RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Actress Gabrielle Union started off playing teenagers on TV in the 1990s. Now she stars in the BET show "Being Mary Jane," playing the role of a powerful cable news anchor who is equally fierce in her personal life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEING MARY JANE")
GABRIELLE UNION: (As Mary Jane) Don't touch me.
OMARI HARDWICK: (As Andre) Let me just explain what I was trying...
UNION: (As Mary Jane) What are you going to say, huh? What are you going to say, Andre? You bumped your head and forgot you were married? You forgot a wife and kids? You're married.
MARTIN: Union is also an advocate for rape survivors and an outspoken voice on a range of social issues. NPR's Mandalit del Barco spoke with her about her new book of essays. It's called "We're Going To Need More Wine."
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Gabrielle Union says she loves regaling her friends about her adventures and misadventures, hence the title of her book.
UNION: I'll be like, girl, you don't have enough wine. A lot of these stories are helpful with a cocktail for sure.
DEL BARCO: She says she's never been a fan of celebrity tell-alls.
UNION: To narc on your co-stars - I think it's just kind of tacky.
DEL BARCO: But in her book, Union does dish about how dreamy it was to work with actor Heath Ledger. She reminisces about parties Prince used to throw. And she calls out her ex-husband, retired NFL running back Chris Howard. She regrets that after they divorced, she paid his rent, co-signed for a Porsche he later abandoned and invested in the company he started that failed.
UNION: Had he paid up, perhaps I would have been (laughter) kinder or omitted some of his truth or our truth. But, alas, his bill is outstanding. And sorry.
DEL BARCO: Union's memoir is funny and frank about many things, mostly herself. She details losing her virginity, sexual encounters, cheating, infertility, miscarriages. And her book gets real. In one essay, she describes being raped at gunpoint by a stranger in the back room of a shoe store where she worked. She was 19.
UNION: And it's weird to say. And it's awful to have to say that I had the luxury of being raped in an affluent community with an underworked police department and an underutilized rape crisis center - counselors who had gone through the sensitivity training.
DEL BARCO: Union credits the Santa Monica UCLA Rape Treatment Center for saving her life. But the incident still affects her.
UNION: I talk about the sense of rape energy that has continued to swirl around me - things happening to me that are out of my control. And then in a microcosm of Hollywood, being put in this situation where you're not supposed to have any boundaries. You're supposed to be grateful if your fans want to be around you or touch you or grope you or yank you around. And all of that is supposed to just be par for the course.
DEL BARCO: Union says her goal was never hearing the words me too again. But sexual assault is far too common. Her experience motivated her to take on a role in the film "Birth Of A Nation," about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIRTH OF A NATION")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) You've got a right. You've got a right.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You've got a right. You've got a right.
DEL BARCO: Union plays Esther, a slave who's raped by a drunken dinner party guest at a plantation. While the character was silent, the actress who portrayed her was not, especially after it was revealed that the film's director and actor Nate Parker had been charged with rape when he was a college student. Although he was acquitted, Union says she could not take the allegations against him lightly. She wrote that in an op-ed piece for the LA Times, adding that she had conflicting feelings about promoting Parker's film.
UNION: Because there were so many women and so many people associated with the film that were sexual assault survivors, I thought it was important to highlight those stories. It just became a an impossible situation. And also offering understanding for people who did not want to support the film - I absolutely understand that. I hope, as someone who was in the film along with other survivors, that our art could be recognized, as well.
DEL BARCO: Union doesn't go into the Nate Parker controversy in her book. But she has many things to say about racism. She was born into one of the largest and oldest black families in Nebraska, then grew up in Pleasanton, a white, liberal suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area.
UNION: As the chip in the cookie, what I found over and over and over again is that the more I assimilated, the more they forgot my blackness and just got very comfortable in their racism.
DEL BARCO: Union says, growing up, she was constantly called the N-word. Years later, she worries about what her two stepsons in Florida face.
UNION: Raising teenage black boys and watching them going from being regarded as, oh, my God, they're so cute to (gasping) they're a threat just by breathing. And it's terrifying. In Florida, where not only do you have to worry about the police, you have to worry about how your neighbors are regarding you.
DEL BARCO: In her book, the 44-year-old actress also reflects on her career, which began with the 1990s sitcom "Saved By The Bell: The New Class."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVED BY THE BELL THEME SONG")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) When I wake up in the morning, and the alarm gives out a warning...
UNION: I started playing 14- and 15-year-olds when I was 23, finishing up at UCLA. And I continued to play 15-year-olds until I was 30. You know, I'm dying my grays, you know, and reporting to high school.
DEL BARCO: With her ever-youthful look and trademark dimples, Union got bit parts on TV shows like "Moesha," "Friends" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."
UNION: My mom is and was a massive Trekkie. So being a Klingon in my family was akin to winning the Oscars.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRING IT ON")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing) It's cold in here. There must be some Toros in the atmosphere.
DEL BARCO: One of her best-known movie roles was a high-school cheerleader named Isis in the 2000 movie "Bring It On." Union's Isis goes up against Kirsten Dunst's character in the championships.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRING IT ON")
UNION: (As Isis) And when you go to nationals, bring it. Don't slack off because you feel sorry for us. That way, when we beat you, we'll know it's because we're better.
DEL BARCO: Union says Isis was unfairly labeled a mean girl. Still, years later, the actress had an aha moment about her own behavior. Union made a startling confession while accepting the Essence Fierce and Fearless award in 2013.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNION: I lived for the negativity inflicted upon my sister actresses or anyone who I felt whose shine diminished my own.
DEL BARCO: Oprah Winfrey was in the audience and later told Union she was inspired by her candor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OPRAH WINFREY: As you started to speak, my own mouth dropped. And then it got wider and wider. And by the time you finished, we were all like, whoa. What was that?
DEL BARCO: Union says this was another moment in her evolution of becoming a better person.
UNION: That came on the heels of a lot of therapy, a lot of life coaching and just wanting to change the narrative about black women in Hollywood and just being honest.
DEL BARCO: That introspection and a willingness to change is central to Gabrielle Union's memoir and her life. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLK GIRL SOLDIER")
JAMILA WOODS: (Singing) See, she's telepathic. Call it black girl magic.
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