“The Inspection” is an intense, thoughtful film about a young gay Black man named Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) who decides to join the military in the early 2000s. He’s doing it partly to escape his current life of homelessness, but also in an attempt to win back the love of his mother, played by Gabrielle Union. You can read /Film’s official review of the movie by Chris Evangelista here.
From a sheer screen-time perspective, Gabrielle Union isn’t in the movie that much, but it certainly feels like she is. French’s relationship with her character is the emotional core of the movie, the thing that everything seems to revolve around. Here, Union plays a woman who is fundamentally different from herself; she plays a woman who repeatedly turns away her son on account of his sexuality.
It was a difficult role, made even harder by the fact that she was playing a character based on director Elegance Bratton’s real mother, who’d died very early on in the movie’s production. (You can find my interview with Bratton here.) I was lucky enough to get to talk to Union about her experience with this memorable role, and the challenges that came with it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
‘I Wanted Different For French’
There are a lot of emotional scenes in the movie for you. What was the toughest for you, or maybe the most rewarding?
The toughest is the last scene of the film. Walking away from him [French] and wanting to … I’m like, “Are there new pages? Can I not be a demon this whole movie?” Yeah, you want different. I wanted different for French. I wanted different for Elegance in real life. I want different for my own kids. That was very difficult, to say the least. Dark and difficult. Yeah, it just sucked. It just sucks.
But the most rewarding? Probably the very first scene. They were a little nervous about me taking off the wig, but I’m like, “She’s at home alone. I’m going to give you guys these wig braids. You’re going to get into it. I promise you it’ll be much more authentic.” But it was rewarding to have never seen this space, but immediately it felt familiar, and to be comfortable in the space and to be moving around it with my little cigarette and just all the things that I wanted to do.
When you rehearse, even by yourself in the mirror, you have all the things, and then on the day you usually use one of them. And I was able to do all the things I wanted to do because I wasn’t freaking out about anything else. I just wanted Jeremy to be uncomfortable in this space and I wanted to luxuriate in my hoarder-ness, and I was able to do everything that I wanted to do in that scene. So it was very rewarding. You don’t see it all on screen, but I know what I did, so it felt good on the day.
When I went in, I didn’t know any of the real life story and I remember thinking that eventually down the line, these two could maybe work it out. Not anytime soon probably, but I remember thinking there was something there. Was that an intentional thing in your performance? Did you have any hope for your character?
I think because I know how it ends in real life, I probably had less, but it was interesting watching people’s reaction as they were watching it. So Toronto was the first time I watched it with a large audience and I’m looking around … but they’re so hopeful, and it’s a theme that has come up time and time again.
So I’m glad that it feels hopeful, because I think there’s a lot of parents who are going to see themselves in a way that they don’t think they actually look like in real life. And so I need them to have hope that they can do different and be better. But unfortunately in real life, less hope. But I like that he found it within himself. Everything he wanted from her, he gave himself, which for a lot of people … I keep saying kids, but I mean from little guys to … I’ve met queer children who are 90 and are still wanting that from their parents who have been gone. I don’t think you ever stop wanting that love and acceptance and just affection and acknowledgement from your parents, especially your mom.
‘Maybe Some Parent Will See This And Change Course’
In another interview about this movie, you said something that stuck out to me, how a while ago you were talking to actress Sanaa Lathan about the roles you take, and she said, “If it doesn’t scare me, it’s not worth doing.” Was that something that you took with you specifically in this movie? [Gabrielle nods.] What scared you the most about it?
Playing someone who has such opposing views and moved through the world so differently. And people I tend to openly and hostilely criticize for having those views and treating their children in such a way. I didn’t want to find a way in. I didn’t want to find anything in common with this person.
The idea of it even being offered to me scared me. You know what I mean? Usually I’m, “Eh, that feels good. I know, I get it. I know who that person is, that’s me, blah, blah, blah,” and I look for comfort. I had looked, I should say, for comfort in a role, like ease. “How hard of a job am I going to have? Oh good, easy. Sign me up. How much? Great, even better.” But with this, all I needed to get over the fear was maybe some parent will see this and change course and not do this to their child. And that was all I had to get over my fear.
But it’s still weird watching myself behave that way on screen. I mean, my life’s work is to protect people from folks like this, and to play one and to be acknowledged for my work, it’s weird. It’s a mixed bag, I don’t know how to feel exactly. I guess I’ve done my job. It’s a weird exchange, I think.
‘He Didn’t Want To Alter A Thing’
So I understand that Elegance Bratton’s mother died shortly after the project was green lit. Were you involved with the project beforehand, and if so, how did that news affect the way you approached the project?
Well, as a producer, you have to wonder, does he still want to do this at all? You know what I mean? It’s one thing if your mother is alive and you’re like, “I want to show you how far I’ve come, I want to show you how brilliant I am, and I want that opportunity for us to mend our relationship, for you to show up at this premiere.” You want that. But if she’s no longer with us, does he even want to do this project? Is he comfortable doing it as written, as with what we all kind of signed up for? Grief has a tendency to soften some edges or make edges way more sharp than they actually were. And with grief, are children, even your children, the most reliable narrator?
But he was insistent and he did all of the emotional work necessary to grieve and process as best as one can, and he didn’t want to alter a thing. And so out of respect for Elegance and his story and their story, we were like, “Okay, let’s make this movie and let’s figure out how to make it as brilliantly as you wrote it.” But you don’t want to push, you don’t want to be pushy, you don’t want to rush anyone through grief of a parent.
Even by the time we’re filming, it was very emotional. It was very, very emotional. And there are moments where I’m just a mom and I’m like, “Hold up, 20 second time out. Hold on. I need to tend to the children who are still processing everything.” It doesn’t matter if you’re 90 or a toddler, the death of a parent is the syrup that covers everything. And to not always allow for that space, you’re a jerk. And so you had to figure out how to be a great actor who can nail this, every bit of coverage in one or two takes. Because we just don’t have the time or money to luxuriate in any one thing, any one set. And we didn’t exactly have the time to be as nurturing as we wanted to be, but we had to make the time, because it was emotional and it turned out to be very emotional for a lot of people beyond Elegance. And you have to be a decent human being and figure out how to hold space for everyone as we all work through all of our stuff together as a team.
Yeah, when I was talking to Jeremy Pope, he said behind the scenes it was all about healing for Elegance and for him. So what would you say was your experience with Jeremy and Elegance behind the camera?
At times, I feel like they’re my babies, and I just want to protect them from everything, certainly Hollywood and the machine. They’re pure souls. They’re so pure, and I want to keep it that way. And I want them to love this industry and to love what they do and to not be ruined, to not have their souls tainted by the dark s***.
“Let me hold it.” That’s the goal. “Let me hold all of it, so you guys can get to experience the good stuff.” But I love them and I just want to protect them and try to make it as great of an experience as possible. Because when you see on the other side, you know what’s lurking behind every corner and just trying to put a protective shield around them. But I love them like they are my own.
“The Inspection” is out in select theaters now, and theaters everywhere on December 2, 2022.
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