It was past noon last Thursday and I was already apologizing to Blair Underwood. See what had happened was I was scheduled to sit down with the actor, now starring in Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, inside The Whitby Hotel in Manhattan, but my anxiety wouldn’t let me leave the house–especially after the governor of New York highly suggested, those who could, to work from home due to the coronavirus outbreak.
And so here I was still in my Brooklyn apartment, calling Underwood instead. The actor, who’s been in New York for nearly two months thanks to his run in A Soldier’s Play on Broadway, understood. “It’s real,” he told me, accepting my apology. “There’s a lot of uncertainty out there and a lot of fear.”
“I’m expecting a call any minute to say they’re shutting down Broadway,” Underwood continued, predicting what New York mayor Bill de Blasio would do hours later. “I haven’t heard yet, but we did two shows yesterday, so we’ll see. You never know. Listen, I’m just grateful that we had an incredibly successful run and everything we came here to New York to do, we did.”
Although we won’t be able to properly say goodbye to Underwood after his Broadway curtain abruptly closed, at least we can see the actor in Netflix’s new four-part miniseries, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, where he portrays the first Black millionaire’s third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. Starring opposite Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who plays the series’ title character, Underwood expertly embodies a husband, who helps his woman become everything she’s destined to be, only for his ego to be crushed by her success. Although you’ll want to hate Walker, a part of you may feel bad for a man, who can’t live up to patriarchy and the hyper-masculinity that comes along with it.
“The fact that you could empathize with him, because my job when you play a character like this…is not to necessarily make the audience like him or even respect him, but at least understand him and empathize,” Underwood said. “A man, given the time in the late 1800s, who you saw the affection, and the adoration, and the love that he had for [Madam C.J. Walker]…and to understand that not only was he there before her success, he helped build it with her.”
“What success brings with it, he just was unable to handle,” he said of his character, based on the real-life entrepreneur and marketing maven. “He was an ad man. He was very charismatic. He was a salesman. He brought all of that to the table.”
In Self Made, you see Underwood’s character get chastised by his father (Martin’s Garrett Morris) once he realizes Madam is making more money and calling the shots. We see first-hand how men police each other when they dare to live outside the constraints of patriarchy. Walker’s lack of financial success begins to play on his self-image, Underwood noted, and he begins to take it out on the soon-to-be millionaire in subtle and not-so subtle ways.
Offscreen, however, Underwood, who’s a proud girl dad, told ESSENCE he’d have a different kind of advice if his own daughter brought home a man who couldn’t deal with her financial success.
“If he could not adapt or cannot adjust then get out of the relationship,” he advised, point blank. “That’s what I would say, especially to my daughter. But that said: to make any relationship work, you have to respect each other–more than love each other–you have to respect each other.”
Underwood also had advice for men who may not end up being the breadwinner in their relationship.
“If she’s able to go out there and make more money than you then deal with it,” he said. “But that said: this is not just bumper stickers or billboard talking points. She has to show that he’s respected in some way, shape or form.”
“Listen it’s hard out there, I’m going to be real. It’s hard enough just being a Black man in America in 2020 much less than the 1800s,” Underwood continued, “because when that man comes home, he has to at least feel respected with his woman and within the home.”
But not to be misunderstood, Underwood got real serious and took a long pause before concluding, “Hear when I say: if he can’t get past it, you’ve got to leave him in the dust.”
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, also starring Tiffany Haddish and Bill Bellamy, premieres on Netflix Friday.