Now playing on Netflix is the four-part limited series, ‘Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker’ starring Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer stars as the trailblazing African American haircare entrepreneur who was America’s first female self-made millionaire.
The series will recount the untold story of how Walker (real name Sarah Breedlove), a black hair care pioneer and mogul, overcame hostile turn-of-the-century America, post-slavery racial and gender biases, epic rivalries, tumultuous marriages and some trifling family to become America’s first black, self-made female millionaire as she simultaneously fought for social change.
The cast also includes Blair Underwood as her husband C.J. Walker, Tiffany Haddish as her daughter Lelia, Carmen Ejogo as Walker’s business rival Addie Munroe, Garrett Morris as Walker’s father-in-law, Kevin Carroll as her longtime lawyer Freeman Ransom and Bill Bellamy as Ransom’s cousin Sweetness.
For Underwood, who is celebrating over 30 years in the business, the Tacoma, Washington native is still getting the best roles as if everything old is new again. From the time he played Russell Simmons in his film debut Krush Groove, to being a star on numerous TV series from L.A Law, City of Angels, LAX, Dirty Sexy Money, The Event, and Ironside, Underwood has never been disappointing in the character he plays. Not only does he shines as C.J. Walker on the small screen in Self Made, but he was also amazing on the stage in Kenny Leon’s A Soldier’s Play, which is the first time the production has been done for Broadway.
In speaking with Blackfilm.com, Underwood, goes over his role in ‘Self Made,’ discusses the Broadway show and his fondest memories from Krush Groove.
What attracted you to the role?
Blair Underwood: Well, first of all, I wanted to work with Kasi for years. She would never allow me on one of her sets. But seriously, I have wanted one to work with her for a long time. We’ve known each other for forever. I think for a man to live in a woman’s shadow in 2020 if we’re being real, war is a strong word, but this is conflict. There is understanding, there is misunderstanding. Imagine the 1900s, a black man trying to find his own way, trying to be find his own dignity in this white man’s world.
We don’t have a lot of information about Charles Joseph aka CJ Walker. A lot of folks don’t know that her name was Sarah Breedlove. She was known in relationship to him as Mrs. CJ Walker, or Madam C.J. Walker. But it was hard not having that information. So it was much more interesting to really focus on the fact this man loved generally loved her, but could not deal with the success that she had. I think at the beginning, he was able to contribute because he’s a ads man. He was a salesman, and could help hype and sell the product. Then she didn’t need him at a certain point so that was much more interesting to play and find those colors inside.
How was working with Octavia?
Blair Underwood: I’ve known Octavia for 25 years and I’ve wanted to work with her again. It’s been a while but you know, Octavia is one of those people who is funny as hell. This was one of the funniest sets I’ve been on between Octavia, Bill, Garrett and Tiffany. She’s who you want number one on the call sheet. When you’re the lead character. She’s in almost every scene. And the first week we were shooting, she was very dizzy, maybe vertigo. She didn’t complain. She was a trooper. She was she was there for every scene. She’s an amazing, brilliant actress, but the person who she is, I love her. She’s phenomenal.
Can you talk about being part of this ensemble?
Blair Underwood: Well, it’s amazing. I has a good time working on the project but aside from that, everybody came to this project feeling as if we’re doing something special. This story has not been told on film that I know of. You may know in the history books and may have been taught in school. This is what I learned in doing this project; a lot of people do not know about Madam C.J. Walker. A lot of white folks I talked to are surprised to hear the story. We all came to this project, wanting to do our best and to bring our A game and we wanted to do our utmost to tell the story the best way we can.
Was there anything from what you’ve read in the research prior to shooting that you wanted to add in there for the character or was everything on the script?
Blair Underwood: There’s always things you want to add to the character because it’s our job is to flesh it out. The script just gives us the skeleton of it all. My job has been to show the heart and soul to CJ Walker and Charles Joseph Walker. People who may know the broad strokes know that she was married to him and then he ended up leaving her for another woman, so you can take that and then you can play it one note and be the bad guy. Or you can find, or ask yourself, the reasons why and then bring that to the fore and express that and put it on on film.
So, to me, it’s much more interesting to approach this relationship. So we don’t know a lot about the relationship. We know they loved each other. We know they were together. We know they both were beneficial to each other because of their skill set, because of their talent and in Charles Joseph’s case he was an admin. He was a salesman, he was a marketer. He was a branding man. So he knew how to sell. He knew how to hype. That was beneficial to her in creating a brand and products that she had to sell to customers. Then as it grew and blossomed the relationship and in their case, her success dwarfed his vision of himself in the world on which they lived in the relationship.
You were recently on Broadway in A Soldier’s Play and this is not your first rodeo on Broadway. Can you talk about this play, now that it has played on a bigger platform than off-Broadway?
Blair Underwood: I’m first of all, I had a ball. Again, not unlike Madam C.J. Walker, there’s a certain historical resonance and gravity to this project. In 1981 for those don’t know, the play was first produced by the New Ensemble Company, the NEC. The play ran for two years. It starred Denzel Washington, Sam Jackson, Jim Pickens, and a lot of different people who have had incredible careers since then. It won the Pulitzer Prize and became the movie A Soldier Story starring Denzel Washington, Howard Rollins and featured a young David Alan Grier, who’s in our production.
So this was David’s third time doing the project. He was in the play. The last few months during his two year run, he did the movie and now he’s playing star Sergeant Waters. It was incredible taking the stage every night with these 11 other actors on stage, At the first read through and rehearsal everyone was off-book, but knew their lines. We just wanted to make sure we were bringing our best to tell this story. What people don’t understand is it’s never been on Broadway, the NEC was off Broadway. It’s run regionally all over the world for the last 35, almost 40 years. But this is its first time on Broadway.
What goes into saying yes to the projects you take?
Blair Underwood: It starts on the page. It starts with the script and then very quickly after that, it’s who’s involved? Who are the artists involved? From the director on down to who else is cast? Who am I going to be working with him? At this stage of my life and career, the process is as important as whatever the product is.
This year will mark the 35th anniversary of Krush Groove, where you made your film debut. It’s been a long journey from there to now. Can you talk about Krush Groove and your fondest memories doing your first film?
Blair Underwood: Being able to kiss Sheila E. That’s the fondest memory I have. No, seriously because the first time we kissed we had already a love scene, but that wasn’t until later in the shooting. So there’s a scene when Run comes off the elevator. I come off the elevator, and we meet in the hallway. And Sheila’s there. Michael Schultz, the director, said, “Because you guys already made love together in the story, continuity wise, I think when you greet each other, you should kiss.” That wasn’t in the script. I didn’t come to set thinking we’re going to be doing that. So when they said “Action,” Sheila comes around, and she put a kiss on brother that is a fond memory to this day
Are you happy with the fact that most people have seen at least half the projects that you have done, from Krush Groove, Set It Off, Just Cause, and the various TV shows you’ve been in?
Blair Underwood: I’m filled with gratitude. With this business you don’t know when you step into this as I did 35 almost 40 years ago, if you’ll be around next year. So yes, to still be here but what’s most important is to stay relevant; to be sitting here talking with you about a new project coming out on Netflix and a project that’s been needing to be told for a long time. So it’s not just a run of the mill, something we’ve seen before. It’s something new, something fresh. I think it’s critical to find new ideas and new projects and in order to stay relevant, so it’s very good. I’m gratified and thankful.
You played a rapper. He played a lawyer. You’ve played a wife beater in Tyler Perry’s movie, a serial killer and even the President of the United States. What’s the role you haven’t played that you’d like to tackle?
Blair Underwood: Marvin Gaye, that’s the one role I would love to do before I’m too old to play.
Interview originally granted to Black Film, Conducted by Wilson Morales