Having longevity in a business where the new young thing is an ongoing search is a daunting task. Actress Nia Long has done that and then some. Since stepping into the entertainment business some 27 years ago, Nia Long has played some of the most memorable characters in black film, most notably Nina Mosley in every black twentysomething’s favorite romantic comedy “Love Jones.”
Recently, I spoke to the gorgeous actress/director about her new role on the hit Showtime series “House of Lies” and how her character Tamara is the latest in a long line of strong female characters Long has embodied. During the funny and candid conversation, we talked about everything from the biggest lie she’s ever told (despite being a terrible liar) to the correlation between Barack Obama’s election to the resurgence of blacks being praised for playing slaves and maids in film.
TUD: What drew you to the role of Tamara on “House of Lies?”
NL: I am a huge fan of the show. I read the script for the show before it was actually on the air when they were getting ready to shoot the pilot. I just thought it was such a great show. The characters are complex and interesting. And let’s just face it, Don Cheadle. That’s the best way to answer that question. [laughs] I’ve always wanted to work with Don Cheadle. He’s an amazing actor and he proved himself to be an amazing person just by being so helpful and gracious. His attitude, in the way he goes about everything, is to uplift everyone that’s there and make everybody great. That’s refreshing because he’s the star of the show and a producer. So he doesn’t have to do that, but the fact that he does says so much about his character.
Don is such a great actor. I’ve worked with a lot of really talented people and he is one of the best actors that I’ve ever worked with because he finds a way to take a scene that’s good on paper and make it great by doing the total opposite of what you would expect an actor to do when you read the scenes. His choices are just always interesting and not what you expect. He’s really funny and knows how to find the comedy even in the most dramatic moments. It’s fun to watch. There were a couple of times where I would completely forget my lines because I was too busy watching him.
What is it like playing opposite him as his foe?
Our characters have a back story. They went to college and business school together. They sort of have a thing for each other, but I think Marty (Cheadle’s character) was all over the place and Tamara was a bit more conservative and wanted a little bit more stability. So the attraction was always there. They challenged each other back then. Tamara is not as nice as she seems. She has an agenda. She is just as clever as the other complex characters on the show. Hopefully, everyone enjoys watching her because I’ve enjoyed getting to know her over the last few months.
Is there an opportunity for you to come on the show as a series regular after your role is done this season?
I don’t know. I signed on to do eight episodes, which is most of the season. It wasn’t extended into next season. But we’ll see what happens. Maybe if enough people talk about the character the producers will bring me back.
What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told someone?
The biggest lie? I’m gonna have to think about that one. I pride myself on being honest because I’m not a good liar. If you’re gonna lie, you have to be good at it otherwise you get busted. I’m gonna have to think about that one.
Oh, I got one. I went away for a business meeting for a potential investment. When I got there I realized it was so wrong and so not what I wanted to do. I was originally supposed to stay for three days and I told them that my children were sick and had to rush home. They were like, “What! You just got here!” I was like, “I’m so sorry, but my babies are sick and I’ve got to rush home. They’ve got high fevers and I’ve got to go.” I hate to put my children in that, but boy oh boy, they can be the best excuse to get out of something.
Exactly. When you’re a kid, you blame everything on your parents and when you’re a parent, you blame everything on the kids. [laughs]
Absolutely! I blame everything on them. [laughs] I will tell you though, 95% of what I blame on them is actually real. I’m nonstop with these two. My big guy is twelve and my little guy is fourteen months so their needs are very different. So I’m constantly trying to balance between the two. I’m always making sure everyone has what they need and it’s not easy, but at the end of the day, when I walk out the door, I can honestly focus on what I’m doing because I know that I’ve done what I’m supposed to do for my babies.
How do you balance working on television and film and motherhood?
There’s a tremendous amount of organization and planning that goes into everyday. There’s no way I could do all that I do without having a really organized life and schedule. I’m really good at organizing. I think it’s the Virgo in me. I mean I am a Scorpio but I heard that one of my planets is in Virgo. So maybe that’s the reason why. [laughs]
You’ve played some really memorable roles throughout your career like Nina in “Love Jones” and Jordan Armstrong in “The Best Man.” Which one has been your favorite?
Well, I’m getting ready to play Jordan Armstrong again. I start shooting the sequel to “The Best Man” soon. The working title is “The Best Man Christmas” it might change though. We start that in April so I’m excited to relive Jordan. She’s very feisty, very organized, and knows what she wants. She’s all about business. But I think you’re going to see her find her heart in the sequel. That’s her big challenge.
My all-time favorite is “Love Jones.” I have a special place in my heart for that film. It is visually beautiful and the story is amazing. You saw two black people finding love, being in love, and losing love in a way that was urban with an edge. But the story is so universal.
My favorite is Jordan Armstrong. She had the best lines in “The Best Man.” When you smack Taye Diggs and do the whole, “I don’t wanna hear about no goddamned peas!” That is the best line ever!
I think I made that up or maybe I didn’t. Maybe that was a Malcolm Lee line. The greatest thing about being an actor is once you know the character you really get your wings and can fly. That’s when you really start having fun and find those little moments and make the character pop off the page by adding little things you know the character would do. You get to deliver amazing lines that are written for you, but you also get the freedom to add your twist to it. Yeah, that’s probably one of my favorite lines “I don’t wanna hear about no goddamned peas!” I really don’t wanna hear about no goddamned peas. [laughs]
A lot of the roles you’ve taken on have been really strong women. Is there a reason you’ve gravitated towards those roles instead of the roles of subservient females?
I just think playing a woman who’s strong and dynamic is more interesting. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t play a woman who is subservient and maybe emotionally challenged in some way. But there has to be layers to any character. The layers are what make a project appealing to me. You don’t want to play a one-note character. Having layers, having challenges, having emotional challenges are all things, I think, every actor dreams of when searching for that next character. Being one-note is boring. Even if she’s feisty, you still want to find the reason behind those emotions and traits and then sprinkle some of that into the performance.
I remember you directed a few music videos. Will you be doing anymore directing?
I’m developing a project with a friend of mine named Ann Wolfe. She’s a female boxer and it’s her life story. That project is my baby and it’s something that I’m working on diligently. It’s my passion project so it may take a long time to happen but it will happen. I plan on directing that. So we’re taking it say by day and developing the script and making sure we have a really solid story. So I’m excited about that.
I know you were very involved in the presidential election. With Obama being elected, did you find that the films that had black characters regressed a little bit? We elected President Obama and then we had “The Help” and “Django Unchained.” Plus, there a few other slavery themed films coming out.
I don’t know if that has anything to do with him being the president. Genres come and go. If “The Help” comes out and there’s huge attention and lots of money that’s being made, then studios are going to jump on the bandwagon. But I liked “The Help.” I think it was a story about a group of women. Octavia Spencer and other people who I know we’re apart of that film. I happen to think it was really good. But I don’t think that it was some sort of backhanded agenda to put black people in their place because we have a black president. It’s an interesting concept and theory but it doesn’t resonate with me so much.
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