Gabrielle Union Says Playing Homophobic Mom In New Film Took Her To A ‘Dark Place’

The veteran actor and stepparent to Zaya Wade spoke about the difficult journey she went on for A24’s “The Inspection.”
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Shavone C. interview here.

Gabrielle Union is playing a very different character than what fans are used to seeing in “The Inspection,” and it may possibly be one of her most difficult onscreen roles yet.

The veteran actor and LGBTQ+ advocate portrays Inez French, the mother of a son whom she kicks out of the house at 16 for being gay. The film opens in theaters Friday. Based on the story of filmmaker Elegance Bratton, “The Inspection” follows Inez’s son as he turns to the Marines to find belonging and finally acceptance from his mother.

When Bratton approached Gabrielle Union about executive producing “The Inspection,” she was on board. But when Bratton told her he envisioned her playing the role of his mother, she hesitated. The stepmother of a trans daughter with Dwyane Wade, budding queer icon Zaya Wade, Union said that the energy the role tapped into was too close to the hate her daughter and her family had already experienced.

“Part of the difficulty is as a family, we live it, and it’s the parts that cause the most pain and heartbreak,” she said. Union explained that because of that it was “hard to find common ground” with Inez. As a mother, Inez is cruel to her son Ellis French, portrayed by Jeremy Pope. In the film, we see her openly disgusted by her son, to the point of placing newspaper on the couch in her home before allowing him to sit. When he tells her he’s enlisting in the Marines, Inez is skeptical but holds on to hope that his identity will change. Sexuality, of course, doesn’t work like that.

“The more her child claimed their identity, it became very much about self-preservation, and she bartered with her child, thinking, ‘If I reject my child, I’m protecting them somehow. If I abuse my child, I’m somehow saving them,’” the actor said of Inez.

Union said she and Pope spent a lot of time embracing each other and holding hands because of the intense scenes that would take them to “a dark place.”

Zaya gave Union her blessing for playing the role as well as some advice on how she should approach the story.

“As a parent, you try to be like, ‘Well, the person that kicked you really likes you,’ and that is wrong, but it’s just to kind of keep the hope alive that maybe someone will turn a corner and change,” Union said. “You have to keep that hope alive for your children, where Zaya is like, ‘Or you can deal with the reality that they show you.’ And so she wanted me to play the reality and not the hope, which I respect.”

Union also admitted that she had some self-imposed limitations that initially hindered her from believing she was the right person to play Inez. That was mainly based on what projects she wasn’t getting in Hollywood.

“When [Elegance] said, ‘We’ve known you could do this all along,’ I understood exactly what he meant,” Union explained. “Parts of Hollywood will convince you that you are not good at your job, that you’re not worthy of different opportunities, that this is just not what you do, this is whatever. But he said, ‘We’ve known you could do this all along.’ And I had to sit with that and think about how I’ve allowed myself to be put in a very small box because that’s what made the powers that be more comfortable.

For this week’s “I Run This,” Union discusses how she approached playing Inez in “The Inspection,” her fight for LGBTQ+ equality and the joys of being Zaya’s stepmother.

Gabrielle Union as Inez French in "The Inspection," which hits theaters on Friday.
Gabrielle Union as Inez French in "The Inspection," which hits theaters on Friday.
Patti Perret/A24 Films

What drew you to this story?

Gabrielle Union: Well, initially they reached out about me producing it, coming on to be part of the producing team, and I was like, absolutely. I get where I could be additive as a producer. And I start making my mental list of who I think would be great for each role. And they were like, “Ah, actually we want you to be the mother.” And I was like, “I don’t really see what I’ve ever did to... why you think I would be good at this.” And Elegance just had an amazing amount of confidence in me that I certainly did not have in myself, and he was deliberate in his confidence.

And when he said, “We’ve known you could do this all along,” I understood exactly what he meant. Parts of Hollywood will convince you that you are not good at your job, that you’re not worthy of different opportunities, that this is just not what you do, this is whatever. But he said, “We’ve known you could do this all along.” And I had to sit with that and think about how I’ve allowed myself to be put in a very small box because that’s what made the powers that be more comfortable.

And I’ve then adopted it as, “This is what I can do” versus “No, this is just the box that you hopped into gladly and closed the lid on yourself.”

I’m not going to lie, that surprises me, especially when I think of the actors that I came up watching and knowing a good majority of their work. So that’s really surprising that you kind of put yourself in this box.

Well, because you end up on certain lists for certain types of projects, right? And for a while it works, and you’re like, “OK, this is what I do. This is what I’m known for.” And then you want to get out of that, you want to get on other lists to be considered for other kinds of roles, and you realize you’re only on one kind of list.

And no matter what you do — what kind of other jobs you take that are outside “the mainstream” — what you really quickly realize is Black-centered projects don’t count in terms of what they think that you can do. We know what we are capable of, and even then sometimes we adopt the same list that they have. We put ourselves in the same kind of boxes that they put us in. Elegance had just got to town. Effie [Brown], her voice had been sidelined for so long that together they were like, “Girl, we know you could do this. We’ve been knowing you could do this. You need to recognize you could do this.”

It’s in the same way that people think that Regina King and Regina Hall just arrived. People thought Taraji just arrived with Cookie, and you’re like, “Huh?”

Inez is such a different person than who we know you to be, especially being a staunch advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, especially for children, and being the parent of a trans daughter. How did you approach taking on Inez?

Part of the difficulty is as a family, we live it, and it’s the parts that cause the most pain and heartbreak. It’s hard to find common ground in that. So I had to get to the “what does she want” and “what did she want before she became a mother?” And the deeper I got into her background, knowing that she was a top student, she was a top athlete, she thought she was a rule follower, she was doing all the things that you’re supposed to do to be considered a good Black woman, a good Black girl, and then got pregnant and then turned to organized religion to make herself whole again to still be seen as good and worthy and to be deserving of the American dream. And in that, the more her child claimed their identity, it became very much about self-preservation, and she bartered with her child, thinking, “If I reject my child, I’m protecting them somehow. If I abuse my child, I’m somehow saving them.”

And at a certain point, she was willing to sacrifice her child to still be considered good. And where I found the common ground in that is when you hop on the assimilation train and the respectability politics train, what you don’t realize is that it’s a train to nowhere. It will eventually run into a brick wall, and just when you arrive at where you think is success, they change the destination again. And you keep getting back on the train, you keep denying your whole-ass identity, you make soul sacrifices thinking it’s moving you forward on your journey to the American dream, to the land of milk and honey, until you crash into the brick wall, which is called death, and you realize, I was never meant to make it. I was just meant to be controlled, and I have sacrificed things I will never get back. And that I recognized in myself, and that’s where we found common ground and I understood how to approach it.

It feels like it’s perceived worthiness rather than actual worthiness itself, right?

Well, as a mother, and certainly as Black mothers, from the time our children are born, in a lot of corners of our community, you look at your child’s nail beds, their ears to see how dark they are, to see how difficult of a journey they’re going to have from birth.

And then we start making, generally speaking, sacrifices to make sure our children have everything. We go without to make sure they have everything, generally speaking. And a good mother does all of that, and an outwardly good mother certainly does all of that, or performs it well enough to be considered good. Regardless of what they’re actually doing, where their intentions for their child eventually match up with their actions, right? Your intentions are to create a safe, loving, nurturing, welcoming environment, a sanctuary in your home that prepares your child for all of what can sort of happen in the world, but no matter what happens out in the world, your child is safe in your home.

But with Inez, she wanted the world to think of her as good, and she truly thought the way she could express her love and her intention was to protect her child. And that’s where a lot of parents who take this route, where they just get it so wrong, where they think that they are helping in some kind of twisted way, and they are harming and abusing their children in ways that they will never be able to recover. Elegance said it best, “My mother is the person that nobody loved me more than my mother, but nobody rejected me more and quicker than my mother. I have to hold both of those things equally.”

Jeremy Pope plays Ellis French, Inez French's son, in "The Inspection."
Jeremy Pope plays Ellis French, Inez French's son, in "The Inspection."
A24

Elegance’s mother died while y’all were working on this. What were conversations like with you and Elegance in telling her story?

Yeah, we get a greenlit on Feb. 14. She passed on the 18th.

So, I mean, obviously his grief was a part of the production, right? And as human beings and as mothers and as nurturers, you want to comfort a child who is grieving their parent. That’s just the natural thing. But part of that grieving process, it can trick you into softening an edge or to making an edge pointier than it was. And we all had to agree to make sure that we were all committed to telling the same story, because there’s certain points throughout where as a mother, as a producer, I’m like, “Can she please just... God, just give him something.”

And because there was not another day to live to see to correct the wrongs of the past in their relationship, there is an urge that we all have, just trying to mend relationships that have run out of time to change things, and we couldn’t. So we had to hold each other up literally at times as we worked through it and hold space for everyone’s... all of their emotions. You got to hold space for everyone’s everything.

That’s why people are like, “You and Jeremy are always holding hands or holding on to each other still,” and that’s what we did all throughout the press, and I’ve never done that before. I don’t know if I’ll do it since or I will do it after. But for this, we can’t allow each other to slip any deeper into any kind of darkness than the role requires, so we always had to make sure that the love was present.

What was that like transitioning from on those camera scenes with so much tension and vitriol to going off cam and having a relationship with Jeremy?

I mean, we literally would just hold each other and cry.

The hallway scene, we just held each other and cried for... I don’t even know how long that was. But that whole day we shot the graduation, the cafeteria and the hallway all in one day, and we were up against light issues, so the executive producer is like, “We have to hurry up.” But the actor is like, “More takes. More takes.” But the sun is like, “Girl, time is up.”

So we had one or two takes tops for every angle that we were able to get. So we didn’t have the luxury of overthinking. All we could do is be as prepared as possible and then literally hold on to each other because it would take you... Oof, it just takes you to a very dark, dark, dark place.

What conversations, if any, have you had with Zaya about playing this role?

Well, I let her read it when I first was offered it as a producer and when I realized that they wanted me to play the mother. Obviously, there’s some similarities to a lot of situations that have been in Zaya’s life, and I was like, “Would you feel exposed? How would you feel? Because if you’re not OK, then this is pointless for me.” And she was like, “Don’t Gabbify it,” which is to try to make people more likable than they might be, and don’t glass-half-full it. Because as a parent, you try to be like, “Well, the person that kicked you really likes you,” and that is wrong, but it’s just to kind of keep the hope alive that maybe someone will turn a corner and change and behave differently or speak differently or hold more space for grace and compassion. You have to keep that hope alive for your children, where Zaya is like, “Or you can deal with the reality that they show you.”

And so she wanted me to play the reality and not the hope, which I respect.

And she’s also a writer. She’s been writing her books since third, fourth grade. So when she’s reading the words, I’m very curious about her experience with the written word and certainly words that I’m going to need to say to try to reach parents who believe that their children are disposable, who only believe that they’re protecting their children by harming them. I wanted to make sure she felt OK and comfortable with the words.

Gabrielle Union spoke with her daughter Zaya Wade as she considered the part as the mother in "The Inspection."
Gabrielle Union spoke with her daughter Zaya Wade as she considered the part as the mother in "The Inspection."
CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

What’s been the biggest joy for you in raising her?

How free she is. She’s free. We try to allow our kids all of the freedom that they were born with. We try not to put them in gilded cages, and so that’s what we’ve hopefully done reasonably OK, and it’s gotten better with each kid. Sorry to the older ones because, parents, you only know what the hell you know. We’re not experts. We’re winging it most of the time, but we realize if we center our children’s peace over everything, then we generally are going to err on the side of getting on the right side of history.

But if we put our own needs, wants, desires ahead of their peace, we will always lose, and those just became very quick lessons that we had to learn quickly, and certainly me, as a stepparent, had to learn very, very fast. It’s a challenge, and you’re going to screw it up. But again, if you lead with love, you can only go but so wrong. And if you also allow your child the space to articulate who they are and their wants and needs and desires that are outside of you, and you listen to your kids, it makes it a lot easier than forcing them into a box that you think is going to make them safe or worthy or good.

This film seems like it’s had a really big impact on you. Now that you see that you’ve been put in this box for so long, what is a dream that you’ve discovered for yourself in moving forward, whether it be in Hollywood, in your fight for LGBTQ+ equality or anything else that is really on your heart?

I’m still working on it, but I am trying to de-center my fear in all decisions. Fear can be a great motivator, but when you are running off of a fear-based engine, you run out of gas a lot faster, and it takes you to false destinations. You think you’ve arrived at something, but when everything is fear-based, you never really get to where you’re going. You can get close. It can feel like you’re there, but you’re not there, and you can’t know freedom when you center fear. And I want to know freedom in every way, shape and form. As a Black woman moving through this world for the next 50- 60 years, I want to be as free as possible.

And I can’t center my freedom when fear is taking its place, so I am working on it.

What do you hope people take away from this film?

That there is hope for you. Whether your intentions don’t match your actions, just because you’ve been doing one thing one way and you thought you were right, it’s OK to change course and center the needs of your children. I hope that making your children disposable is never the right answer. And I hope for parents and children who have lived this experience to know that if you cannot find it in your parents or your blood relatives, that there is a chosen family that is waiting for you with open arms to love you fully and completely and unapologetically. So to not give up hope.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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