Interview with Kam Williams
Nitara Carlynn Long was born in Brooklyn on October 30, 1970, but was raised mostly in South Central Los Angeles in the wake of her parents’ divorce. The accomplished thespian of Trinidadian extraction first found fame on TV on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and she’s since enjoyed recurring roles on such series as Judging Amy (2001-2002), Third Watch (2003-2005), Boston Legal (2007), Big Shots (2007-2008) and, most recently, The Cleveland Show (2009-present).
Her breakout performance on the silver screen was in 1997 when she starred opposite Larenz Tate in Love Jones. And her resume’ includes outings in such films as Are We There Yet, Are We Done Yet, The Best Man, Boiler Room, Boyz ‘n the Hood, Friday, Alfie, Soul Food, In Too Deep and Big Momma’s House 1 & 2.
In 2000, People Magazine named the gorgeous ingenue one of the World’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and she also landed the number 3 spot on Black Men Magazine’s 10 Sexiest Women List. Later that same year, Nia had a son, Massai Doresy, Jr. who she is currently raising in L.A.
Here, she talks about her new movie, Mooz-Lum, a dysfunctional family drama where she plays Safiyah, the long-suffering wife of an overbearing, religious zealot.
Kam Williams: Hi Nia, thanks so much for the time.
Nia Long: No worries. How are you?
KW: I’m fine. I have a lot of questions for you from my readers, so why don’t I launch right into them.
NL: Absolutely! Why not?
KW: You’ve done an impressive body of work covering comedic and dramatic roles. What attracted you to the script about this mother conflicted between her son and her husband?
NL: Hmmm… That’s a good question. . I just thought the film had so many wonderful layers of the journey that women take with motherhood. There’s no book out there that tells you how to be a good parent. So much of parenting is following your instincts, and taking the time to actually know your child. I’m raising a 10 year-old boy, and my son in the film, Tariq [Evan Ross] goes through the traditional growing pains associated with transitioning from a boy to a young man. When I read the script, I immediately thought to myself, “Wow! This is a really special movie. It’s entertaining, it deals with a lot of social issues, and it addresses practical parenting concerns that everyone can relate to.”
KW: Did having a son yourself help in portraying the mother in the movie?
NL: Absolutely! The minute your child is born, your life is changed forever. I think I’ve become so aware of how important balance is in life. I have to constantly make sure that it stays that way for myself and for my son, because if I’m not emotionally available for him it will impede his development. Yet, if I don’t work, we’ll be living in a cardboard box. So, that calls for a tremendous amount of balancing constantly. Therefore, working on this film, I understood Safiyah’s search to balance being a devout Muslim woman with allowing her child his natural curiosity and desire to explore in life.
KW: What were your feelings about Islam before taking the role and after the film wrapped?
NL: When I was a young girl, my mother traveled to Abu Dhabi, which is a Muslim country. When she returned home, she taught me a lot about Islam. So, I was already familiar with the religion’s basic teachings. But in preparation for this role, I definitely got to experience Islam on a much more intimate level. The one thing that stands out in my mind is the commitment Muslim women make to each other. They are so supportive and so loving, and they do everything together. It’s really all about family, and I like that, because I’m a family-oriented person. I believe that whatever your religious preference, there has to be a commitment to family because everything really does start there. Hopefully, this film will help to eliminate stereotypes, because Muslim women are misunderstood. They’re strong, beautiful, classic, contemporary and so much more.
KW: The issue of women wearing chadors in public institutions has been hotly debated and legislated over. As a child, you attended Catholic school where I suppose you had to wear a uniform. How did that experience influence your performance as a Muslim woman wearing a head-wrap? Were you more sensitized to a group of people who wish to acknowledge their religion in an overtly public way?
NL: Hmm… My son goes to a Catholic school where he has to wear a uniform. I attended a Catholic school where I had to, too. I think it’s a beautiful thing when you wear a uniform or a garb which represents a group of people, because what it immediately symbolizes is oneness, togetherness. I believe everyone should have the freedom to represent what they believe-in in their own way.
KW: What is your favorite scene in Mooz-Lum?
NL: I’d say the pivotal scene where I notice the scars on Tariq’s back.
KW: [Is there] a novel that you would like to see turned into a movie and also star in? And which African American icon would you love to portray in a film?
NL: There’s a novel I just read called Queen Pin that I’ve been talking to the author about optioning. I encourage everyone to read it. It’s a great story. As for an African-American icon, I was very interested in portraying Nina Simone until I heard that Mary J. Blige is doing it. I’m sure she’ll do the role more justice, because I am not a singer. I just think Nina was a very mysterious woman, and a trailblazer who came along at such an important time in our history. She did it her way, and she has one of the most unique voices in jazz history.
KW: Does being such an accomplished actress give you a different perspective when you direct a music video?
NL: Directing music videos is all about capturing images. I think my experiences in front of the camera have enhanced that because I know how to make other women look beautiful: from hair to makeup to wardrobe. So, I feel that I have a gift with imaging, and that’s kind of fundamental to the music video process.
KW: I would love to hear about your time on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Were the scripts written with a predominately white audience or an African-American audience in mind? Or was this not a factor?
NL: I don’t think it was a factor at all. Funny is funny: black, white, yellow, purple. Funny is funny!
KW: How do you feel about the number of black actors who are often paired with white leading ladies in movies, such as Will Smith, Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington?
NL: It is what it is. As long as the acting is good, I can appreciate it. It would certainly would be great to see more films featuring the Black family and showing that we are capable of having that unit strong and present and beautiful, because that’s so much of who we really are. For me, that’s missing sometimes when I watch films. But since Denzel and Will are superstars, studio execs don’t necessarily see them as Black. They see them as superstars. I suspect they pair them with a white or a Latina star because that takes the pressure off their having to market the movie as a Black film, which in my opinion is completely ridiculous. But we still have a lot of growing and maturing to do in terms of how we view Black people, the Black family and Black filmmaking, because we shouldn’t be narrowly pigeonholed. We are not just one thing. We have so many different voices and experiences. And on the flip side, there are black men who are madly in love with white women. God bless them, if that’s what works for them. I just hope that we can strike a balance that portrays black folks and the black family in a light that’s not extreme. Those are the types of characters that I find myself attracted to.
KW: Have you ever considered creating a project like “Single Ladies,” the upcoming movie that Queen Latifah plans to turn into a series?
NL: I am in constant search for that project that speaks to me personally. And when all the pieces come together properly, it’ll happen.
KW: Is there any truth to the rumor that there’s going to be a sequel to the classic film Love Jones, especially since there appears to be a demand for it from the fans?
NL: We’ve been trying to make that happen for a long time, and if it were my decision I would say “Yes.” But it’s out of my hands. Larenz [co-star Larenz Tate] and I have definitely discussed it, and we’re committed to doing it.
KW: How about The Best Man? I saw that you just had a cast reunion the other day. How was it seeing everybody together at the same time?
NL: Oh my goodness! That was the highlight of my new year so far. We were all so excited to get together. We had such an amazing time! And Malcolm Lee’s a genius for pulling it all together. He’s so kind, so humble, and such a great director. We’re really going to try to do it again, because there was still that chemistry that had worked so well. It was a great night.
KW: What was it like to make People’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the world list?
NL: [Chuckles] I was flattered. I was shocked. I was happy. I was like, “Really? Me? I’ll take that. That’s a blessing.” But it’s also pressure, because it means you gotta be beautiful on the inside, too. It’s something I can tell my grandbabies someday.
KW: Your folks are from Trinidad. Do you still eat any traditional Trinidadian dishes like callaloo, roti, bake and curried goat?
NL: I don’t eat goat, but I love roti. My friend Carol owns a fantastic restaurant in Englewood, called the Caribbean Treehouse which is one of the few places in L.A. that serves truly authentic Trini food.
KW: I have a friend who used to own a Trinidadian restaurant in Brooklyn, who cooks me a Trini meal at least once a week. He just prepared some roti for me today.
NL: It’s so delicious.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
NL: Mmm….No, not really. That’s kind of a weird question. I don’t know how to answer that. I guess the question would be: Are you happy? People never ask that.
KW: Funny that’s a question I ask everybody. So, are you happy?
NL: I am! I am very happy. At this moment, I’m the happiest I’ve been in a very long time. But it’s different from the surface happy, it’s the soul happy. That’s how I’m feeling right now. The last couple years have been difficult, not just financially, but for my 90 year-old grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s and for my mom who’s a retired schoolteacher. So, it’s been difficult seeing the cycle of life changing. Things that used to work a few years ago don’t anymore. And that transition form the old to the new can be challenging. I’ve spent a lot of time recently sorting out what’s important and what’s not so important. And after doing that spring cleaning of the self you end up with a streamlined life that’s simple, balanced and very clear. After working 20 years in the business, it’s been satisfying to take the time to do that for Nia. It’s a testimony to my personal growth. So, yes I am happy! I have a little bit of everything and a lot of God in my life. For me, that’s the most important thing. I feel really safe. I have my family and a handful of close friends, and a great man in my life who is very supportive and my best friend.
KW: Are you ever afraid?
NL: Oh, gosh, yes.
KW: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
NL: I have a good laugh everyday. Yesterday, my son and I and my mom were cracking up watching Youtube bloopers in the kitchen.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
KW: What was the last book you read?
NL: Queen Pin.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
NL: Lupe Fiasco.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
NL: I love making breakfast: turkey bacon, fried eggs over-medium, home fried potatoes, English muffins, oatmeal with berries and a great fruit smoothie. I love breakfast!
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
NL: Ooooooh! I’m going to have to say Badgley Mischka’s beautiful gowns for women. I love Dolce for that classic sexy look. And Stella McCartney’s fantastic, because she takes a classic design and makes it really functional, but funky and edgy at the same time. And I love shoes. I am a shoe fanatic. I have a special closet in my home just for my shoes. I hope I have a little girl one day, because she is going to win the lottery in the shoe department.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
NL: I see a pretty, brown girl who was born in Brooklyn, grew up in South Central L.A. and did alright for herself.
KW: Where in Brooklyn are you from?
NL: Crown Heights.
KW: I went to high school in Crown Heights, at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and President Street.
NL: Oh, wow! I grew up on Park Place between Kingston and Albany, right down the street from the Albany Projects.
KW: Small world. If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
NL: A conversation with Michelle Obama.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
NL: Enjoy life, study hard, play hard, be kind to other people, set high standards, and don’t be afraid to say “No.”
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
NL: As a great mother and a great friend, and as truthful and fair.
KW: Do you think that the success you’ve achieved in your career is because of you, because of a higher power, or because of a mixture of both?
NL: I attribute my talent and my success to God, but I believe that the only way you can manifest what He has ordained for you is by being close to Him and by making it happen. But we have to stay close to Him in order to be an image of Him.
KW: What price are you willing to pay for a cause that is bigger than your own self interest?
NL: I don’t look upon it as having to pay a price. I think that if something matters to you, and is important to you, then you give it the attention and energy it deserves. So, I don’t look upon it as a price, but as an opportunity to influence the community in a healthy way.
KW: Thanks again for the interview, Nia, and best of luck with the film.
NL: Thank you for asking such amazing questions. This was a treat! Call me any time.