Between the time I saw the film Homework and the time I interviewed Blair Underwood (approximately 24 hours), Fox Searchlight had already made the filmmakers an offer. Underwood plays the principal of a school where George (Freddie Highmore) refuses to do his homework. Principal Martinson tries to motivate George but schoolwork can’t compete with his love of Sally (Emma Roberts). Underwood shared his plate of grapes in the Bing Lounge on Main Street to talk about Homework, and his TV show The Event.
Crave Online: How are you doing in the cold?
Blair Underwood: I’m kinda loving the cold. Somebody left their card there.
Crave Online: Someone good?
Blair Underwood: I don’t know, let’s see. Nunzio Fazio, writer/director.
Crave Online: Keep it, he might go somewhere. [Nunzio, I’ll call you.]
Blair Underwood: Just in case. So this is pretty cool, isn’t it? It’s warmer today.
Crave Online: Congratulations on getting distribution, by the way.
Blair Underwood: Oh man, thank you very much.
Crave Online: You come to Sundance, is that always in your mind?
Blair Underwood: Yes, but I tell you this is my first time coming to Sundance. At any festival yeah, it’s in the back of your head. It really is, as we all know, it’s the gold standard to even be accepted here. I directed my first film a couple years ago, an independent film that didn’t make it in and been involved with independent films that hadn’t made it in so I always said I was going to wait until I had a good reason to come and be in a film so no, it’s very exciting to be here. That’s the victory. Then to have sold the film is the icing on the cake.
Crave Online: Who were your inspiring teachers growing up?
Blair Underwood: Mm, I had a few. There was Mrs. Williams who was my hot typing teacher, inspired me in many different ways to do many different things. Who was also a great teacher because really now with technology, I type all the time as most of us do. Then there was Ms. Manigo, Ms. Marie Manigo in high school. She was just one of those teachers who was very pivotal in my life because she pushed me. She saw potential and just pushed me and didn’t allow me to slack off and expected it and demanded the best from me and nothing less.
Crave Online: Is Principal Martinson an example of good motivation?
Blair Underwood: I think so. It’s funny, there’s this book out right now about tiger mothers, like Chinese tiger. I don’t know if you saw that. Anyway, it’s kind of hard nosed. I think so because this character, this principal like Ms. Manigo or other teachers in my past sees the potential in Freddie Highmore’s character and pushes him. He suffers no fools, he takes no excuses but he’s got a heart.
Crave Online: It’s important that he doesn’t condescend either.
Blair Underwood: That’s exactly right, doesn’t downgrade, doesn’t condescend. In fact, just the antithesis because he sees that he can be better, he can do better.
Crave Online: It’s important he doesn’t condescend because why don’t authority figures realize giving people orders doesn’t work? It does not motivate them.
Blair Underwood: Yeah, I think it’s just one mode of teaching. My dad was military, 27 years army colonel. There’s a certain way of getting people to implement your orders and then there’s another way to inspire people to do their best. I think there’s two different objectives.
Crave Online: It’s like How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Blair Underwood: That’s right, great book. I’m going to re-read that. I read that when I was in high school. I’m glad you brought that up, absolutely.
Crave Online: I’m glad you know it.
Blair Underwood: Oh, no, my parents made us read it.
Crave Online: Now that’s good parenting. Is this that time in your career when you play principals and presidents, people in charge?
Blair Underwood: Well, I’m getting older. I guess so, but I love it. I do, I love playing those characters that have a little authoritative bent to them.
Crave Online: Is that better than “The dad” role?
Blair Underwood: I don’t know if it’s better. It’s similar of course, similar dynamics because you’re an authoritative figure if you’re a good parents. I don’t know, I do enjoy it. I feel this is my 26th year as you know in the industry.
Crave Online: Yeah, that’s right. I was watching L.A. Law as a kid.
Blair Underwood: That started ’86, 1986. So yeah, I guess it’s part of the evolution, playing authority figures.
Crave Online: Martinson is pretty close to Martinez.
Blair Underwood: I know, I know. I don’t think we ever say his name. We call him Bill. It’s funny because I had to ask the director, “What’s the character’s name again?” You know Martinez is the other character I play. That’s funny you say.
Crave Online: What will we see when The Event comes back?
Blair Underwood: First of all, what’s exciting about this is the show is stronger than ever and the characters are richer than ever but we’ve really pulled back, almost eliminated the flashbacks. All the nonlinear storytelling because what most of us kept hearing, the producers and the actors as well, was that people were enjoying it but it was hard to follow. What we want people to know is that the quality is not going to suffer at all. The storytelling’s not going to suffer at all. It’s just we won’t be jumping around as much to make it difficult for people to follow. A lot of people that will like independent films that are here this weekend won’t have a problem with that because you respect your audience. We know we have a thinking audience but beyond that, we live in a time when people are multitasking and they’re doing so many different things in addition to watching TV. It takes time. If you’re not in a theater for 90 minutes in the dark, when you’re watching TV in your living room, there are so many distractions. This is a kind of show, this serialized kind of science fiction supernatural action/adventure political thriller type show that you have to pay attention.
Crave Online: Was the plan always to minimize the flashbacks eventually?
Blair Underwood: I don’t know if that was always the plan. Like with anything, there is that evolution as you know. You find what works and what doesn’t work as well. With this show, we found that so much of it was working, that was the one maybe Achilles heel people kept responding to, saying, “I just want to be able to follow it more so I can stay engaged.”
Crave Online: Isn’t it narratively stronger to go in chronological order?
Blair Underwood: And that’s my point. I think we’re shooting our fourth episode that has not aired yet, that are brand new in the can and they’re stronger than ever. Also now we’re off and running. The first 10 episodes that aired, a lot of it is establishing. You’re setting up this world, this event, these people. Now we’re off and running.
Crave Online: You knew from the beginning we were dealing with ageless aliens, right?
Blair Underwood: Yeah, but now we’re pulling back the layers and we’re discussing what is the event and when is the event coming. I think that’s important because you can’t string it out too long because then again, people start tuning out after a while so you’ve got to keep giving the audience a little bit more.
Crave Online: Do you think you’ll get a second season?
Blair Underwood: I sure hope so. It’s hard to say. I stopped trying to guess what network execs and studio execs will do. I don’t know but I sure hope so. I’ll tell you, the show is certainly deserving of it. As long as people keep tuning in, they enjoy what they see, we’ll get that second season but I have no idea.
Crave Online: How have you enjoyed your tenure as a TV president?
Blair Underwood: I think I’m having more fun than I should be having. I’m having a ball with it. It’s nice and consolidated too because so many of my scenes are within the White House complex so I’m able to come in in a couple days and shoot my scenes out. Then when they call in a week and a half I come back.
Crave Online: Have you gotten to see any other movies at Sundance?
Blair Underwood: I have not actually. They’ve kind of us scheduled pretty jam packed, but I hope to. We leave tomorrow morning so hopefully tonight we’ll be able to see some.
Crave Online: Is there anything more gratifying than that audience Q&A after the festival premiere?
Blair Underwood: It is. It is very gratifying. I’m most excited for Gavin because for me, this train started with sitting down with Gavin after reading the script, talking about his vision, talking about the story, talking about the character. And then to see it come to fruition, I thought he did a magnificent job. I really do. I think it’s a beautiful film. So just to see this victory for him and all of us involved, it started with his vision. His story is very personal.
Crave Online: How often do you get that, where you take a film directly to an audience and they tell you how much they love you?
Blair Underwood: Not often because you’re right, that’s kind of the extent of it, talking to the audience after the screening. So it is, it is very gratifying.
Crave Online: What other themes of the movie would you like to talk about?
Blair Underwood: I like that theme of stepping up and speaking your mind. He loses her for a moment when he doesn’t speak up and tell her that he loves her. Whether it’s if you’re expressing love or you’re expressing politics or your opinion on anything, I’m a big advocate of speaking your mind.
Crave Online: When it’s your first time experiencing those feelings, how do you know?
Blair Underwood: You don’t know. That’s what I’m saying. That’s why it’s a good message to learn and to remember. I think that’s part of the charm of the film because we can all go back to remembering those times where we don’t know. A lot of it I’m still learning. You never stop learning when to speak up, when not to speak up, when to speak your mind, when to be more diplomatic and bite your tongue. I’m not always good at that.