’ve had small victories, but they are just that: small. There’s a long road ahead, for us to achieve fair representation across the global community.”

  • Breaking In opens May 11th

Best home invasion movies

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997): Two polite young men play horrific mind games with an isolated family. Haneke remade the film shot-for-shot in the US 10 years later.

Home Alone (John Hughes, 1990): Bumbling burglars are mercilessly beaten and humiliated by budding sadist Macaulay Culkin. He perfects his dark arts in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Them (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006): Who turned on the TV? And the tap? Who owns the abandoned car on the desolate country road? A young couple are terrorised in this nerve-shredding French-Romanian horror film.

The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955): Humphrey Bogart is an escaped convict who takes an Indianapolis family hostage. Dad (Frederic March) may have a cunning plan.

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974): A crazed murderer hides out in the attic of a sorority house in this classic seasonal slasher. Also known as Silent Night, Evil Night.