Ever since she went head-to-head with Kirsten Dunst in “Bring It On,” we've been waiting for Gabrielle Union to have her moment. She's shown glimpses of what a great actress she is, but she hasn't really found the role that could take her to the next level. Union's impressive play on a TV reality queen in Chris Rock's “Top Five” is just another welcome tease on how talented she really is.
Far from the streets of Manhattan, where Andre Allen (Rock) and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) conduct their interview, Erica Long (Union) is preparing for a televised wedding spectacle in the film. America's biggest comedy movie star, Andre, and its biggest reality TV star are going to walk down the aisle and every moment will be recorded for viewers to salivate over. Andre is pretty uncomfortable with this, but as “Top Five” rolls on we discover why he's so indebted to his seemingly superficial and myopic fiancée. And, as you can guess, she is obsessed with it.
Rock puts a Bravo TV logo on almost every scene that features Erica and her reality TV crew around her. Many will assume that her character is based off one of the many manufactured stars from that network's “Real Housewives” franchise, but that's not how Union saw it.
“I never looked at her like as a 'Real Housewife' but more of like a Kardashian or maybe one of like the Braxton sisters,” Union says. “So I kind of approached it a little differently and I think [it helped] maybe because I actually know some of the Kardashians and know some of the Braxtons, you know, that they”re real people and that they”re a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for.”
That's not the perspective one would assume Union would take on the role, but in the long run it probably helped her overall performance. She adds, “I jumped at the chance to actually make [Erica] a little bit more unexpected than what the audience is going to assume about her. To make her a little deeper, a little bit more calculating, a little bit more in charge and powerful than we sort of assume about reality stars.”
Rock and Union make it clear as the movie progresses that Erica Long is not being manipulated by her network or TV crew. She's got a plan and has been working on it for a long time. This “show” is her life and the wedding is a key moment in her career. It's business and public perception, and that's something Union thinks is important to remember. Especially when you ponder the actions of said Kardashians or Braxtons.
“I think what hopefully everyone appreciates is that they”re not cardboard cutouts controlled by someone else. That they are powerful,” Union says. “They make their own decisions and they are charting their own course.”
So Union worked with Rock to make sure Erica Long was as three-dimensional as a supporting character in an ensemble movie can be. Spoiler: they succeeded.
“I didn”t want it to make her like she”s all bad or all good. She”s human,” Union says. “And she”s sort of driven by this need for outside validation and to be chosen publicly to kind of keep this whole thing going by way of her wedding. And so hopefully, you know, everyone will recognize that I tried to make a fully fleshed out character that”s not one dimensional and that you maybe even pull for her at a certain point.”
That being said, Union wants to make it clear Erica is not specifically based on anyone in this realm she knows personally. She notes, “Hopefully a) everyone knows it”s fiction, but b) that I made her a lot more intelligent and in control than we give a lot of reality stars credit for.”
It should be also noted that Union knows what it's like to be under the microscope in this digital age. She began dating Dwyane Wade before LeBron James and Chris Bosh made their dramatic move to the Miami Heat, broke up with him for a short time (when he conceived a child with another woman), reunited and, finally, wed the three-time NBA champ in August. The ups and downs of their relationship were tabloid and gossip site fare just like anything else associated with the “Big 3” during James' run in Miami. There was no escaping it and, one has to assume, that informed Union's realistic take on why reality shows like Erica's exist. Union says that whatever she feels personally, “the reality is it”s happening because there”s a need.” There is a desire for these shows and they”re filling the desire.
“I”m kind of more on the side of the audience has to take responsibility for its desires and what we tune in to,” Union says. “Whether or not I tune in is kind of irrelevant. The reality is it”s happening because there”s a demand for it. If you give a piece of your life, they want everything. They want to know what”s in your cabinets and is there a ring in your tub. They want to know. They want to know everything that there is.”
She continues, “I don”t know what comes first, the chicken or the egg, the demand or the delivery. But what Chris is sort of saying is, 'This is what it is.' You know, I don”t think any serial killer has ever said, 'Well, I was watching the Kardashians.' Dare I say it”s as harmless as you allow it to be or as important as you make it. I think I”m one of those people who reserves judgment for things that affect how I feed my family. So it”s not something I care about strongly one way or another but I recognized that this is what is out there and this is where we”re at and you have a choice to turn on your TV or not.”
Clearly, Union doesn't need to defend anyone else's actions or their career choices. But if her thoughts make you consider this never-ending reality TV experience in a different perspective? She'll take it.
“Top Five” is now playing nationwide.