It’s nearing dusk as Gabrielle Union greets me at the picture-perfect ranch in Malibu Hills where her new movie, Breaking In, is being shot. We’re supposed to chat during her lunch break, so I’m surprised when she takes a detour. “I want you to meet someone,” she says, padding through the grass. We stop in front of a single, solitary giraffe. “This is Stanley.” Union calls him over, rubs him like a pet, muses on how he wound up here all alone. Later she will tell me, “I’ve been Stanley, like, it feels like my whole life.”
For 20 years, Gabrielle Union has been the hottest girl kissing the hottest guys on screen. (Will Smith in Bad Boys 2, LL Cool J in Deliver Us From Eva, Idris Elba in Daddy’s Little Girls, Omari Hardwick on Being Mary Jane, et al.) This makes the idea of her feeling alone—like her pal Stanley—hard to grasp. Her life doesn’t look perfect just on-screen; when you see her choreographing dance routines with husband Dwyane Wade on Instagram, it looks like #GOALS in real life, too.
“People are like ‘goals’; me and D are like, ‘wtf?’ We’ve kind of figured it out now, but I guess maybe we should tweet live from couples’ therapy,” she says. “And when you ask us we’re gonna tell you, there’s a process to happy.” The 44-year-old woman in these photos, the actress who is kicking ass in her next film instead of playing the damsel in distress, is arriving on the other side of the journey. Meet Gabrielle Monique Union-Wade.
“I don’t think there is a more black, authentic version of me that’s ever been captured. Like, my joy, my comfort, I finally feel like I have a sense of worth and value, I felt like it all came together,” Union says of these pictures, which she shared exclusively with Complex from a shoot she creatively directed. “I thought, 'What better way to introduce myself to a new group of people as a whole person, as a happy person?' These pictures reflect who the fuck I am and how I feel about myself.”
Union entered our collective periphery as Isis in the 2000 film Bring It On. Her comedic turns in that and 10 Things I Hate About You were an exciting debut, but shortly thereafter, she fell into a line of roles that by her own admission could be critiqued as one-dimensional.
“It was like I went from Cradle to the Grave to Bad Boys 2 and then I just started kissing boys and that was all anybody wanted me to be—the girl from the right side of the tracks who’s sexually repressed and just needs good dick and the right handsome man to straighten her life out—and that’s sort of what I became,” she says.
At this point in the game Union has seen enough to know that she has to create the roles she wants. As we talk, she’s starkly un-glam, her neck and face smeared with (fake) blood, which is the first clue the character she’s paying next is unlike any other. Union explains that she executive produced Breaking In, where she plays a mother protecting her family during a home invasion, because “I’d rather bet on myself and have a bit more control than put my life and my quote in somebody else’s hands, especially with the genre that I want to get back into.”
Of late, we’ve been witnessing her assume that control in every area of her life.
This year alone she launched a hair care brand, Flawless, designed a clothing line with retailer New York & Company, and prepared for the Oct. 17 debut of her book, We’re Going to Need More Wine. This is after she successfully sued BET, the parent network of her No. 1 show Being Mary Jane, for breach of contract. Fans of the series interpreted that battle—which came alongside the whammy that beloved creator Mara Brock Akil was leaving—as a bad omen. Actually, it was a boss move by a woman coming into her power.
“When it came time to take a stand I was like I would rather go broke fighting for the right thing than give up the bit of gains that I was promised. That’s not gonna happen,” Union says.
“But you have to be willing to walk away from everything in order to get your due,” she continues. “I don’t know if I would have done that five years ago with BET; I couldn’t have done that. I’m the head of household and a few other households. I just didn’t have the luxury—I didn’t think I had the luxury.”
What the public doesn’t understand, she explains, is that each project is a coalition of people with opposing objectives. In her experience, networks and studios find ways to oppress talent. So along with standing up for herself, Union evened the playing field on BMJ, which just reached its Season 4 finale. As star and executive producer, she brought on showrunner Erica Shelton Kodish and super-producer Will Packer, a friend and longtime collaborator she first worked with on 2012’s Think Like a Man.
“You’re on an island pretty much every production. It’s like Game of Thrones. [affects accent] I am Gabrielle Union, House of Wade!” she says. “How can I build these temporary alliances to get me through this season, or get me through this production, and how can we all work together even if all of our goals may not be similar? Like, all right you gotta lowball all the cast and crew, I see where you’re going, but I think we can work together to get to the finish line. Once you find allies you try to work with those people over and over. Trust, especially when you get to a certain level, is hard to come by ‘cause the comeup is real.”
"It was like I went from 'Cradle to the Grave' to 'Bad Boys 2' and then I just started kissing boys and that was all anybody wanted me to be."
Packer, one such ally, is proud to see Union thrive in this way, calling the shots in her career at a time when, after 20 years, other people would be falling off. He insists we have barely scratched the surface of what she’s capable of. The mastermind behind the raunchy comedy Girls Trip is hoping to partner with Union on a vehicle to showcase the gifts those who know her best have long been privy to.
“Gab is so funny,” he says from the set of Breaking In, which he is also co-producing. “That’s what people don’t know. Sometimes it’ll come across in her social media, but she doesn’t really play those roles. Her sensibility is almost like Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool. She can go dark but so funny.”
Union—who is hilarious, can confirm—says she’d love to try her hand at the type of over-the-top comedy that pushed Girls Trip to more than $113 million at the box office this summer, but black female actors are an afterthought when casting such roles. “I’ve been offered other jobs where it’s ensemble female groups but, like, you’re the random fifth black friend that is like, [sassy] ‘Mm hmm.’ You don’t get to be a part of the shit,” she explains.
And let’s face it, pretty women just aren’t expected to be funny. At 44 years old, Union is an undeniable sex symbol, a fact that blows her mind when she reflects on what her younger self would think—“to me, 44 was you’re pretty much Big Mama. That wouldn’t have even been reasonable to have the idea of it.” The moment it dawned on her that she might fit the ideal of “sexy” was at the age of 30, when she was asked to grace the cover of the inaugural issue of King Magazine.
“The fact that they even asked me and I don’t have tits or an ass that ‘my community’ appreciates, in the way that I wish they would appreciate,” she recalls. “The fact that they would even ask me to be on the cover!"
"I was irrationally geeked about it due to my low self-esteem and all the Tupac videos I didn’t get," Union continues. "Between that and maybe like JET Beauty of the Week, I thought those were goals. To even be asked?! To be in it, much less on the cover?!”
You get a sense of the internal growth that has taken place between now and then. Where, at 30, she would consider mild objectification an honor, at 44, her image and what she communicates with it are increasingly under her control. For example, when she decided to rock her natural hair on the red carpet for the first time at the Atlanta premiere of Fate of the Furious, it became her most-viewed video on social media.
Transparency goes hand in hand with vulnerability, and it took awhile for Union to become comfortable enough to share that. Her upcoming memoir, a collection of frank essays, covers everything from her first marriage to growing up black in predominantly white spaces to the embarrassment of being seen shopping for feminine hygiene products—the stars are just like us! But it took so long to compose because she’d spent a lot of time assuming people wouldn’t care about what she had to say.
“I’d been approached many times over the years to write something. I just never felt like my life was worthy enough. I couldn’t see anyone picking it up,” she says. “There’s that voice in my head that’s like, 'You’re a joke, you’re a fucking loser, and in a minute people will figure that out so don’t try to do too much cause you’re just gonna put a bigger bullseye on your back.' So with the book thing I just never felt worthy of the words or the effort.”
She finally decided to stop holding back because “you realize that you’re a fucking asshole if you don’t tell the story, because you know that you’re offering somebody a safe place to land and you’re not, for whatever reason. So I started doing the work to help myself feel like I was worthy and I had value, and the more work I did on myself the more I was like, ‘OK, I wanna tell this story too.’”
Dusk turned to nightfall, Gab ate lunch over an hour ago, and I am as convinced as ever that yes, she is #GOALS. But it’s not because of her refusal to age, or that she just celebrated three years of marriage to an NBA player. It’s because the sense of self-worth she worked so hard for is emanating from her these days. I ask her what went through her mind this summer as she drove to work up the California coast, with the top on her car down and wind whipping through her hair. She smiles, and she sighs: “I’m so happy. I’m so fucking happy.”