Over 26 years since making his big-screen debut in the iconic hip-hop film "Krush Groove," Blair Underwood has evolved into one of today's most sought-after African-American actors. Though he has managed to land a recurring role on "Sex and the City," in addition to starring on NBC's "L.A. Law" and "The Event," his latest television foray is of a much more personal nature, as he follows his genealogical paper trail on NBC's celebrity series, "Who Do You Think You Are?"
During a recent interview with The Huffington Post, the Washington state native opened up on what it was like to explore his family lineage, his new role in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," as well as his new signature suit collection.
What attracted you to "Who Do You Think You Are?"
I saw the show [and I've been a fan of it], and then I was at a NBC party last year and I ran into Lisa Kudrow [executive producer of the show]. I had never met her before, so I just walked up to her and said, "I want to do your show," and she said, "Really!?" And I said, "Yeah, I want to do your show." She said, "Done." So then the next week I got a letter saying that they would love for me to do the show. So that's how it came about, but I was just glad that I took the moment and the time to tell her how much I enjoyed the show.
Was this the first time that you've made a conscious effort to discover your lineage?
It's the first time that I actually did. My brother, Frank, he's kind of the family historian, and he had pulled a lot of historical documents together over the years, and he's always been that person in the family who would do those things. But I have never really done it to any great extent, but it's something that I always wanted to do, just never got around to doing it.
What discovery shocked you the most?
Two things I found was my three-times great-grandfathers, both on my mother's side. One was what they called a conjuror -- it's a tradition out of West Africa where people conjure up the spirits. They're kind of that liaison between the mortal world and the immortal world. And the fact that my three-times great-grandfather was one of those people ... We discovered records of him back in the 1900s in a mental hospital. He was one of those guys who was different from everybody else. But my other three-times great-grandfather on my mother's side, who we discovered was Delaware Scott, and his father, Samuel Scott -- we learned not only did he own 200 acres, but that whole Scott side of the family were a whole line and lineage of free people in the Virginia south. And I knew about free people of color in New Orleans, because that culture is about the mixing of race and culture, but I didn't know that we had that in Virginia as well. I learned in 1850 that there were 30,000 free people of color in the state of Virginia alone. I had no idea. So that was just fascinating to know that many of my relatives were free in the early 1800s and landowners at that.
How would you describe the importance of discovering your own family lineage?
To me it doesn't change who you are necessarily, but it does change how you perceive yourself. And that can affect how you present yourself. According to some, when we came over here from Africa, we were separated from our culture, from our history, from our language. It was all about confusion and making sure that we did not know who we were and where we came from. So it's an empowering dynamic.
In addition to your appearance on the series, you're also prepping for your Broadway role in "A Streetcar Named Desire." What can fans expect?
The theater is my first love, it started in the theater. I went to college at Carnegie Mellon University and studied theater and fine arts. It just so happened that film and television took off in my career. But every chance that I get, I get back on those boards. It's where I feel most comfortable. So it's that, and then there's that personal excitement about the production itself: the fact that it is "A Streetcar Named Desire," the fact that it is Stanley Kowalski, which is just an iconic role to play in American theater. And then the fact that I get to work with Nicole Ari Parker, who's playing Blanche, and Daphne Rubin-Vega is playing Stella, and Wood Harris playing Mitch, and [five-time Grammy award-winner from New Orleans] Terence Blanchard, who's doing the music. So he's going to give it all of that New Orleans flavor. So what you can expect is a glimpse inside fascinating, dysfunctional characters on stage. But also arguably one of the greatest plays ever written.
When do you begin rehearsal?
We start rehearsal on February 27, but it's been in the zeitgeist for almost a year now. We tried to roll it out last year, but I couldn't do it during the show that I was doing at the time called "The Event." So here we are a year later, making it happen. So everyone's doing their work on their own.
By the way, I have this film coming out that's set in New Orleans called "Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day," that I produced with Bishop T.D. Jakes. It opens on April 13. But we shot that in New Orleans. So all of last July I was in New Orleans soaking up all kinds of flavor in preparation for this play.
Have you heard any of the original compositions by Terence Blanchard?
I heard a little, because when I was there in July, we walked around the city of New Orleans to shoot some B roll to help promote the play. But while we were there, we spent the day at Terence's house and he played some of the music that he was creating and it's quintessential New Orleans jazz.
Are you working on any other projects?
The other thing that I'm focused on is my clothing line that just came out at K&G stores. So that's going like gangbusters right now. I just directed the commercial for that, which is going to run in front of the movie that I have coming out. I’m really trying to get a lot done before we start rehearsals on Feb. 27.
What are some of the elements that you're putting into your line?
Basically we have suits, dress shirts and ties. And this apparel world is a new lane for me, but all I asked of them from the beginning, which they've shown every step of the way, is that it be of quality. To have been in the business for 26 years to build a name for yourself and then roll out with something that's subpar, that's not the case here. K&G stepped up and the suits are of nice quality and they're not expensive. That was the point. How do we create quality, but it make cost effective and affordable for everyone? But it's down that lane for the business man: You can wear these suits to church, you can wear them to work. It's not pushing the edge too much in terms of going over the top in fashion. It's something that you can wear in everyday life, but you can also dress it up and get funky with it.
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