By Darlene Donloe
Every time he thinks about it, Blair Underwood can’t believe his good fortune.
Not only did he appear with Cicely Tyson in the television movie, The Trip To Bountiful, but this Friday he will appear, for the first time, on stage with the veteran actress he says he’s revered for years.
“It’s amazing when I think about,” says Underwood during a recent interview. “It never entered my mind that one day I would share a stage with Miss Tyson. I’ve always admired her work and now I’m going to appear on stage with her. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The Trip To Bountiful, starring Underwood, Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, opens at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on Fri., Sept 26. It’s the story of an elderly woman named Carrie Watts who wants to return home to Bountiful, TX, just one more time.
The Trip To Bountiful has had several incarnations. It was originally written as a teleplay by Horton Foote in 1953. It aired on NBC and starred Lillian Gish, Eileen Heckart and Eva Marie Saint. Gish and Saint reprised their roles when the show went to Broadway later that year. In the 1985 film version Geraldine Page took over the role of Carrie and won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The play is set in 1953 in Houston, Harrison and a country place in Texas.
Blair Underwood and Cicely Tyson
Underwood plays Ludie Watts, the son of Carrie Watts. He’s married to Jessie Mae, who is played by Vanessa Williams. While this will be his first time sharing a stage with ‘Miss Tyson’, Underwood, who, out of respect never calls the iconic actress ‘Cicely’, is no stranger to the stage.
He recently starred as Othello at the Old Globe in San Diego. He appeared in Purlie at Encores! opposite Anika Noni Rose, played Claudio in Measure for Measure at Shakespeare in the Park and made his Broadway debut as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire for which he received a 2012 Drama League Distinguished Performance Award nomination.
A veteran of several television series (L.A. Law, The Event, Sex and the City, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Dirty Sexy Money, Fatherhood, In Treatment, Ironside, City of Angels, LAX), Underwood, who shot to fame as Jonathan Rollins on the hit television drama, L.A. Law, is also a Grammy winner for the audiobook of An Inconvenient Truth. He’s one of those actors who likes to keep it moving. He’s as comfortable on stage as he is on television, as he is on film, as he is writing books.
I recently caught up with the handsome and charming Underwood to talk about the play and his career.
DD: You are about to open in A Trip To Bountiful on an impressive and respected stage with none other than Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams. Describe that for me.
BU: The reason I wanted to do the play was because I have never worked with Miss Tyson on stage. In Heatwave I played her grandson. I was also in Mama Flora’s Family, Madea’s Family Reunion with Miss Tyson, but never on stage. When we’re rehearsing sometimes I just sit in the wings and watch her.
DD: How did you come to play Ludie in the Lifetime version?
BU: I got an invitation. I got it the day Ironside was cancelled. I had seen the play on Broadway in previews. I was taken by it. Vanessa [Williams] I had known a little bit. The ‘Streetcar’ producers were doing it. I never thought I’d have the great fortune of working on this.
DD: Do you identify at all with Ludie? From your perspective is he broken? Is he a coward? Is he weak to you?
BU: Those were my first two questions – is he weak and is he a coward. I wanted to know if he and his wife were in love. Jessie Mae is very domineering.
(l-r) Cicely Tyson, Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams
DD: So what did you decide about Ludie?
BU: My mother, my real mother went through depression. I’m a big advocate. We don’t talk about it in the black community. When he (Ludie) talks about how he was sick and in bed for two years and couldn’t get up. When he is rattled by loud noises and is under stress – I recognize it. My mother had a breakdown. She would rock back and forth. A depressed state is scary. If you understand it then you know the strongest of us can go through depression.
DD: Is Ludie depressed?
BU: It’s not identified as depression in the play. He’s not a weak man. Jessie wouldn’t be attracted to a weak man. When we meet this man it’s the day he’s going to ask for a raise. He’s uncertain of himself. He’s been working for six months when we see him. He’s a broken man and he’s putting the pieces back together. It’s a midlife crisis. He feels like a failure. Bountiful represents all the hope and promises that he never did. It’s a healing place in a lot of ways. It’s a powerful and complex piece.
DD: Do you like Ludie?
BU: I like him. I see him as someone who is striving against all odds. He wants to bring peace to his life and his family.
DD: What adjustments do you make from doing it on television and now the stage?
BU: In a movie you can work at an actual location. There is the lack of continuity when you’re working on camera. Beyond that it’s about acting. On stage you can take the journey.
DD: In 2012 you appeared on Broadway in Streetcar Named Desire. That’s a dream for most actors. Describe Broadway.
BU: It’s interesting. The Broadway infrastructure is magical. The stakes are higher. It’s about that real estate. It’s interesting to know that at eight o’clock curtains are going up all over Broadway. It’s the Broadway family. It’s the culture of the theater. It’s a subculture. The world around the theater is what makes it magical. It’s exciting. It’s a dream come true.
DD: Television, film or theater. Do you have a preference?
BU: Film and TV are not that different. How film is presented and distributed to the world is increased intrigue. The work is no different though. The best work is on television now. Look at HBO, it’s a new frontier. The game has completely changed. The draw is great scripts and characters. There is nothing like live theater. When we’re rehearsing we’re missing our dance partners – the audience. We see the audience and they see us right back.
DD: What have you learned working with Cicely Tyson?
BU: I call her mama. I’ve learned about stamina, humility and forward thinking, always thinking about the future. She’s an inspiration. She’s a vegetarian. She does 50 push ups a day – for real and not the girl type push ups. With her it’s about electricity and passion. I’ve also had a great time working with Vanessa.
Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood
DD: What do you know for sure as an actor?
BU: I know for sure that as an actor there is always room for growth and improvement. Complacency is your worse enemy.
DD: You’ve done a number of series. You’ve been consistent in your work. What’s your secret?
BU: Diversifying. I don’t want to be put in a box. I don’t’ want to be stagnant. I want to grow. We’re all multi-faceted. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I created my own production company. I create my own opportunities. I team with writers, go out and option material. I have a clothing line called The BU Collection. I’ve had it for three years. I’m now launching a personal care line that includes lotion, body spray, shampoo, body wash that’s all organic. Let’s be affordable, but let's have quality. All of my projects have a philanthropic component to it. Ultimately it’s about people. It’s about giving back. It’s all about people.
DD: You had a big birthday recently.
BU: I turned 50 the first day of rehearsal. At this point you evaluate your life. I’m acting more. I’m working in this industry. I’m doing the things I hoped for as a kid.
DD: What is your philosophy about your career?
BU: If it makes sense, go do it.
The Trip To Bountiful, by Horton Foote, is directed by Michael Wilson and stars Blair Underwood, Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Devon Abner, Wade Dooley, Arthur French, Pat Bowie, Russell Edge, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr., Dalila Ali Rajah and Desean Kevin Terry.
The Trip To Bountiful, Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles; 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun., no Monday performances; Exceptions: Added 6:30 p.m. performance on Sundays, Oct. 5 and 19; Added 2 p.m. performance on Thurs., Oct. 30; No 1 p.m. performance on Sundays, October 5 and 19. No 8 p.m. performance on Tues., Oct. 28; Through Nov. 2; $25-$115; www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213 972-4400.