Nia Long on thinking a white guy wrote 'Boyz n the Hood,' her deep love for Will Smith and being turned down for 'Charlie's Angels'

Everett Collection
Nia Long in Friday, Love Jones and Made in America. (Everett Collection)

Nia Long is having a moment right now. A month ago came The Best Man: The Final Chapters, Peacock's joyous reunion series spun-off from two popular rom-com ensembles. Soon, she couples with Eddie Murphy as Jonah Hill's disapproving wannabe in-laws in Netflix's You People. And Friday, she hits theaters in the virtual thriller Missing, the big-studio sequel to 2018's innovative Sundance hit Searching.

Long has had plenty of moments in her accomplished career. Still, she's an actress who seems to draw the utmost respect yet remain vastly underappreciated at the same time.

Black audiences, in particular, have long given the 52-year-old Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-raised Long her flowers after her appearances in seminal films like Boyz n the Hood, Friday, Love Jones, Soul Food and a pair of Best Man movies (The Best Man and The Best Man Holiday), not to mention television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Empire. She's called "generational," "timeless," "America's sweetheart," "Black culture," and of course, every variation of "beautiful." Rappers from Ghostface Killah to Kanye to J.Cole have dropped her name in their lyrics.

Her Missing co-star Storm Reid gets it.

"My mom loves her, and one of her favorite movies is Love Jones, so I've been a Nia Long fan for a very long time," laughs Reid, who plays the teenage daughter who goes searching for her missing mother (Long) in the Nick Johnson and Will Merrick mystery that, like Searching, plays out entirely on computer and mobile screens and apps. "She's incredible to work with… I've had a few movie moms but she has to be Number One."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 12: Storm Reid and Nia Long attend the Stage 6 and Screen Gems world premiere of
Storm Reid and Nia Long attend the Stage 6 and Screen Gems world premiere of Missing at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Downtown Los Angeles on January 12, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

In a candid new Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Long looked back at some of her most famous gigs. She recalled thinking Boyz n the Hood' mustve been written by a white man before meeting the late John Singleton. She defended Fresh Prince co-star and longtime friend Will Smith in the wake of heavy backlash the actor has faced since he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars and got emotional as the scrutiny reminded her of her recent breakup with husband Ime Udoka. And she debunked internet lore that she passed up a role in Charlie's Angels (2000) to co-star with Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House.

On being an extra on the Ricky Schroder sitcom Silver Spoons in 1982

"I remember having the biggest crush on Ricky Schroder. I thought he was so cute and he did not look at me at all. He didn't pay the extras any mind. He was just like, 'Whatever. What’s the next scene?' [After being told that Schroder is more well-known these days for being a right-wing activist than an actor:] Oh, well cut this part outta the interview. I don't pay attention to what they're doing over there. No, I'm kidding [laughs]… I'm not down with that, though. That's probably why he didn't look at my ass. Think about it… You know what, that was a very healing moment for me, because now I understand."

On having her first lines — but no character name (she was credited as "Girl") — on another '80s sitcom favorite, 227

"I remember the amazing Marla Gibbs was lovely. My friend Regina King was starring on the show at that time. We were young and it was exciting and quick and I think I had like two or three lines and that was it. But it was like, 'Oh my gosh.' My first real experience. So it was cool… I [was happy] to be 'Girl.' S***, if that's going to get me in the door. This girl got in the door by playing 'Girl.'… It was legendary because of 'Girl,' right? No, only because of Regina King and Marla Gibbs and all of the other amazing women that were on that show. Like, let's be real. I'm joking. But that show was iconic and one of a kind."

On living with roaches in New York City even after inking a three-year contract to play Kathryn "Kat" Speakes on the long-running CBS soap opera Guiding Light (1991-1993)

"It was good. It was sort of like going away to college because you had to be on your toes every single day. And the amount of dialogue that we would have to memorize was insane. Like, I don't even know how I did it, but I think that was the biggest gift from that experience was just understanding the technicalities of film and television and camera angles and how things worked and being a part of a big group and seeing the same people every day, making those long-term friendships…. It was like my family. I had left California, I had graduated from high school, went straight to New York, which is where I'm from. And I lived on 39th Street between First and Second Avenue in New York City. And I had, you know, roaches in my apartment and I was walking to work and eating slices of pizza because soaps don't pay like people probably assume they do. It was the nineties. It was the era of Puffy parties and Biggie and Nas and Shaq and Heavy D. It was just an amazing time to be Black, and to be Black in New York City. It's always an amazing time to be Black. But those were the formative years of curating the culture and I'm so happy to be a part of that."

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On her first impression of John Singleton’s groundbreaking inner-city drama Boyz n the Hood (1991), in which she’d costar as Brandi, girlfriend to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Tre

"I thought, 'Who was this person doing this film called Boyz n the Hood?' In the early years of one's career, you don't always get the script. You might just get like three pages of dialogue to kind of go in and audition. And I remember walking in, it was a super rainy day. I was sitting in the corner [of the room] and I had a baseball cap on. I put no effort into getting ready that day. I was like, 'I can't.' I didn't wanna go because I honestly thought, 'Who is the white guy writing a movie called Boyz n the Hood?' That's what I thought. I'm gonna be totally transparent. And my agent was like, 'No, you have to go.' But she didn't even know. With a name like John Singleton, it could kind of go either way. You kind of wanted to lean Black, but you weren't quite sure.

"So I remember walking into this casting office and all the actors were standing around, and John Singleton was walking around the room looking at every actor. And he came up to me and he looked me up and down and he said, 'What's your name? Who are you?' I said, 'Well, who are you?' And I kind of gave him that look like, 'If you don't get outta my face, boy we're gonna have problems' [laughs]. And he was like, 'I'm John Singleton, the director.' And I was like, 'Oh, hi, nice to meet you' [laughs]. And we hit it off. I went in and I auditioned and I just believed that he was going to tell a really important story that was close to my personal experiences and that he would be our Spike Lee on the West Coast. Spike was really representing the Black experience on the East Coast, and not just the East Coast, but he identified with Brooklyn… But there's a whole situation going on in South Central that I really lived as a young girl. And I just think there will never be another John Singleton."

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On playing two separate roles in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (a one-off as Claudia in 1991, and a recurring role as Will Smith's girlfriend-turned-fiancée Lisa from 1994-1995), and her deep love for Smith in the wake of the actor’s uncharacteristic attack on Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars

"They recycled me on Fresh Prince… You know what, I think sometimes that's where you take the creative license and you're like, 'I don't have to explain s***.' Forget Claudia, you are now Lisa. Those were good old days. It was my first consistent job where I was actually working every day and learning what it meant to be on a show with three cameras versus film where there's one camera… And I just remember that Will was this energetic, goofy, funny guy that was obsessed with playing golf and sneakers. And he was just the happiest person. He was like Disneyland. Will Smith was like Disneyland during The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And I love him and I will always love him. And he's had an incredible career and he's carried a burden for many years to try to represent what perfection looks like or achievement looks like. And I don't think that, at least when we were growing up, there was room to be human. And I think he's now able to be human and I'm just thankful and grateful for that moment in my career because it taught me a lot about comedy.

"Sometimes I'm like, 'Can you stop being so damn happy?' You cannot be this happy. But he really is. He's a joyous person. But I think we all have our moments in life where we have to reconcile things that maybe we suppress. And I think it's hard growing up in this business and being front and center every day, all day… I can go to the grocery store anytime I want to. And for the most part people are like, 'Hey Nia Long, how you doing?' No one's chasing me down the street. I still have my anonymity and I appreciate that about my career. I appreciate that. However I've managed to do that. That it's, it's the thing that allows me to stay connected to the people and to be human and not try to be this perfect being. And you know, I've had some pretty devastating moments in my life over the last couple of months and I've had to just say, 'It's all right. You'll pick yourself back up…' Oh my God, I'm about to cry. You pick yourself back up and you keep it moving.

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On meeting Chris Tucker on the hood stoner comedy Friday (1995)

"One of the funniest moments while shooting Friday was my drive to work. I'm on the freeway driving to work, and I thought I was the s***. I had the starter kit BMW. 'Cause I'd had a couple jobs now, I got a nice car… I'm still living at home. And I was like, 'OK, I got a nice car.' I'm driving on the freeway, I have my windows down, 'cause that was the thing. You put your windows down and play your music loud to let 'em know you were rolling up… And I hear, 'Nia! Nia! Nia Long!' Like screaming. And I turn to my left and it's Chris Tucker in a hooptie. I don't I've ever seen this type of car before. But it was the raggediest piece of s*** I had ever seen in my life. And he's like, 'Nia Long, when I grow up, I wanna be just like you!' And [as he's driving], I realize his back window is a pizza box. The whole window had been busted out and he had taped a whole pizza box in the window. I said, 'Well, what happened to your window?' 'I dunno, somebody f***ed up my s***. And he takes off and, and then I see him like, you know, 20 minutes later at work… Can I curse like this? I just wanna make sure because it makes for a better story when you used profanities.

"Then cut to years later, I don't know how many years later, but it was at least 20 years later, maybe not that long. It doesn't matter. [It was after Tucker hit it big with Rush Hour.] The point is he's like, 'Nia, what have you been up to? Let's get together. I wanna see you.' I'm like, 'Yeah, let's go to dinner.' He picks me up… He had an airplane pick me up. I don't know what kind of car this was. It was like the top-of-the-line Rolls-Royce with the doors that [open backward]. I couldn't even get in the damn car. I was like, 'Chris, how do I get in here?' The doors were flying up and the whole time we were in the car, he's singing Michael Jackson songs. And I was like, 'Oh my God, he wants to be Michael Jackson.' He knew every lyric and every dance move from [the waist] up. So we danced and sang Michael Jackson songs all the way down Sunset Boulevard to the restaurant and then all the way back home. I love Chris Tucker. That's my guy."

On her instant love for the romantic drama Love Jones (1997), which paired her with Larenz Tate and struggled at the box office before eventually becoming a cult classic

"Oh man, I just remember shooting that film and thinking it just felt so representative of the Black love that I know. And even though I was super young, like we all know that feeling, that warmth when you connect with someone. And what was really cool was I really connected with Larenz. We have such a special friendship. Our friendship, it's to the end of time. And to me, whatever level I was at in my career or wherever we were as a film community, to me that film is perfection. I would not change a thing. I would not go back and redo it. I'm not interested in doing a sequel. I think that film is timeless. And I remember when it came out, mind you, I had all of these feelings while we were filming. But the film came out and it made $9 million. It was a flop. Nobody went to the theater to see it because we were coming off the era of the gangster films, of the Black hood stories, which are equally as important. No one knew who I was. I mean, maybe a couple people did. Some people knew who Larenz was. Now it's like a cult classic. And so some things get sweeter with time. And so I would say Love Jones is one of those things. And I would just never, never touch it."

On the family vibe of The Best Man (1999), in which she played journalist Jordan Armstrong opposite Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard and Sanaa Lathan — and reviving the character in a sequel and TV series

"We always got along. There's never any drama on that set with the actors. Other things maybe, but not with the actors… I think [writer-director] Malcolm [D.] Lee was a genius in the way that he cast that film because we were all educated, confident, established, maybe not star status, but we were established actors that knew when we were onto something. We knew we were onto contributing to the culture in a big and important way. But there was also an unspoken mutual respect for one another because we also understand how difficult it is. And you put us in a room together, it was like the best dessert, most decadent dessert you could ever imagine. Because we just know our s***. And that's why the [new] series did so well, because we know those characters like the back of our hands. What I love about Jordan is she's funny, she's sensitive, she's ambitious, she's fearless, she's vulnerable. I've had the opportunity to explore this woman at every stage of her life. And it's been fun."

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On the internet tidbit that she passed on a lead role in the 2000 action movie Charlie's Angels for the Martin Lawrence comedy Big Momma's House, released that same year

"That is the biggest fattest lie. Charlie's Angels did not want me because they said I looked too sophisticated and too old next to Drew Barrymore… But listen, I thought Lucy Liu was great in that role. When I went back and looked at it, I was like, 'Whoa, she's really doing some stunts.' I don't know if I was quite ready for that. I don't, you can't do everything, and every opportunity isn't for you. And as much as it would've been fun to play that character, I think Big Momma's House was probably more fun for me. And working with Martin Lawrence, another genius comedian who I have so much respect for… You know, the turnover [in this industry] is so frequent that we forget about the guys that really just came and allowed Black people to have success in television. Do you know how many people worked because of Martin Lawrence? Do you know how many people worked because of Tichina Arnold? Just that whole group on [Martin]. Tisha Campbell is a legend. When you go back and you watch Tisha Campbell in School Daze, I was mesmerized by her growing up, her dancing, her singing. She's a triple threat. She does it all. Like these are the women that I admired and we're the same age, but they were the ones that kind of got their breaks before I got my breaks. And so I look at them and I just go, 'Wow, they need to be celebrated more.'"

On filming Missing on cellphone and computer cameras

"Oh my God. It's driven by technology. It's thrilling, it's fast-paced. It's a mystery. It's shot in a very unorthodox way. Everything that you think that you know about the process of filmmaking, all the rules are broken in this. And what's really exciting is we are now reminded of how much technology runs our lives, but also there's another way of expressing this art that doesn't have to be so shiny and pretty and perfect, and that we can get closer to the real world that we live in."

Missing is now playing.

Watch the trailer: