Blair Underwood’s latest literary collaboration, “Casanegra” reads like a film. The book explores the engrossing story of an actor and former male escort, Tennyson Hardwick who runs into an old client/close friend, superstar rapper Afrodite aka Serena Johnson. After a passionate tryst, she turns up dead and all fingers point to Hardwick. With the clock ticking, he has to clear his name or he is looking at some lenghty prison time. He must weave through a maze of potential suspects, navigate the politics of the LAPD and survive the complex world of hip-hop.
Recently, we spoke for over 30 minutes and if there is one word to describe this multi-faceted industry veteran, it is grounded. In our time together, Underwood was thoughtful, funny and down-to-earth. He was candid about his new collaboration with celebrated authors Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes; his ever-expanding legacy in Hollywood and the future project he’s most excited about.
What were the origins of the story of “Casanegra?”
The whole project is inspired by a character I was going to do in a film with Diana Ross, which was an older woman/younger man romantic comedy. She’s going through a divorce and her friends hire a male escort and the two fall in love. The initial story was a dramatic dark exploration of his psyche that became a romantic comedy. I was always intrigued with the psychology of a male who sells his body for money to wealthy women all over the world. I partnered with Tananarive Due earlier on “My Soul to Keep,” which was set-up at Fox Searchlight as well as a haunted house story, “The Good House.” Author Stephen Barnes (Due’s husband) mentioned a murder mystery and that was the impetus for this entire journey. From the outset, it was our intent to make this book into a film right away and we decided to collaborate to map out ten stories down the road if everybody liked the first one.
There were some very descriptive sex scenes in the book. Someone, and I’m not say it’s you Blair, but someone had some experience to write those passages. How did the sexy aspects of the story come together?
I was in my publisher’s office, Judith Kern, who reps Due, Zane and myself. At the time I was doing press for “Sex in the City” and there was a tremendous buzz about her books. Zane has really opened up the floodgates in terms of black characters not being afraid to be sexual or sensual, not afraid to put it down on the page. We had it before, but what she did was take it to another level because she proved that the audience was there for it. To do a murder mystery, yes; but do an erotic murder mystery series, unapologetically. It’s not crass, not base or not just for the sake of being out there; it’s some pretty hot stuff that anybody who has ever been intimate or sexual can understand.
Why did you choose to place the character of Afrodite in the music business?
There were any number of things she could have been but we really wanted to delve into the rap world and the mysteries of high-profile rappers. Biggie and Tupac, there are a lot of unanswered questions about how the murders went down and why. With so many unanswered questions, we thought it would be fraught with interest from the audience.
As someone who has observed your work for two decades, are you happy with where you are or is there any built-in frustrations that things haven’t worked out differently?
It is interested how I see it and different perspective on it because I’ve worked constantly for 22 years. When L.A. Law happened, I was 22 years old and I had just come out of college. I had only been in the business a year and a half. So I felt like I had such a high visible entrance into the business. Everything after that was like flexing different muscles and trying different things like directing my first full-length film; that’s exciting to me. Producing three reality shows; that’s exciting to me. All of it’s new and I said this before and I mean that I am happily discontent. The discontent keeps me hungry but I’m very blessed and grateful for the journey I’ve had so far but there’s another level to go to and I’m not that far.
What are you working on now?
I’m shooting a series now for HBO that I could not be more excited about called “In Treatment.” It’s a huge phenomenon in Israel about a psychologist and his patients for 30 minutes just talking. My initial reaction is that could be boring, but then I saw how it was broken down. No cut-aways; 95 percent of the series takes place in his office. What is unique about it is that HBO has adapted the Hebrew/Israeli version into an English version and it will be a nightly series for nine weeks.
Gabriel Byrne is the psychologist. You’ll follow him as he treats his four patients Monday through Thursday. On Friday, he goes to his therapist, played by Dianne Wiest, because he has issues. The series is a rollercoaster ride and I’ll be your Tuesday night. I’m playing a fighter jet pilot who dropped a bomb on a school and is having problems dealing with the guilt.