Gabrielle Union never had childhood dreams of seeing her name in lights. "I never wanted to be an actor growing up," she admits. "It was more of like, 'I want attention. I want male attention.'" The daughter of a social worker and a military sergeant, Union was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in California's Bay Area, only making her way to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where she earned a degree in sociology.
"It wasn't until later, where it just didn't seem that hard and they made a lot of money," Union says. "I was an agent's assistant for my internship at UCLA, and it was my job to call in the appointments for, like, Jessie Biel and Hayden Panettiere and Shane West. I would talk to their parents, and their managers, and casting directors, and I was like, 'This is f—king easy.' So, when my internship ended, they were like, 'Would you ever want to be represented by us?' And I was like, 'Yes!'"
"I literally booked the first modeling jobs I was sent out on with no portfolio," she recalls. "I booked the first few TV jobs with a fake resume and, knock on wood, I haven't looked back."
Union has gone on to build quite the formidable filmography for herself, from her early and iconic teen movies (including 10 Things I Hate About You and Bring It On) to a number of beloved romantic comedies (like Love & Basketball and Think Like a Man). Her latest roles have her starring in Elegance Bratton's indie drama, The Inspection, and lending her voice to Disney's newest animated movie, Strange World.
It's the former that has been earning Union acclaim. The Inspection, which Union also executive produced, stars Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, a young, gay Black man who enlists in the Marines in an attempt to win over the disapproving mother. Union plays his mother, Inez, in a glammed-down performance that could not be further from the roles Union has played in the past, and who she is in real life. Her performance has earned her nominations at this year's Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards.
Though Union might not have been conscious of it at the time, the movies that have meant the most to her throughout her life would come to inform everything about her career to come. Below, she shares with A.frame those films (and one seminal TV series) that helped make her into the actress she is today.
Directed by: Ron Maxwell | Written by: Kimi Peck and Dalene Young
One of the first ones would've been Little Darlings, with Kristy McNichol, and Tatum O'Neal, and Armand Assante, and Matt Dillon, and a young Cynthia Nixon. It was a very important movie in my youth, because I was obsessed with losing my virginity, and what that meant, and who I am after, and the pursuit of it all. I was a psychotic Kristy McNichol fan, like psychotic. Family, I loved her in a way that was probably a little unhealthy for me.
But watching this tough girl navigate her sexuality, it changed everything for me, because I liken myself to being this tough, scrappy girl that was still deserving of love and tenderness and consideration, that she perhaps didn't get, that she was so desperate for. I've done so many rom-coms and whatnot - I've never lost sight of her vulnerability. There's a scene where she [is going to have sex for the first time], and it just didn't happen the way that she had imagined it in her mind. And how painful that was, and how vulnerable she was in that moment with Matt Dillon's character. I've never lost sight of that.
Directed by: Elia Kazan | Written by: William Inge
Again, because I do a lot of rom-coms, but it's the movie that I still recommend to all of my girlfriends going through terrible breakups, where your significant other can literally drive you insane. It's that thing where you think you are broken beyond repair and there's no one better, that no one's going to love you more than this idiot. And then, there's a moment at the end that I always try to keep in the back of my mind, where you realize, 'Oh f—k, I could've ended up like that!'
Deanie, played by Natalie Wood, she's fresh from the mental institution, and she's got her gloves on. She met the love of her life at the institution. She's got her little white gloves on, and she shows up at Bud's farm, and it's in disarray. He's married this woman, and they've got dirty kids on the ground, and chickens running through the kitchen, and she's got her white gloves on. And I'm like, 'Be the Deanie,' you know what I mean? Go through it, understand there's a mourning process, but trust that everything will work out in your favor. So, I try to remember that, the 'I'm not spoiled, mom' scene, and then, her with her white gloves walking through his dirty kitchen.
Directed by: Randal Kleiser | Written by: Bronte Woodard
Because I played so many teenagers as a grown-ass person. And Grease really kicked off grown-ass adults playing teens and making it entertainment. Especially Stockard Channing and Annette Charles, who played Cha-Cha DiGregorio, the best dancer at St. Bernadette's with the worst reputation. I've always wanted to be a bad girl like Cha-Cha DiGregorio, who gets the guy and is f*****g cool. I've always loved that movie. It's probably my all-time favorite movie. But I leaned on it a lot, being 30 playing 15.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Menno Meyjes
I had read the book. I was in seventh grade, and The Color Purple was one of the first books I'd ever read that I saw the movie of, outside of Huck Finn or some s**t. And who Shug Avery is in the movie was so different than who Shug is in the book. What Margaret [Avery] did with Shug, there was so much more complexity and layers to who Shug was. The assuredness of how she moved through every f*****g scene, she owned it. She owned every entrance. It was something I aspired to have in real life, to command that kind of attention where every head turns, male and female, and everyone desires you. And when she's leading the folks into the church to have that confrontation with her father, and how she's standing in her conviction?! That performance is one of my all time favorites! It's also why I fought to make sure that she played my mom in Being Mary Jane.
When me and D got married, we recreated that scene. From our reception to the juke joint that we created, based off the juke joint in The Color Purple. We all lit candles, and sent wishes, and we had a choir that took us across this drawbridge type of thing into the juke joint, and they led us with, 'God is trying to tell you something!' And it was unreal. But that's how powerful that performance was. I needed it in my wedding.
Created by: Paris Barclay, Steven Bochco and Nicholas Wootton
It's not a film, but the TV show, City of Angels, was the job I got after Bad Boys 2, when I was on every 'It Girl' list and this, that and the other. Everyone else that I'd worked with up to that point, if you were a part of a big film like that, and certainly if you were the female lead, your career takes off. So, I was ready for more tent-pole movies! And they were like, 'We are prepared to offer you a CBS procedural where you'll be about the eighth lead.' But on that show was Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Maya Rudolph, Bokeem [Woodbine], Hill Harper, Blair Underwood. It was a masterclass.
I remember there was a storyline where Bokeem played a serial rapist raping women in the hospital. I stayed on set the day that Viola's character had been raped. As a rape survivor in my own life, I had not told anyone in Hollywood, and I watched her surrender to the reality of what that moment is. It was this scene where she literally breaks down in the shower. And I always remember that she just stayed in it, and she stayed true to a reality that, I don't know whoever else on that set could also relate to, but it looked so much like my real life. I've always aspired to have that kind of truth in my storytelling.