The Joy and Sunshine of Bianca, By Ms. Bryant

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

February 7, 2008

"What's up O?", hollers Joy Bryant, she of such dramatic films as "Antwone Fisher", "Baadasssss!", "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'", "Haven", "Bobby" and "The Hunting Party".  Malcolm D. Lee directs her in "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins", which opens on Friday (February 8) in the U.S. and Canada.  The new film from the director of "The Best Man" is fresh territory for Ms. Bryant, who has a resume filled with performances in more serious fare.  In "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" she plays Bianca, a reality-TV star and the fiancee of RJ, the title character played by Martin Lawrence. 

Bianca, shall we say, tries her best to do the right thing during the film. 

Late last month, Ms. Bryant spoke by telephone from Los Angeles to talk about her character.

"She won 'Survivor', she's very driven . . . and she rubs people the wrong way.  She means well.  In her world."

Ms. Bryant pauses. 

"In her world.  She means well . . . in her world."  A flavor of Ms. Bryant's onscreen alter ego is coming through at this moment as she repeats her character's behavioral profile and attitude. 

"It's all about her world, not your world."

By now Ms. Bryant has reduced her listener to hysterics.  There's no doubt that Bianca has energy to burn, and the 31-year-old Bronx-born actress and former model for Tommy Hilfiger and Victoria's Secret lingerie covers Bianca like a blanket, every idiosyncratic fiber firmly in place. 

Joy Bryant attended Yale University on the back of a full academic scholarship to the prestigious Connecticut Ivy League school, which she was awarded as a result of her high school excellence.  Although she didn't attend Yale's graduation ceremony she has graduated as an up-and-coming leading lady in the Hollywood ranks, breaking through in films like Denzel Washington's "Antwone Fisher" (2002) and Emilio Estevez's epic "Bobby" (2006), both films portraitures of their real-life title subjects.  With "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" as her first foray into a different genre and with the grandeur of legendary names like James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery as part of the film's cast, Ms. Bryant admitted to being a little overawed by the experience, at least initially.  "It was a wonderful experience . . . you've got great material, great cast, a great director . . . definitely I was a little bit intimidated at first you know, because it was my first comedy."  Of being around the numerous comedians in the film -- Mr. Lawrence, Cedric The Entertainer, Mike Epps, Mo'Nique, Louis C.K. -- Ms. Bryant spoke of having watched them over the years and "laughed tears" in the process.  As a non-comedian her goal on the set of Mr. Lee's film was to "focus on not trying to be funny, because that's not my job."

Right now however in this conversation, she is doing "not her job" really well.

Before hitting the big time in Tinseltown, Ms. Bryant was enrolled in an organization called "A Better Chance", which promotes the talents and skills of blacks, Latinos and Asians, an organization that she remains close to today.  Her Yale experience was preempted by a modeling scout, and before you could say "Bianca goes to Paris", Ms. Bryant herself decided to do just that, to pursue a career as a fashion model there. 

During the present interaction Joy Bryant said that she had to prove herself to some people in Hollywood with her first foray into comedy.  "A lot of my friends, they weren't surprised that I got a comedy.  They were like, 'goddamn, finally!'", she commented.  "There were just people in the business who were like, 'Okay, cool, yeah, finally,'" said the actress, using a droll tone for emphasis.  "There's also a lot of people who were like, 'well, she's not really . . . can she really do that?'", Ms. Bryant mimicked.  The doubters only inspired her to excel.  "That's okay.  That spurred me.  I just wanted to make sure that -- I worked really hard at being the best.  Before I even showed up on set I did lots of research to prepare for it, and made sure I was relaxed enough to roll with the punches.  You're talking about working with comedians who are not often going to stick to the script, because that's not what they're gonna do," she said, adding that improvisation was the quintessence of their routines.

Her goal with the comedians in "Roscoe Jenkins", she continues, "was, aside from being prepared for my character . . . to be sure I was relaxed enough to be able take what they were throwing.  If you're gonna be too rigid, if you get stuck on a word on the page, you're gonna miss a lot of magic . . . I think it all worked out," she said, adding that "I'm so pleased" with the film.  She revealed that she has phobias about trying to watch herself on the big screen "and not be super critical" about her performances that she is working through. 

Of comedic performances specifically, Ms. Bryant said that, "I haven't been given the opportunity to be able to do that kind of stuff, before now."

Moviegoers who are accustomed to seeing Joy Bryant in dramas will definitely see a different side of her persona in Mr. Lee's film.  She credited her acting coach with teaching her that "an actor's job is to be more human than human and reveal humanity.  You can't come into that relationship with that character and be judgmental," she said.  "Even though I disagree with their methods, they have reasons."  Referring to Bianca, she added, "she may be a bitch, but she doesn't think she's a bitch.  She has real, real concrete reasons as to why she became that way . . . and you have to empathize," as an actor.

Commenting on the impact of some of the characters she has played over time, Ms. Bryant says that "I've definitely taken elements of it home at the end of the day, and even after that . . . ", she laughs as her voice trails off . . .

. . . into well, another voice altogether:

"Life is hard to, snap out of, so . . . "  Bianca is talking now. 

"I'll talk to you, darling."

Bianca disappears when asked about Ms. Bryant's future endeavors.   "Producing projects . . . writing and pitching stories to various magazines.  And people are  pretty receptive to some of the stuff I'm pitching.  I had a piece published a couple of years ago, so that's something I'm moving toward."

One of her biggest motivations is, "I think just in general, just to be as creative as possible . . . not just sitting around waiting for acting jobs, just being creative all the time.  And also too, in terms of acting, just being better.  Becoming better at what I do," she said.

Joy Bryant admires and is inspired by many people in the film acting business, but among those she highlights as an inspiration "definitely is Cate Blanchett," she said.

"I got to meet her once . . . she's someone who is so talented.  I mean, her work speaks for itself.  She personally doesn't take herself that seriously or take the work too too seriously.  I mean, she takes it seriously, you know, to do it, but she doesn't take herself too seriously.  But to bring it, to any role, any shape, whatever -- she bats it out of the park."

In "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" Joy Bryant bats Bianca out of the park, and Bianca joyously bats her back.

"Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" opens across the U.S. and Canada on February 8 and is released by Universal Pictures.  The film also stars Michael Clarke Duncan.

Original story, with photos here

Click here for Joy Bryant audio excerpts

Related: Welcome Home, Margaret Avery

Related: Cedric Entertains Clyde in "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins"

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