Blair Underwood hopes it's a good omen. The first day he and fellow cast members of "A Streetcar Named Desire" set foot in the Broadhurst Theatre for a technical rehearsal was March 26 -- playwright Tennessee Williams' 101st birthday.
In this new, multiracial "Streetcar" revival, which opens April 22, Underwood makes his Broadway debut as the brutish, volcanic Stanley -- the role that made Marlon Brando a star -- with "Rent's" Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stanley's wife, Stella, and "Soul Food's" Nicole Ari Parker as sultry sister-in-law Blanche.
Underwood first made a name for himself on TV's "L.A. Law," and has since appeared in series (including "In Treatment"), films ("Madea's Family Reunion") and onstage ("Measure for Measure"). His latest film, "Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day," hit cinemas this month.
Married with three children, Underwood took time out from rehearsals to chat with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Is there any way to do this role and not think of Brando?
Marlon Brando is one of my favorite actors of all time. He and Sidney Poitier. He absolutely branded this role. No pun intended. When you step into the shoes of a role like this, it's best to do what they did -- Brando, Kim Hunter, Jessica Tandy -- start with the script, and dig deep for the jewels there. They established this play in 1947 and the movie in 1951, and set the bar high, but they started from a place of creativity. That's where we started.
The play is set in New Orleans. Ever been?
Last July. I shot "On the 7th Day," produced by T.D. Jakes. I soaked up the rhythms of that world, the melody of the language -- and the food. Of course, I ate myself into oblivion.
You can't get a bad meal there.
That's right, that's right. While in the French Quarter, I heard a number of people who I thought Stanley might sound like. Two, in particular. My driver -- every day, I'd record our conversations. And then there's a buddy of mine, born and raised in New Orleans. He read all my lines so I could hear his lilt. So this Stanley's accent is very unique to the French Quarter.
What's the film about?
Sharon Leal plays my wife. Our daughter is kidnapped, and we find out there's a serial killer who murders his victims "on the seventh day." So we have seven days to find her. In the interim, we discover all kinds of secrets we've both been keeping from each other.
I saw you on NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" where they trace your ancestry.
It was mind-blowing. The icing on the cake was being able to take my father to Africa, to Cameroon. He'd never been to Africa in his life and always wanted to go. To stand side by side with him, and see it through his eyes, made it all worth it.
Some of your ancestors they uncovered -- pretty impressive.
Like Samuel Scott, my four-times great grandfather . . .
Yeah, a "free man of color" way before the Civil War.
He owned 200 acres of land in Virginia in the early 1800s. Incredible. By the way, it ties into the authenticity of this casting of "Streetcar."
You mean because this production's actors aren't white?
There will be those who'll say, "Well, wait a minute, this family had plantations, they owned land and slaves."
Oh, right -- Blanche and Stella are supposed to come from money, and have a big family plantation from Civil War days.
Well, yes. Just like my four-times great grandfather had a plantation. And slaves. As a man of color.
So the play isn't just modern-day casting. It could've happened.
There were free people of color in the 1700s and 1800s in New Orleans, and many owned plantations and slaves. So I'm excited about that. It gives this multicultural casting a certain credibility.
I heard you met Barack Obama, back in the day.
My character on "L.A. Law" was the president of the Harvard Law Review. So Harvard invited me to visit. A number of students said, "You have to meet the guy who actually is the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. So that's when we met. . . . The irony is that I'd forgotten. But during the campaign in 2008, he mentioned it to someone at The New York Times. And they called my manager, asking, "Is that true?" It wasn't till my manager asked that it clicked, and I thought, "Thaaaat was that tall skinny guy with the big ears."
Have you seen him since?
I was invited to a state dinner at the White House. And when I saw him, he mentioned to one of the Secret Service guys, "Yeah, I've known him since I was at Harvard." So that was kinda cool.