We are forever grateful to Mara Brock and Salim Akil for bringing to life some of our favorite characters including Joan Clayton on Girlfriends, Tasha Mack on The Game and Mary Jane Paul on our current Tuesday night obsession, Being Mary Jane. The powerhouse producers are not only creative collaborators, but life partners after first meeting at a Los Angeles café more than 15 years ago.
For our February issue, the Hollywood hotshots shared the secrets to their unbreakable bond, as they produce, write and direct multiple projects for BET, HBO and their own company, while raising their two young sons and growing their relationships with Salim’s two older children.
Discover how these creative soulmates overcame their biggest issues, why sex is always on their to-do list and what scenes from Being Mary Jane are right out of their relationship.
ESSENCE.com: What has worked in keeping your relationship strong?
MARA BROCK AKIL: We live in a culture that wants you to fall in line like everybody else. Two days after you get married people start asking “when are we going to have the kids?” What’s been successful for our marriage, and just every entity that is a satellite to our marriage, is we have defined for us what our life should look like: personally, professionally, spiritually, and so on. If you compare yourself to other people, then you get distracted on the wrong thing and can’t see your own blessings. I have to give Salim the credit for that, because he is the leader of our family, when things were getting tense. We would sit down and have the conversations about what does life look like for us. Even the decisions about how we spend our money.
SALIM AKIL: The best asset that we have in our relationship is that we’re friends and we value our friendship. We’ve had rough patches, and it wasn’t because we didn't love each other. I was away a lot from home working, so we figured it out for each other. We married creative people, and we’re blessed to be employed, so we should use as much creativity in our relationship as we do in our work. If it means that I’m in Toronto and you’re in LA and we have to meet in New York, let’s do that, even if it’s just for 48 hours.
ESSENCE.com: You two have brought to life iconic Black characters. What have we seen onscreen that was inspired from your own relationship or life?
MARA: We tend to use our lives and the things that we share and see. The Joan three-month rule for sex [as seen on Girlfriends] was my own. On Being Mary Jane, when she masturbates in the pilot, that was inspired by my real life. My mom’s advice to me when I was younger was to masturbate before a date. What I love about that advice is that it makes women own their sexuality. Also on episode two, when Avery says to Andre “well who’s going to want me with these stretch marks?” That’s a real question I asked when we had a hypothetical conversation on divorce. I said everybody’s going to want him. We dramatized that into a fight for the series.
ESSENCE.com: Entertainment can already be a high-pressure business. How do you all manage your working relationship as spouses when you are on set?
SALIM: We’re intense. When we’re on set, we’re artists and we enjoy our work. I want what I want and she wants what she wants, so we have rules. On her projects she is the boss and on my projects, I’m the boss. On Being Mary Jane, because Mara’s the executive producer she’s the boss and I’m the director. But on Sparkle I was the boss, and she was the writer. It gets tense because it’s creative, but I think that’s part of what fuels our fire. The most important thing of course is our family and our relationship. For that to work, we have to respect each other as individuals. And to that end, we try not to take ownership of each other. Because when you take ownership of anything, after a moment you tend to take it for granted. And so I think on set, we operate as individuals, and that runs the gamete: that we have a great deal of fun, but also we can get very intense.
ESSENCE.com: So what’s been the biggest obstacle that you all have overcome together as a couple?
SALIM: Very early on it was just two big personalities learning how to navigate each other. Mara went to North Western University, and comes from a family of very educated women. I grew up in Richmond, California, and watched the drug trade take most of my friends away and no one on my side of the family had ever been to college. I came up seeing what a lot of young brothers see in this world and you learn to deal with people with a long handle spoon in order to survive. And so one of the biggest obstacles for both of us was allowing me to change. I wasn’t a mean person; just in conflict I would walk away and not have a conversation. The beauty of our story is that Mara became like medicine to me: the cure all for what was ailing me.
MARA: I’m taking that in. For me, being from a family of strong women with the strong Black woman image and “I’m not bowing down” thinking – I had to learn that the power of femininity is far greater than any masculine power. I’ve embraced my femininity, and I have let go of a lot of some of those fighter habits. My power is realizing that if we are sometimes stuck, that it’s ok for me to say sorry first. Being soft is not a weakness, but my strength. Also, women sometimes want men to magically know everything we want them to do and it’s all in our head. Now I’m learning just to say what I want confidently and know that anything that I want, he wants to kill to give to me.
ESSENCE.com: That’s so true. You two have so much on your plates. How do you unwind and have some fun?
MARA: Honestly, we have a very strong sexual life, I think that’s very important. I only share that because people ask us often “how do you all do it?” We are attracted to each other. And there are times when I’m or Salim is gaining weight, and we encourage each other to stay fit. He buys me lingerie all the time and he buys my clothes. Salim is my stylist.
SALIM: Women want you to feel that you’re just as attracted to them today as you were when you first met them, and for me that’s the truth. The number one and two reasons for divorces are sex and money, so people need to start talking about it if their marriages are going to last. We have date night. Also, when Mara is feeling overwhelmed with being a mom, wife and working, I’ll just buy her a ticket and her a room at the Mercer and say “hey, go away for two weeks, because you really do need to go find yourself and be with you.” And she’ll do the same for me. When you come back feeling like you’re an individual and you haven’t been taken over by life, family or work, you are rejuvenated and that allows you to feel connected.
For more from the Akils and their amazing journey to discovering lasting love, check out the February issue of ESSENCE, now on stands.