It’s not easy being a star. In this age of 55-hour marriages and Internet sex tapes, celebrity life is often full of public drama, scandal and chaos. Not so for Nia Long. Already a regular on NBC’s Third Watch, in January, Long will star opposite Ice Cube in the comedy Are We There Yet? Her private life is ordered, disciplined and free of high-profile high jinks. She’s a soccer mom who takes her son to practice, buys her own groceries and likes to shop at Target. On-screen, that good-girl glamour plays as sexy but not intimidating, gorgeous but not aloof, reserved but still as open as a back door on a summer day.
“Nia is very real,” says Brian Levant, who directs her in Are We There Yet? “It’s that quality that really helps you make the leap from watching a film to feeling it.”
At 34, Long—who made her breakout performance in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood and last month made love to Jude Law on a pool table in Alfie—is an intensely private person. She says it’s to protect her son, Massai, now 4. But she’s also protecting herself. “You say things to the press, and they just run with it,” she says. In fact, it takes me three interviews, a little prying, and a couple of glasses of champagne to get her to open up. But when she does, you discover that, just like the rest of us, Long’s still got her secrets.
She makes White Guys Jump
I’m having dinner with Nia Long at Next Door Nobu in Tribeca in New York. Her face is free of makeup, and her skin is as flawlessly smooth as a freshly picked peach. She’s got a polka-dot Gucci scarf wrapped around her head. Suddenly, without invitation, two White men sitting at the table beside us decide to join our conversation.
They focus most of their attention on Long. The one wearing a trucker hat tells her he’s a record executive. His friend, a skinny guy with glasses, tells her he’s a musician. Trucker Hat says, “I’ll send you some CDs.” Skinny Guy says, “You can hear my songs online!” Trucker Hat leans toward Long, “So, what do you do?”
“She’s an actress!” I say, trying to work my way into the conversation. “She’s famous. You’ve probably seen her in Big Momma’s House; she was Martin Lawrence’s girlfriend.” Trucker Hat drops his jaw and clutches his heart. “Holy crap!” he says loud enough for other diners to turn and stare. “I’m sitting beside Martin Lawrence’s girlfriend! Oh man, I LOVE YOU!”
She has no time for foolishness
“You don’t mess with Nia,” says Charles Shyer, who directed Long in her sizzling turn as the waitress girlfriend in Alfie. “She’s a serious person, and she doesn’t take s--- from people, especially in relationships.” Shyer admits he gleaned this insight in part by becoming friends with Long while he directed her, but also by overhearing her phone calls when he was in her trailer. “The sense I get is that you can push her so far, and then the iron door closes.”
Long, who was in the middle of breaking up with the father of her son during the filming of Alfie, says plainly: “Things are what they are. All I can say is, I am happy being single.”
She won’t bad-mouth her ex
Ending the relationship, which for a while seemed headed for marriage, was her idea, says Long. “I felt like my soul was dying.” Still she admits the decision was not an easy one. “I felt this sense of failure,” she admits. “Like, ‘Damn, Nia, you got a lot of things right in your life, but you didn’t get this quite right.’ ” Long glides delicately around some of the more murky baby-daddy drama: Does he support your son? Does he take care of his child? saying only that she’s grateful her ex spends time with Massai. There are clearly some unresolved issues, but Long refuses to get specific, at least not on the record.
“When I was growing up, my father wasn’t around and my mother never said anything negative about him,” she says. “I know one day my son will be able to pick up a magazine and read, and I want him to feel proud of both his parents, regardless of what did or did not happen between us.”
Yes, she keeps a Bible in her Prada bag
A few days after our initial interview, Long and I sit down again for a pricey cup of tea at The Mercer Kitchen in New York’s SoHo. “I can’t stay too long,” she says breathlessly. This time she’s wearing a page-boy cap, jeans and a Gap T-shirt. “Because I have to go to Bible study.”
It’s not exactly typical Bible study. The course is led by a friend and caters to people in the entertainment industry. Long says being in the business can get really lonely, and sometimes it’s difficult to find other people she can talk to about her struggle to “balance my spiritual desires and needs with the demands of the industry.” The Bible study helps. “If you don’t have God in your life, you can feel very lost,” Long says. She then digs into her fur-trimmed Prada bag and produces the Good Book. “I usually have a script with me, but today I have my Bible.”