"Ever since I was a kid, I used to cut out
pictures from catalogs to represent characters in my stories,"
explains novelist Tananarive Due about how she visualizes the people
who inhabit her fictional worlds. "I have to feel that I'm
surrounded by a three-dimensional environment--that it's real. If
there's a location, I want to see the location. If there's a person, I
wanted to see the person." With her 1997 novel, My Soul to Keep,
Blair Underwood's was always the face Due saw before her as she wrote
about Dawit/David, the handsome, well-traveled 500-year-old Ethiopian
immortal who dares to commit himself to a mortal passion, home and
family with a contemporary African-American woman, risking the
exposure of his immortal clan's secrets.
Now in a dream come true for Due, for the book's
agent Janell W. Agyeman (of the Marie Brown Agency), and for its fans,
not only is Blair Underwood himself preparing to play the lead role in
the film adaptation, Underwood is also one of the film's producers.
For the last six years, he's worked diligently with various partners
until he found his way to the Fox Searchlight studio, where he and two
coproducers, Nia Hill and De'Angela Steed of Strange Fruit
Productions, landed a development deal announced last August. Fox
Searchlight bought the script written by Frank Underwood, Blair's
brother and partner in their ten-year-old production company, Eclectic
Entertainment. The studio has meanwhile attached to the project
director Rick Famuyiwa, whose most recent film Brown Sugar, Fox
Searchlight had produced. (Previously, he had also directed The Wood.)
Famuyiwa is now polishing up Frank Underwood's
scenario into his shooting script, a typical procedure for a
writer/director like Famuyiwa. After the shooting script is signed off
on by all the producers, Blair and his associates will be going for
Fox Searchlight's still-to-be-flashed greenlight and confirm a
production schedule when they'll actually start filming.
By now, author Tananarive Due has become accustomed
to the vagaries of the Hollywood waiting game. When her first novel,
The Between, was published in 1995, its film rights were optioned for
a year, but no film was made. Still, Samuel Goldwyn Productions
contacted her immediately about rights to her second novel, so she
didn't even think about approaching Underwood at first. Then at an
outdoor cultural festival in Florida, where she lived at the time, the
former Miami Herald journalist ran into an old Knight-Ridder coworker,
Alan Sorter, who happened to be working with Underwood on a video
project called Sister, I'm Sorry. (This powerful 1998 docudrama
focuses on healing past wounds experienced by black women in bad
relationships with men; in it, actors play out very real situations
and testomonies, concluding with an actual sermon by Pastor Donald
Bell, which leads every man in the real-life congregation to stand in
for any man who has caused a sister to hurt in the spirit of seeking
forgiveness and reconciliation.) By this time, Due had all but signed
her deal with Goldwyn, but she felt it wouldn't hurt to get her book
into Blair Underwood's hands. "I jumped on it," she recalls,
Underwood, of course, came to prominence in the
award-winning ensemble cast of the network TV series L.A. Law, but is
also fondly remembered as Jada Pinkett's love interest in the
big-screen caper Set It Off. Recently, he played a handsome
professional baskethall team M.D. on HBO's Sex and the City. Having
built a career in a Hollywood where few leading roles are tailor-made
for black male actors, he says he was truly flattered when heard about
the origins of the main character of Tananarive's second novel. When
he finally received the book, he found himself immediately hooked
after three pages and could not put it down. "I read the entire
book and called Tananarive right then," he recalled in a
telephone interview BIBR conducted with the actor and the novelist
He not only saw the potential for a film, but he
also dreamed of directing it, in addition to playing the lead.
"Thrillers are my favorite genre in movies. And because of the
personal history I have," says the very down-to-earth Blair
Underwood, "the power of My Soul to Keep as the ultimate love
story also appeals to me. This brother lives forever, and he is
serious about his love--until the end of time. I like the idea of
projecting that on the screen." Underwood reveals that his own
parents have been married "forever," and the handsome actor
is a devoted spouse himself, married to Desiree, with whom he has
three young children. "My Soul to Keep just has everything,"
he concludes, "I'ts got drama, suspense and thrilling dynamics
interwoven with an eternal love story.
"But you know, Tananarive had already made the
decision to let Samuel Goldwyn buy the option. And actually, that
turned out to be best for me, because i wasn't ready just then,"
he admits. "I hoped and prayed that Tananarive would eventually
get back to me, and she did-a year and a half later." Samuel
Goldwyn had struggled to get a script they wanted to work with, Due
reported, but when they didn't, they decided not to renew the option.
All clear for Blair to buy it and develop the script with his
So brother Frank went to work on the screenplay, but
meanwhile Blair also contacted actor/producer Tim Reid. "Tim has
a studio in my hometown of Petersburg, Virginia," says the former
self-described Army brat with Virginia roots. "He and his wife
Daphne are friends of our family, and I admire him both personally and
professionally. We thought we could produce this project
The high point of this early phase of involvement,
Blair says, was the trip he made in 2000 to Ethiopia, to Lalibela, an
actual thousand-year-old village, which is the ancestral home of Due's
protagonist Dawit/ David. "I received an invitation from an
international humanitarian organization to go to Ethiopia and do some
work for them. I took it as an omen, and decided to go to Ethiopia a
week ahead of my commitment and shoot some on-location footage."
With a skeleton crew of nine, including a first assistant director who
was an Ethiopian national working in Hollywood, Blair directed and
edited a five-minute trailer (with music, but no dialogue) he has used
to show potential financiers the quality of the film he was trying to
make. "Even though it's an intimate story about a man, a woman
and a child," observes Blair, "the film has to feel like an
epic, because of the many generations Dawit has lived."
"When Blair came back," says Due, "my
husband Steven Barnes and I were in L.A., and Blair set up in a
backroom of the Magic Johnson Theater. And his footage was the first
time I saw the ancient Christian church I had written about, carved
from the stone earth, and it just took my breath away."
"It's like stepping back into time," adds
Blair, I've never seen so much poverty as I saw in Lalibela, but I've
also never seen so much joy in people's faces." He was also
warmly affirmed and embraced by many of the Ethiopians he met, who
often commented on his striking resemblance to their people.
Back in Hollywood, it was still tough finding
financing, even with Underwood's personal commitment and his
connections. Ultimately, he hooked up with the two enterprising
independent producers, Hill and Steed, who had a close contact at Fox
At this point, Underwood had to make a difficult
decision: "The studio asked me to make a choice between directing
or acting. It took me a while to process their very credible
arguments, that this type of film--a supernatural thriller/love story,
with an all-black cast--has yet to make money in Hollywood. And when
Hollywood film executives speak of supernatural, they are measuring it
against Beloved, which financially didn't do well.
"All I wanted to do by directing the project
was to protect the integrity of Tananarive's story. So my
decision-making turned on the fact that as a producer and as the lead
actor on the film, I could still have a critical impact. I realized I
didn't have to direct this film to do that."
"The entire process of producing a film--a
feature film with a studio--is new to me," says the veteran
actor. "Ive done music videos and a short film, but this is my
first feature." (Interestingly enough, the short film he produced
and directed is called The Second Coming, about Jesus coming back to
earth as a brother with long dredlocks.) He admits, "I've just
begun to recognize the significance of "Tananarive's book getting
to this stage in the film development process."
The greenlight Blair Underwood is going for could
take another year, or it could take six months, or just a few weeks.
"The studio is excited about it, and they've shown me they are
committed to the film. A 2004 start date would be a beautiful
thing," he surmised, but at press time, he really didn't know
what the timing would be.
"Blair has that really vital quality that all
creative people need of being able to roll with the punches,"
adds Due appreciatively. "Over the long years of this journey so
far, if something didn't work out, he was ready to try another way. He
always keeps his head," she notes. "We have a great working
relationship. And anytime he meets someone who loves the book, he puts
them on the phone with me so I can hear it. My husband and I live in a
tiny logging town in Washington state-Longview, Washington, so I don't
run into my readers on a daily basis."
"I'm such a fan of her work, and I know from my
brother that writing is a solitary life," concludes Blair
Underwood. "Tananarive's husband Steven is an amazing author,
too. [Barnes writes speculative fiction and most recent novel, Zulu
Heart, was published in hardcover by Warner Books last spring.] I tell
them, 'You guys keep writing; I'm determined to get these movies
COPYRIGHT 2004 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group
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