I’m hungry when I meet Gabrielle Union. Famished. The actress invites me—exactly 8.2 days into my Cabbage Soup Diet—for dinner in her trailer near the set of the movie she’s filming in New York: Paramount’s version of the classic fifties sitcom The Honeymooners, which hits theaters this summer. “I’m not so hungry,” I fib. One saliva-inducing scent of collard greens later, Gabrielle and I balance yam-soaked paper plates on our knees while talking hair weaves (hers), Black men (the shortage), TV (the show she can’t miss), even body drama (her secret wish).
The day we meet is Gabrielle’s birthday. Exactly 32 years ago, she rolled into the world as the second eldest daughter of three. Her dad (then a high-school basketball coach) and her mom (then a phone-company employee) moved the family to Pleasanton, California, when Gabrielle was 8. There she competed in nearly every school sport, earned the kind of grades that would make any parent do the hallelujah dance, and fantasized about becoming an attorney.
But providence would rule otherwise. With a sociology degree from UCLA in her Levi’s pocket, she interned at a modeling agency and was repeatedly mistaken for a Tyra type. Faster than you could spell Tinseltown, she’d eked out a modeling, TV and movie career, playing chutzpah-filled heroines (who can forget that formidable cheerleader in 2000’s Bring It On?). After a string of roles as the bratty friend in teen flicks (think 10 Things I Hate About You), Gabrielle began grabbing roles opposite the kind of Black men I only dream of necking with in a dark room.
Like Morris Chestnut. Gabrielle paired up with him first in The Brothers in 2001, then in Two Can Play That Game later that year. In 2003 she played rapper LL Cool J’s nemesis-turned-lover in Deliver Us From Eva. Last summer she starred with Jamie Foxx in the romantic comedy Breakin’ All the Rules. And with all the time she clearly doesn’t have between flicks, she even squeezed in a stint as DMX’s babe in 2003’s Cradle 2 the Grave before teaming up with Will Smith for Bad Boys II. On the small screen, Gabrielle had a recurring role as an inner-city doctor on the series City of Angels. Then in 2001 she became the first African-American love interest on an episode of Friends.
The week before I meet with Gabrielle in New York, she had been in Dublin filming scenes for her part as the stern-but-nurturing Alice in The Honeymooners. That’s when Carol Woods, the woman who plays Gabrielle’s mom in the movie, overheard a clue to the perfect birthday gift for her friend. “While I was eating chips in Ireland, I said, ‘Oooh, I want some soul food!’ ” Gabrielle explains between forkfuls of mac and cheese. So come her birthday (October 29), Woods hauled out her pots, dredged up her inner Mississippi, and presented a feast for the entire film crew. Among those in the food line: Cedric the Entertainer, the actor–comedian who plays the garrulous and lovable Ralph, hubby to Gabrielle’s Alice.
Daring a remake of a series as revered as The Honeymooners takes nerve. Meet David Friendly—the producer who brought us hits like Big Momma’s House and Dr. Dolittle. “I always wanted to make a movie out of The Honeymooners because it was my favorite television show ever,” he tells me.
Friendly’s take on the legendary comedy will be a loosely rendered interpretation. “It captures the spirit of the original Honeymooners,” he says, “but we had to contemporize it for an audience that may not have grown up on the series.” In the series, characters Ralph and Alice Kramden (Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows) squeezed humor from a hardscrabble existence in a spartan Brooklyn tenement, also home to the Nortons (Art Carney as Ed, Joyce Randolph as Trixie).
In the movie the setting won’t change, and neither will Ralph’s job as a bus driver. But the details of Ralph’s get-rich-quick schemes come in an entirely new flavor. The update has Ralph squandering his family’s savings on a brass train buried beneath Grand Central and an abandoned greyhound dog he plans to turn into a Seabiscuit. While the Gabrielle–Cedric combo alone would make for a noteworthy opening weekend, the rest of the cast is just as stellar: Mike Epps plays Ed, Regina Hall portrays Trixie, and Eric Stoltz is a villain trying to steal a house that Alice wins.