“I Don’t Know If I Want To See That” Blair Underwood Initially Passed On Set It Off and “Sex and The City” Roles
Actor Blair Underwood has done a little bit of everything. But I think for a lot of Black women, we remember him most for his role in the classic film “Set It Off,” alongside Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. And as memorable as that film is, when he first read the script, Underwood was not moved.
In a recent interview with Tracy Clayton for Netflix’s Strong Black Lead podcast, Underwood spoke about his reservations about this and another role in a hit project.
See what he had to say below.
Tracy Clayton: Here you are, a dude in a story about women and friendship. How did you see your role as being one of the key men in the story.
Blair Underwood: You know, I have to tell you, I wasn’t going to do that movie, initially.
Tracy: Really, why not?
Blair: Because I was playing Jackie Robinson in a movie with Mykelti Williamson and Delroy Lingo called Soul of The Game all about the Negro Leagues in Baseball. And I was in this place of like Black historical figures, noble Negros and great stories and all this. And I forgot what year it came out, but this is after Boyz n The Hood, Menace II Society and there was a lot of conversation about this script comes out about these four Black women in the hood. ‘Now we’re going to do girls in the hood?’ There was a little pushback. ‘Why do they only want to see us as slaves or in the hood?’ And I’m doing this historical figure, playing Jackie Robinson. And I remember, I was in my hotel room. I read the first 16-18 pages and I read the scene where Jada Pinkett’s character sleeps with the guy so her brother can go to college. And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to see that.’ So I passed on it. And F. Gary Gray, who directed it. I was directing music videos in the eighties and he was my first AD for my first three videos. But he was directing it and he said, ‘Why did you say no?’ And I said, ‘You know actually, I didn’t finish reading the script.’ My manager said, ‘You need to finish reading the script.’
And when I read it, I saw the love story between Jada and Keith, the banker that I played. And I thought that was a nice balance. But I also understood the story they were telling about these four sisters, that is a love story that is of friendship and loyalty and being there for each other. That was one of the mistakes I made, that I never made again. If I pass on something, I want to make sure I read it and understand it from beginning to end because it’s one of the decisions that I made that I’m most grateful for because people reference that movie to this day.
And the fact that Jada and I were able to portray this Black love story in the midst of such chaos and he was her refuge out of this chaos. I’ve very proud of that film, to have been a part of it.
Underwood also shared an interesting fact about the woman who portrayed his love interest, Jada Pinkett Smith and her use of a body double during their sex scenes.
Speaking of Set It Off, we had a love scene and Jada had a body double. She made a choice and understandably and people do that…
Tracy Clayton: So she wouldn’t have to do the love scenes?
Blair: Some of the physical stuff. No, well the physical body parts. Which I respect and I absolutely get that. So literally this actress comes in, and you go, ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’ And jump right in the bed and do the physical stuff. It can be awkward sometimes.
Set It Off wasn’t the only project Blair Underwood passed on initially. When he was presented with the opportunity to be on ‘Sex and the City’ he turned that down as well. Similar to his reservations about Set It Off, Underwood was concerned about the representation of Black people.
Tracy: Had you been a fan of the show before you took the role?
Blair: I’d be lying if I said yes, no. I just knew whenever it came on, my wife was like, ‘I can’t even deal with you right now. I’m focused on “Sex and the City.”
Tracy: What made you say yes to the role?
Blair: Honestly, she [his wife] said you should do this. I said no first, two years prior. Because there was an episode, if you know “Sex and the City,” the fast one, Kim Cattrell’s character wanted to be with a Black man and it was all about the curiosity. What’s it like to be with a Black man are the rumors true. And I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you. I appreciate it and I’m honored.’ And I mean that, I don’t take that lightly when people offer you a job. But I said, ‘I’m not interested in being the Black curiosity, but thank you.’ So two years later, they came back and had an offer to come join the show. And I said, ‘Is it going to be about his race or is he going to be a human being?’ They said, ‘Naw, he’s a doctor that’s in her building who she meets in the elevator and they hit it off.’
That was important. Since the beginning of my career, that’s been a long conversation. I don’t want to be “the Black guy” even though I was the token. But you’re going to be forced to deal with my humanity. It encompasses everything. Not just your race, not just your gender, not just your profession, not just your nationality but everything that you are. So they said, ‘Yeah, we don’t even want to deal with that.’ I only did five episodes and they only mentioned it once. Cuz it’s obvious. You don’t have to talk about the Black guys. It’s obvious what you are.
It was a lot of fun. And again, I’m glad I said yes to that because I didn’t watch the show. So I didn’t know. I had no idea how popular the show was and still is.
You can listen to Underwood’s full interview below.