When Blair Underwood got the call to star in Netflix's Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, the self-professed history buff knew that he wanted to be a part of the project. The 55-year-old actor, who made his film debut in the 1985 cult classic Krush Groove and is wrapping up an acclaimed Broadway run opposite David Alan Grier in A Soldier's Play, says that not only was he attracted to the story of Madam C.J. Walker, America's very first female self-made millionaire who revolutionized black hair care at the turn of the 20th century, but he relished the opportunity to work with actress Octavia Spencer. Underwood plays her husband C.J. in the limited four-episode series, which also stars Tiffany Haddish, Garrett Morris and Carmen Ejogo.
BET spoke with Underwood, considered to be one of Hollywood's most influential black actors, about black hair love, working with Spencer, and affirming the women in his life.
BET: In 2020 we're still having people make rules about what form of our hair is acceptable in the workplace, and youngsters are being told they can't wrestle unless their hair conforms to a certain standard of beauty. Why were you attracted to this project and what do you think the importance and significance of telling this story is, even today?
Blair Underwood: I've known Octavia for like 20, 25 years and haven't worked with her since her star's ascended to where it is right now and won an Academy award and all that. So that, number one, [and] the fact it was the story of Madam C.J. Walker, which I was aware of, but I didn't really know the details of her story. I [also] didn't know much about Charles Joseph Walker, C.J. Walker, his life, or anything else beyond that. So, I very much wanted to be a part of that.
I'd worked with Netflix on When They See Us recently—my last five projects have been with Netflix. It's been an enjoyable process. I'm a student of history and historically I love doing historical pieces from an actor's perspective, but I wanted to be a part of telling this story, and her story.
Underwood: Hmmm! Two leading ladies! Two of my leading ladies...
BET. There's a scene in Self Made where you have your shirt off...
Underwood: [Laughter] I've been doing that in a lot of projects lately!
BET: [Laughter] Was that planned, like a "You know what, let's give the ladies something to appreciate" moment? And how do you feel about exposing yourself in that way? Does it get easier?
Underwood: It's funny, because I'm doing that every night onstage in A Soldier's Play right now. I'm 55 now, so when I turned 50 I thought I wouldn't have to do that ever again [laughter]. And for some reason it keeps coming up.
BET: So, you stay ready?
Underwood: Nah, you gotta stay ready! What it does is it forces you [to stay in shape]. I don't eat until after noon. It's easier just to maintain good health than to lose it and try to gain it back.
BET: There are moments when C.J. caresses his wife’s hair. Has there ever been a moment in real life when you've tended to anyone's hair?
Underwood: Nah, certainly not my wife, she wouldn't have it. And none of my girlfriends—I never did.
BET: [Your wife] wouldn't trust you?
Underwood: She definitely wouldn't trust me! I have two sisters and a mother, so my mother always did my sisters' hair or they learned to do their own hair. My wife's always done her hair [and] my wife's always been around to do my daughter's hair. I mean, I love this short film that just won an Academy Award, Hair Love... I love that. But I never had to, because for my kids my wife was always there, but also, we had a cousin who passed away last year, she helped us raise those kids. And she, for my daughter—I have two sons, one daughter—she would always do these elaborate designs. She would just go in, every day, like, what are we going to do today on my daughter's hair? So, no, I always just appreciated from the sideline.
BET: As a black woman, especially when you're young, you need those kinds of affirmations...
Underwood: My daughter is my little sweetheart. I just sent her a dozen roses the other day for Valentine's Day. I'm very affectionate in terms of stroking her hair, but as a father, your whole focus is to give affirmations to your kids and your daughter, which is a different, very specific dynamic—that father/daughter relationship.
BET: What was it like for you going back in time and visiting the post-slavery period that Self Made depicts, with the costumes and such?
Underwood. Magical. It's one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor, just to be able to transport yourself into another place in time and then transport the audience to that place. And I haven't had this much fun in a long time. Imagine Octavia Spencer—you met her, so you know how funny she is, and obviously an amazing dramatic actress. Just her spirits...
BET: Was she funny on set?
Underwood: Oh yes. She's always funny! Well imagine her, Tiffany Haddish, Garrett Morris and Bill Bellamy. I couldn't keep a straight face the whole time. We had a great time working together.
BET: Are there any Madam C.J. Walker facts that stand out for you?
Underwood: Yeah, a lot of things! I mean, the first thing was that she was such a philanthropist. She gave a lot to the community and colleges. That impressed me. And the fact that we knew this happened a long time ago…she passed away in 1919, so she was making a fortune in the early 1900's, that's incredible at that time. She did not inherit her fortune. She built that fortune. That's incredible to me.
[Also] The fact that she was a driving force. Even though she had C.J.'s name, she was the driving force. C.J. brought a lot to the table initially because he was an ads man, he was a salesman, and he could help market the product, but she made that fortune happen. So that was all fascinating to me.
In terms of other people in history, the fact that she lived right next door at the end of her life to John Rockefeller. I mean that tells you right there what kind of money she was [making]; she was rolling in the dough. [Also] the relationship with A'Lelia, her daughter, I was fascinated by that. It was all illuminating. I think I took more pictures on this set than I have in a long time. Just going back to the historical aspect.
BET: What aspects of C.J.’s character could you relate to as a Black man today?
Underwood: We obviously still live in a very paternalistic society, a male-dominated society. So, even in 2020, it's hard for a lot of men to be in the shadows of a very successful woman. Right or wrong, there's no commentary—it is what it is. So imagine a black man who's trying to find his own way in this world and his own sense of identity, and dignity, and searching for respect in the late 1800's, early 1900's and to have a woman, your wife, the woman that you love... and I do believe, we don't have a lot of documentation... the way we approached this was that he did very much love her and was in love with her, but could not handle her success and could not handle being in her shadow. I think men can relate to that today. You know, it's boring if he's just a dog, if he's just a dog and finds a woman on the side—that's boring. What's interesting is when the heart is connected and bonded. And in his mind, in that period, in that time and in his world, he didn't see another way out. And he's fighting for his dignity, so there's a lot of conflict in there.
BET: As you continue to enjoy your career, are you having certain thoughts about the stories that you do want to tell? Like, does it become more intentional as your career continues to unfold?
Underwood: I have to tell you, I've always been intentional, from my first job. It was intentional. It's not something that I came to. I have to say it's one of the reasons we're sitting here talking 35 years later, that there is a sense of longevity, because I've been intentional from day one and that comes from being in a military family. I say the military aspect because my dad was an Army colonel, and then he retired. And the way we were raised is to know that when you walk out this door you represent yourself, your race, your father, your father's rank, and your country. It's a lot to put on a kid...because it was rare to have a military officer—a black military officer—in the '70s. So, I only say that to say I grew up with a very strong sense that how you represent yourself carries a lot of weight. So, I've never taken frivolous parts. I mean, I do stuff for fun sometimes, but if it's gonna downgrade the race, or myself, it's not interesting to me.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker is streaming on Netflix now.