Married actors Michael Jai White and Gillian White are proof that timing can be everything. The two wed in 2015, though their worlds first collided 18 years before that. “We met in 1997, at a club where a friend was having a party,” says Gillian, now 44. Laughing, she adds, “Just for the record, you can meet your better half in a club.” But the timing wasn’t right back then. Michael was new in town and not quite ready to settle down. Still, the spark between them never went away. “We knew that every moment spent together was just magical,” says Michael, 52. “That was something that we never lost.”
It’s clear that their relationship today is kismet in every aspect. However, the beginning was marked by an awkward encounter. “I was sick at the time and going on several days with no sleep,” Michael remembers. “I don’t drink or smoke at all, so my system is very sensitive to any kind of stimulant. But I’d taken some cold medicine.”
Disoriented and afraid he was on the verge of death, Michael called Gillian to confess his love. It was now or never—or so he thought.
I claim this wholeheartedly: No one has ever been with the man I am now.”
At the time Michael and Gillian were each ending marriages, and they couldn’t deny the soul alignment they felt with each other. “There was a time when I thought relationships had to be drama and everything took work,” says Michael. “I think I realized with Gillian that there was a path of least resistance I always should have taken. You’re lucky to have friends who don’t require much labor because your chemistry just works. That’s a blessing, and you don’t get too many of those. I realized that’s what I had with her.”
Chemistry aside, Michael says Gillian inspired him to rid himself of what he calls his personal “10 percent bullshit allowance” and step fully into his potential. “I had to become the man who deserved her,” he says. “I had work to do that required growing up completely and being the man I could be. I claim this wholeheartedly: No one has ever been with the man I am now.”
For Gillian, the transformation Michael underwent turned out to be worth the wait. In each other, the two found the yin to their yang. One of the pillars of their relationship, and the practice that keeps them so in sync, is their fitness routine. Not only does it help them stay strong and resilient, but it keeps them on track to achieving a shared goal. Gillian had been an athlete her entire life, playing basketball and volleyball and running track in her youth, while Michael holds a black belt in eight different martial arts.
When we started
training, I wanted to
be good. I didn’t want
to do it half-assed.”
Michael soon began to train his wife in various fighting styles, and Gillian caught on quickly. “Once I saw him [complete a move], the athlete in me wanted to learn,” says Gillian. “When we started training, I wanted to be good. I didn’t want to do it half-assed. And he’s one of the best in the martial arts field, so I’m getting the best teacher.” Michael taught Gillian how his top moves could help her balance muscle groups and get ripped. Their training even helped Gillian become a more versatile actress. “I’m able to incorporate it into different roles,” she notes. “It has a lot of benefits.”
Being in such great shape definitely comes in handy for the couple, who are currently in preproduction for the independent film The Outlaw Johnny Black, the brainchild of Michael’s own Jaigantic Studios company. The couple set up shop in the mountains of Los Angeles to make the movie, which requires long days and physically taxing fight scenes.
For a couple who spend so much time together as partners in life and in business, you’d think there would be friction from time to time. But not for these two. In fact, they insist that they hardly ever argue. “People don’t believe us when we say it, so we just don’t,” Gillian jokes. “Everyone asks, ‘Do you guys snap at each other when things get tense?’ We’re the exact opposite. We work together in such a great way that being together is probably the best situation we could be in.” Of course, making a movie is no easy feat, but Michael says having Gillian on set is his greatest motivation. “What better person can you have beside you than your best friend who keeps you laughing?” he says. “It would be harder if she were not with me.”
The Whites also have some advice for couples looking to get fit together. “We’ve learned a great deal about what it takes to stay fit because it’s always been part of our vocation,” says Michael. “A lot of people live with the detrimental mind-set that working out is a chore. And the fact is, it is a luxury. Get up half an hour earlier, and move for 20 minutes. Start with the basics. But even before that, embrace the fact that you deserve it.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of ESSENCE Magazine, available on newsstands now.