With Hollywood for years being a haven for the long-haired blond and brunette, it’s hard to be a sex symbol without the exoticism of an obvious mane. Yet, Nia Long’s ascension in show business was without the obvious mane.
She didn’t invent the short-haired look for black women in Hollywood, but she’s arguably the unacknowledged spokeswoman – along with Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett-Smith – of what it means to buck traditional Hollywood standards of beauty.
Now, she can pretty much wear her hair how she wants to.
“I’ve had the weave in my hair for about two years and just got tired of it and wanted the change and this movie kind of supported that,” said Long. “I ultimately decided to cut it back short.”
But clearly man can’t live off hair alone, right?
With Boyz In The Hood, Love Jones, Best Man, Friday and Soul Food firmly ensconced in the DVD library of any serious black movie buff, you could safely say that Massai Dorsey’s mom is, for a generation, one of the most iconic black actresses to grace the screen.
Throw in her work with Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Big Momma’s House, Boiler Room and Guiding Light, among others, and you could call her either extremely gifted or lucky.
Whatever your attribution, Long impresses as a woman who is in control of her career, even if the current Tinseltown climate indicates otherwise. In times of job shortages, panic and uncertainty, she emanates a calm that belies the typical African-American actress in these times.
“It’s tough for everyone, every industry. Hollywood, the music industry, everyone is experiencing some sort of anxiety,” said Long, who has been acting for over 20 years. “But for me, the key is: In success, save your money. Live below your means. When you live beyond your means, you will end up losing everything. When you live below, you just take things in stride. And fortunately, I can still be selective about the things that I attach myself to.”
Between a touring circuit promoting her newest appearance in Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, and preparing for her next movie role, Clutch was able to catch up with Long to discuss hair, Love Jones, her favorite movies (outside her own) and why she may have been a child psychologist in another life.
Clutch: Any new projects on the horizon?
Long: I’m starting a film called Mooz-lum, and we start shooting on Nov. 1. Evan Ross is playing my son. He is an amazing actor. It’s a coming of age story about a Muslim young man who is tested by the events of Sept. 11th. There’s a lot of hatred toward Muslim people since Sept. 11th because they’ve all been categorized as terrorists. So I think the film is important because it will certainly clear up the notion that all Muslims are bad people, because that’s completely inaccurate. I just received the script last week and we’ll be shooting in Michigan.
Clutch: Did you receive any critique or constructive criticism about Good Hair?
Long: Not so much. I think everyone who has seen it really enjoyed it. I mean you’re always going to have someone who has something negative to say, but I’ve really been getting a lot of love and positive reaction from the movie.
Clutch: Any specific reaction from men about it?
Long: Most men are astonished about what we go through (laughs). And I think they have a lot more understanding as to why it can take a woman 12 hours in a beauty salon to get their hair done.
Clutch: But why does the topic of hair consume so much attention, particularly from black women?
Long: I don’t think it’s an issue as much you make it an issue. I think we have a lot of choices and options. Black women, just like any other group of women, want to look good and feel beautiful and I think hair is the easiest thing to change and play with. We have numerous options: straight, curly, natural extensions, color and we are constantly trying to improve our look and reinvent ourselves. Beauty is important in the world that we live in. It shouldn’t be as important as it is, but your physical image has a lot to do with how people respond to you on a day-to-day basis.
Clutch: Do you feel that women should feel guilty about wanting to use relaxers, chemicals or weave to augment the beauty of their hair?
Long: I don’t think any woman should feel guilty about any hair choice. If you choose to wear a relaxer, extensions, a wig, you have to do for yourself what makes you feel comfortable and good. One is not better than the other. The only thing I can’t agree with is a mother giving a child a relaxer. To me, that’s just lazy. As a mother, you have to teach your child to love the way she looks from the time she’s young. If you don’t she will have self-esteem issues and not going to really understand a) how to take care of her own natural hair and b) that her own natural hair is beautiful.
If a child can’t drive, a child should not have a relaxer in her hair.
Clutch: You seem to have escaped the hair issues that plague many women. When was it instilled in you that hair is what you make it?
Long: My mom is awesome. She is somewhat of a hippie, in my opinion. She’s a free spirit and she wears dreads and has tattoos and she’s a beautiful woman and an artist. At a very young age she taught me that black is beautiful and hair is a part of who I am but it does not define who I am. Whether my hair is in an Afro, braids, perm, weave, long or now back to being super short, it’s beautiful. And I know it sounds cliche, but beauty comes from within. If your spirit is in the right place, your beauty will be forever present whether you’re having a good hair day or bad hair day.
Clutch: What inspires you to take on the roles that you take?
Long: I take roles that I’m passionate about. I take roles that I think has something to say and that will challenge me.
Clutch: Do you consider yourself fortunate in the roles that you’ve had in relation to the roles that black women are offered in Hollywood?
Long: You know, I don’t even think like that. First of all, I don’t compare myself to anyone. Why would I? I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and Hollywood has been good to me. This business is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There are times of great opportunity and there are times of less opportunity but you have to take it in stride and most importantly you have to really stay true to yourself. It is through my faith and my will that I’m able to have that attitude.
I’m happy for whoever gets what job. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a role when I said to myself ‘Wow, I wish I would have gotten that part.’ I try not to compare myself. I don’t compare myself because all of us are so different.
Clutch: If you weren’t an actress, what would you be doing?
Long: Probably a child psychologist. Interior decorator. A stay-at-home mom (laughing). One of those.
Clutch: What do you find yourself doing mostly these days?
Long: My son is the most important thing in my life and I make tons of sacrifices for him to have his mother by his side in this crucial years, which is the sacrifice I think most mothers make. Whether you’re single, married or whatever, the first 10 years of a child’s life is so important to teach them the basic life skills: reading, writing, arithmetic. For me, there’s no other way to do it. I don’t worry about my career because I took enough time to establish myself before I chose to have a baby. It’s so fantastic when you spend that one-on-one time with your kids and see them reap the benefits of being super secure, accomplished and having their own interests. So my career is always going to be here. What I do and who I am on a daily basis is really not for the world to know. Nia Long the actress and Nia Long at home…two different people. Two different worlds. But I am ready to get back out there and start working now. It’s been a quiet last couple of years.
Clutch: When you’re out and about and greeted by fans, what works do they most often reference you in?
Long: Oh gosh. Love Jones is probably number one. Two is probably Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It just depends on where I am. In the South, people love Big Momma’s House. When I’m in New York people talk about Boiler Room. It really depends on where I am. But I would have to say that Love Jones is a classic for most black people. Well, not just black people, but it is sort of the ultimate urban romance. That’s what I’ve been told. I don’t like to say that myself, but when people say it, I’m definitely flattered.
Clutch: What role did you vividly enjoy the most?
Long: All of them. You know, each character that I played has a little bit of me in it. So I’d have to say all of them.
Clutch: What advice did you receive early on in your career that helped you sustain your head in the midst of Hollywood?
Long: Be patient. Be thorough. Stay true to thyself.
Clutch: Who told you that?
Long: Several different people. Whoopi Goldberg was very, very helpful in the early stages of my career. She said to me, ‘You’re gonna need a second layer of skin in order to deal with this business.’ And I didn’t really understand what she meant, but after a couple of years of working it became very clear to me that you got to be tough on the outside and soft on the inside. My heart continues to be soft. People that really know me knows that about me.
Clutch: How is that?
Long: On the outside I’m a business woman. I’m super smart and when I say I’m smart, I mean I understand how the game works. I get it. So…you can’t really pull the wool over my eyes in too many situations (laughing).
Clutch: You mentioned the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air earlier. Did you know then when you were around Will Smith that he would eventually become king of the world?
Long: I think that everybody that was a part of that show recognized that Will is an exceptional talent. He loves it so much. And he is just one of those people that can really handle it. He can handle the demands that are put on him. He’s a very loving person, and he’s a good guy. What I really love is that Jada is a strong woman, and she hasn’t had to compromise herself to be Will Smith’s wife. And that says a lot about who Will is.
It takes a really strong man to be with a strong woman, to honor a strong woman and to support a strong woman.
Clutch: What are your top three favorite movies?
Long: (Long pause) There’s a film called The Joy Luck Club. Sparkle. (Another long pause) You know, I’m going to have to go with Scarface.
Clutch: Nice, nice, nice.
Long: You know (Chuckles).
Clutch: What do you do for your skin? How do you keep your skin so clear?
Long: Ohhh gosh. I take lots of steam showers. I recently stopped eating meat. It’s not that I’m a vegetarian, but I kind of eliminated chicken from my diet and I’ve been eating a lot more fish.
Clutch: What made you do that?
Long: What made me do that…I don’t know! I just got tired of chicken. It’s not that I won’t ever eat it again, but you know sometimes you just switch up your diet. I’ve always eaten tons of vegetables so I just figured it was time to switch it up a little bit.
What secret talents do you possess?
Long: Well… I’m a great cook. Great organizer. I manage my own money. I do a lot of things [on the business end] that people wouldn’t think I would do. And I like it that way.
Clutch: You said earlier that you would be a child psychologist if you weren’t an actress. Are children and their proper upbringing something you’re deeply passionate about?
Long: Yes. I do a lot of work with a non-profit organization called the Hershe Organization. I’m very passionate about our youth and I think we all have a responsibility to give back to the community and set an example. We need to teach them the basic skills of survival and give them loving, emotional support.
Clutch: What are your thoughts when you see things like the recent murder of Derrion Albert in Chicago? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Long: It breaks my heart. We’re talking about senseless acts of murder. Senseless….violence! And that’s my point with the children. There are a lot of people misguided and we have to show them a better way of dealing with things. Teach them to value themselves and other people.
Clutch: What advice would you give to any aspiring young woman?
Long: Love yourself first. Get to know yourself first. Find a partner who celebrates your strengths and supports your weaknesses. Work together as a team. Life is a journey and you’re going to learn something new and you have to embrace the pain and pleasure.