When Gabrielle Union realized she could take on a role like she does in A24’s The Inspection, playing the homophobic mother of a gay Marine, she felt “cheated,” she says. “I spent so much of my career thinking that I could do only one or two things.” Over Zoom, she refers to an axiom she used to hear about herself in the industry, which valued her for Black rom-coms, some action, television dramas and not much else. “They used to say, ‘If it doesn’t have a bikini and a gun, Gab’s not interested,’ ” she notes. “You go with it because my bills are paid.”
Ever since Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, earning Union acclaim, the box she had felt put in for most of her career has begun to open up. She’s been nominated for Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards, and her name is in the Oscar conversation. “All of a sudden, presto change-o, I can act,” she says. “I’m being treated as an ingenue at 50. My name is in conversations that it had never been in previously — or none that made it to me.”
The Inspection is not just evidence of what Union can do as an actor — which is considerable — it’s also a sign of her power as a producer. On set, over the course of the 19-day shoot that was broken up by a COVID shutdown, she balanced some of the most intense onscreen work of her career with executive producer duties, thinking about daylight and budget even as she was going to harrowing emotional places. It’s helpful that she’s an inherent multitasker. “I could be extremely focused on one thing while doing other things,” she says. “And in this case it worked because I had no other choice.”
The screenplay — based on Bratton’s own life story — first arrived in Union’s hands as material for her to produce. “I knew immediately that it was a winner,” she says. But then Bratton asked her to play Inez, the mother of French (Jeremy Pope), who kicks him out of her home for being gay and remains at a distance even as he turns to military service to win her approval. The “big responsibility” of portraying her director’s mother gave her pause, and a complex situation turned even more so when the woman she would be depicting onscreen died shortly after the movie was officially greenlit in February 2020.
At that moment, Union was primarily concerned with taking care of Bratton — “just not being my usual producer self and putting on a mom hat and a decent human being hat and trying to be very respectful of the grief process when the relationship was fraught,” she says.
When it did come time for Union to prepare to play Inez, Bratton gave her some “artifacts” of his late mother’s life, including some costume jewelry she cherished as well as her personal Bible. Trying to understand Inez without the judgment to which she would inherently leap, Union studied the Bible, looking for highlighted phrases, worn pages and water damage —”that stuff that can give me a little more insight maybe into who she is and at least what words she held dear,” Union says.
Though Inez only briefly appears in a few scenes — most of the action stays with French at boot camp — Union wanted to know about her character’s youth and how her experiences as a teenage mother would have made her reach to organized religion, which in turn made her reject her child. She spoke to Bratton and then distanced herself from those conversations, as well. “And then I had to be like, ‘OK, his memories are his memories, and who she is is who she is, and they may intersect and they may not,’ ” she says.
Though brief discussions of Union “adding some bulk” to her frame to match the real physicality of Bratton’s mom were rejected, she did wear prosthetics on her face to re-create skin cratering, the result of acne scars. “Walking on set with pockmarked skin elicited a reaction that I had never experienced,” she recalls of the experience of moving through the apartment building that stood in for Inez’s. She adds: “It allowed me to not be me, or at least not be how I move around the world, generally speaking, and to fall in easier because I really wasn’t treated like me.” In the makeup and wig braids, Union was able to slide into Inez, as uncomfortable as that might be.
Her transformation hasn’t just placed her in the middle of this year’s awards race, it also has her fielding new offers from other parts of the cinematic landscape. “Somebody was like, ‘Would you ever be open to Marvel?’ ” she says. “I’m like, ‘Open to it? Yeah, if they would have me.’ ” She notes it’s been decades since her last franchise film: 2003’s Bad Boys II. “They have not been looking for me. No tentpole, blockbuster-type movie has come my way. And it’s not like I didn’t kill it the last time — that was 20 years ago.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.