On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Golden Globe- and Tony-nominated actor Blair Underwood about his work onstage and onscreen. They discussed how he decides which roles he wants to play, the difference between performing in theater productions and in TV and movies, and what he learned from Sidney Poitier. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: Do you do a lot of preparation when you’re going to play a role? You said you were thinking about the physicality of the character. Are you sitting there, breaking down your script into beats? What’s your preparatory process like?
Blair Underwood: I do a lot of preparation, primarily because you want everything to be in your bones. You don’t want to have to think about it, especially theater. I’m about to direct and act in a movie right now, and I’m just being hard on myself to learn the lines, because there’s too many other things to be concerned with. Directing is a full-time job. Playing the lead in the film is a full-time job. When you’re trying to juggle both, it’s a lot. Whenever I’ve done a play, I try to be off-book before I even start the first rehearsal. That’s not to impress anybody. That’s not to do anything, but to be ahead of the game.
The faster you know it, the faster you get it in your brain and in your body and in your spirit, the better you can really play, because that’s when you can let everything go, be there, and really play and be that character. It’s funny you mentioned that about breaking down the scripts. Sometimes I see scripts. I see people write. They’ll do slashes and inflection points and all that stuff. I never have done that, and it goes against whatever training we had, which was play the moment. How we talk is going to be different every time it comes out. Even with the same intention, it could come out 10, 15, 20, 30 different ways. It’s not changing the intention—because you don’t want to change the arc of whatever the scene is about or the story—but there are many different ways to do something. So I don’t ever like getting locked into inflections, or even rhythm or pace, just the intention.
Do you think of yourself as starting with the text, or starting with your body, or is that a false dichotomy to even think about it that way—whether it’s outside or inside?
I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy. I always think inside first, inside out. Really, it’s psychology. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor, because it’s all psychology, behavior.
Why does this character do the things he does? Why does he think these thoughts? Why does he respond and react the way he does? Where does that come from? That’s all psychology. That’s all the internal machinations and thought processes of the character at the time. Then the outside—the physicality—that is important, too, but it’s just a layer. It’s the icing on the cake.
Do you do a lot of research? Take, for example, the character you’re playing in Paradise Blue: He’s a bebop trumpeter and a club owner from a specific time in Detroit. Are you researching those things for character ideas, or are you more just focused on, “What is the intention? What does he want? What are his tactics?”
No, it’s all part of the process. For Paradise Blue, because it’s set in the ’40s in Detroit, I was fascinated. First of all, I’m a lover of history. It’s set in a place called Black Bottom, Detroit. I had never heard of Black Bottom. But Black Bottom, Detroit, was a place in the ’20s and the ’30s and the ’40s. They had about 300 or 400 Black-owned businesses. They had a whole area called Paradise Valley that was all jazz clubs and restaurants and speakeasies. I had never heard of that. It was dismantled, I think in the ’50s or late ’40s. That’s part of what our play is about. In the ’50s, when Mayor Albert Cobo came into Detroit, and he wanted to break up that neighborhood and drive a freeway right through it. So all of that history that I’m remembering right now is important to know the world that you’re living in.
To answer your question, it starts internally. Then you build the physicality, but you also build the world around you. I find it so important. It’s critical to understand that world, because that can affect how you walk, how you carry yourself, how you interact with each other—the man you are in this world. This is a Black man in the 1940s who is an artist. He’s a brilliant musician. There’s a great line—I wish I could think of it offhand—but it speaks to being brilliant and Black and forced to be second-class and how that can drive you insane. That’s really his journey. So if you understand, I have my walk in 2021 as a Black man dealing with police and law enforcement and all of that. That’s a different kind of walk. You hear so many young Black kids today say, “I would never be a slave. I would run away” or “I’d kill them.” I say, “Well, you weren’t there. It’s easy to say that.” Context matters. That history and understanding that history is imperative.