Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with Nia Long during an interview for Elle Magazine to discuss the 25-year anniversary of John Singleton’s first film, Boyz n the Hood. During this in-depth conversation, Long talks about working with John Singleton at a young age, Love Jones, motherhood, upcoming projects, politics, and more. Check out the Elle Magazine interview below.
Can you believe it’s been 25 years since ‘Boyz n the Hood’ was released?
I’m in such deep denial about it, but I’m trying to just get over that. That’s like my whole life, you know? My entire career, that’s the beginning there.
Since it was the beginning of your career, what are the lessons you took from that experience that you still rely on today?
We were all young and just trying to make a great movie, but we were pretty naive. The people with the most experience were Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. I truly relied on Laurence. I watched him and the way he worked, especially the way he supported our young, first-time director, John Singleton. Laurence really helped to shepherd the project along. For me as a young girl, it was beautiful to watch because he never made John feel like he didn’t know what he was doing. Laurence would just gently make suggestions.
There’s even a key moment in the film where I run across the street to tell Laurence’s character [Jason “Furious” Styles] that Ricky has been shot. The first time I did it, I was really worried I would overact. I didn’t want to seem overly dramatic. So I guess I was underacting. Laurence said, “No, this has to be explosive and big and hysterical. Go for it.” And he just whispered it in my ear. He didn’t make me feel like I was terrible, and he made me feel that I was capable. And I think for a young actor, for a young artist, that’s really important.
I have taken that lesson with me. I try to do the same thing when I’m with young actors who are new and unsure. I try to do the same thing for them that I saw Laurence and Angela do for all of us on Boyz n the Hood. More than anything, I took away that spirit of collaboration and just being open. It is important not to be married to a single choice. You have to be open, to be in the moment. I don’t remember exactly what our budget was, but it was small! We did not have a lot to work with. But we had a cast that cared. And we had John Singleton. John communicated a very clear vision of what he wanted, and we worked hard to give it to him. I thought, this guy is really great, and worked hard for him.
Do you think the spirit of collaboration you’re describing is something particular to black filmmaking?
No, I absolutely don’t think that, not even a little bit. Collaboration is necessary for making great art. Everybody has a perspective on what they think or feel the material should ultimately look like when it hits the screen. For example, in Alfie, Charles Shyer was very collaborative and very open to our suggestions. As an actor, I can tell you it makes a big difference to have a director who is collaborative. What motivates a character in my mind could be completely different from what the director’s thinking. You have to have those conversations ahead of time and throughout the process. It affects the performance. I have been in situations where actors are treated like robots: say the lines, say it like this, we don’t have time for conversations. That is a terrible position to be in as an artist. You feel used. I want to have those conversations, because they give you confidence in your choices. I learned it first on Boyz n the Hood, but it is not a race-based experience—it is part of the artistic process.
Another of your films is about to celebrate a major milestone. Love Jones is nearly 20 years old. With decades of film experience now to your credit, what is next?
I know! How can so much time have passed? I’m working on a project called Lemons, produced by Killer Films. The director has a great perspective on character development. I’m also working on another independent film called Roxanne, Roxanne, about Roxanne Shante, who was one of the first African American battle rappers from Brooklyn. It is produced by Forest Whitaker and Pharrell, so I’m really in great hands. These two characters I’ll play in these two films are totally different. I’m kind of pinching myself in the morning. Like, wait, you really did pray to have a body of work that stays diversified and interesting. And I have it!
Is there room for the family sitcom in TV again? You and I are each raising families where our children are more than 10 years apart in age. It is hard to find something that everyone genuinely enjoys watching―the big kids, the little kids, and the parents.
Yes, and my kids are the same distance apart as your two children. And we were able to sit and watch and enjoy it as a family. That is huge for me. There are jokes that only adults will understand, but there’s also stuff in there that my four-year-old gets. And there are scenes that appeal to my teenager. It’s a relatable show.
I want to shift gears a little and discuss politics. You openly endorsed President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In 2016, will you publicly support a candidate?
What if I told you I was supporting Donald Trump?
I can promise you I would I would make it the headline of the story!
Ha! No. Let me be clear—I am not supporting Donald Trump. I think he does this country such a disservice. And I’m gonna leave it there. I will say that I appreciate Hillary Clinton’s awareness and passion for women. I think she is overqualified in the sense that she’s been in the White House, so she knows the drill. I am hopeful that she will continue to support minorities and create better opportunities.
You are a spokesperson for the Global Moms Relay. As part of that campaign you talk about knowing what it feels like to grow up and feel unsafe. We recently experienced the biggest mass shooting in American history in Orlando and many American communities deal with routine gun violence. Do you have a position on gun control?
To put it in layman’s terms, crazy is crazy. And crazy will find a way to do something crazy. Racist is racist. And racist people will find a way to project their racism onto the world.
Still, it’s heartbreaking. Yes, I do think gun control is important. I am a supporter of gun control. But I think we need to talk about mental illness a lot more. People complain about tax dollars and say we don’t have the money. But if we can’t put some of our investments, or some of our money back into humans, isn’t that where it all begins? I want to raise my children in a safe country. I want to help the children in the world who do not feel safe. I know what it feels like to feel unsafe. We need to do way better. Our country needs to do better.
via Elle Magazine