Recently, it seems that our campus been a magnet for Hollywood A-listers, but it wasn’t until last week that one of them decided to truly slum it like a college kid by ditching the usual four-star accommodations for a walk-through in Winthrop. Best known for his roles on “L.A. Law” and “Sex and the City,” award-winning actor, producer, director, and humanitarian Blair Underwood spent last week roaming campus as the Office for the Arts’ Artist in Residence, co-sponsored by the Harvard Foundation. And though he may have played a hotshot lawyer on “L.A. Law,” this time it was FM’s turn to cross-examine. Underwood comes clean about breaking into the industry, raising kids in Hollywood, the trials and tribulations of being one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” and living in a dorm as a 45-year-old celebrity.
1. Fifteen Minutes: What advice would you give to students who aspire to pursue a career in the performing arts post graduation?
Blair Underwood: The one thing I would say to you is [that] there is always a dual conversation to be had in terms of a career in the arts. There is a conversation in regards to the arts themselves and the craft and the work and there’s a conversation on the other track about the business and the industry itself. The methods that I like to share with most individuals who plan to pursue the arts as a career is to constantly and consistently follow and work on the craft as an artist. You also simultaneously have to be an entrepreneur now more than ever because of the new media and technology, because you can indeed create your own film almost on your cell phone.
2. FM: Because of your portrayal of the compelling attorney Jonathan Rollins in the dramatic series “L.A. Law,” you were invited to visit Harvard Law School where you briefly met President Obama when he was serving as the President of the Harvard Law Review. Could you tell then how successful he would become?
BU: The fact that my character on “L.A. Law” was the president of the Law Review was completely serendipitous. Nobody knew of Barack Obama at that time. I have to say, even just meeting him, what I take away from here every time I come to Harvard is just truly how bright and hungry and intelligent and curious and insightful and bold the students are and inspiring to me. Of course I saw it in him, but I see it so often on this campus.
FM: Given those experiences playing an attorney, do you ever wish you went to law school, a very popular postgraduate choice for many Harvard graduates?
BU: No, that has never been a desire of mine. I think I get a lot of the benefits of playing one on TV without actually going through all the hard work.
3. FM: You attended Carnegie Mellon, where you were trained in musical theatre. Was Broadway your ultimate goal in college?
BU: I’d tell you even then and now I wanted to do it all. I just didn’t want to limit myself. Broadway was a particular goal. It was a goal but not the ultimate. I still haven’t done Broadway. I’ve done Shakespeare in the Park. Theater is my first love, but with all things, as you age and you mature, you just have different experiences. The idea of going there every night and recreating this character every night is not appealing to me now.
4. FM: You’ve been around the campus quite a bit, chatting with students in different Houses and dining halls. Have you observed anything unusual or funny about Harvard or Harvard students after spending some time here?
BU: The Winthrop room I’m in now is much bigger than when I was in college. I’m learning about some of these traditions like the primal shout—primal scream. But I have to say—this isn’t funny—but I’m so inspired by these students. As Shakespeare said, by the vitality and youth, but also the vitality of youthful hopes and aspirations. It’s hard times economically for the world, so to be around you students and to see and feel and interact with that sense of tomorrow and the future and hope is exciting.
5. FM: Anything you regret not doing while in college or that you would do differently if you had the chance to go back?
BU: I don’t have any regrets because it worked out okay, [laughs] but if there is anything I could change or add, it would be probably studying psychology. I definitely have considered possibly looking to get a degree online. I can’t do it now because of life and time commitments, but it really is the very thing that made me want to become an actor—the study of and the fascination of human behavior and human interaction.
6. FM: Once you land a part, do you have a specific routine for how you ready yourself for the role?
BU: In the broad strokes, I take what is written in the script—it’s called the givens, what they give to you—and fill that out in terms of intellectual knowledge of what is needed in very basic terms. In other words, the basic general, rudimentary idea of what that is. Then you start filling out the emotions and the layers of the character, the heart and soul, the blood and guts, which is my favorite part. And some characters are different. I did a mini-series called “Mama Flora’s Family” and in that I had to age from 16 to 50. I had a lot of makeup on, of course. What you need to bring that kind of character to reality is much different than something that is closer to you and your age and how you walk and talk.
7. FM: You have had many well-known roles in TV shows such as “L.A. Law”, “Sex and the City,” and “In Treatment”, as well as movies such as “Rules of Engagement”, “Gattaca”, and “Full Frontal”. What has been your favorite role?
BU: There are a couple, but one of my favorites was a movie I made called “Just Cause” with Sean Connery and Lawrence Fishburne. It was after a seven-year run on “L.A. Law” playing a good guy basically. That character, I played a serial killer pedophile who was on death row for the murder of a child. A bad guy.
8. FM: A lot of Harvard students are worrying about the lack of jobs in this uncertain economy. However, it’s always this kind of economy for an actor who’s starting out.
BU:[laughs] You’re right! It absolutely is.
FM: Did you ever consider a more secure career choice? Were you ever a “starving artist” and what was your first job out of college?
BU: I never considered another career choice, but would I have if I had been forced to? Yes! You gotta eat at a certain point. I was very fortunate in that I started working very early when I moved to New York in January of 1985. My first job then was “The Cosby Show.” I had one word, one line, so pretty much it was a walk-on, but it really opened up a lot of doors.
9. FM: What has been your favorite part about the Hollywood experience? What do you like least about it?
BU: My favorite part is to have had a career in Hollywood because it was a dream of mine to go to Hollywood and be able to work—that’s a blessing, that’s a gift. The worst is [that] it’s such a pivotal period of transition for our industry because of new technology and trying to understand how we should monetize it and how to share the profits of that and see how we actors fit into that. It’s harder to make a mark in the industry today than it was 20 years ago.
10. FM: During your impressive career, you’ve received numerous prestigious awards and nominations commending not only your exceptional talent but also your humanitarian efforts. And let’s not forget back in 2000 when People Magazine bestowed you with the highly coveted honor of being named to their 50 Most Beautiful People list.
BU: Marietta, no you didn’t.
FM: Yes, yes we did. How does it feel to be the object of desire for so many?
BU: I have no idea, Marietta. How does it feel? Oh God. I don’t know, I never have an answer to that. I should have an answer for that. Listen, it could be worse. I could be called worse.
11. FM: What is the craziest thing a fan has ever done for you?
BU: I don’t get a lot of crazy, which is great. I prefer it that way. Grabbing where one should not be grabbing, in public especially. Is that vague enough?
12. FM: Is it difficult raising kids in Hollywood? Do your kids ever push you to take them to certain events or premieres?
BU: I don’t think it is ever easy raising kids anywhere. But [Hollywood] has its own unique challenges. I constantly am telling them they grow up in a bubble. It’s incumbent upon my wife and I to give them a certain sense of the real world and giving back. Every once in awhile, they want to go somewhere. I took my son to the premiere party of the “Star Trek” DVD release, something I would not usually go to, but he’s a big fan. The day before, I took my daughter to the premiere of “The Princess and The Frog” because she loves Disney.
13. FM: You’ve had some controversy surrounding you in the past. Did the criticism bother you?
BU: Criticism never really bothers me because if you do something against the grain you’re always going to have people who don’t understand it and be resistant to it. If you’re an artist, you either learn to deal with it and not let it sweep you away or not. You gotta be true to who you are.
14. FM: You were an “army brat” and have lived in many places. Do you prefer the East Coast or the West Coast?
BU: As an army brat, you learn to make wherever you are work. I’d have to say I prefer the East Coast and its essence and its history. There is a certain East Coast vibe in reality and focus of life and education that is very different from the West Coast.
15. FM: You’ve produced a series of books, have your own production company, directed and acted. What’s the most difficult for you and what’s your favorite? What’s next?
BU: The most challenging is probably, now, directing. I love it, I just haven’t done a lot of it. Next, I guest star on a show called “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” I am shooting that next week. Beyond that, our production company is always raising money to turn the book series that I have into films. We are producing some reality television and creating hopefully something called a vook—a video book. It’s basically taking the experience of a digital book and adding a visual short video vignette component to the digital experience. Thus vook, video book.