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Underwood Under Pressure: Full Frontal Star Tries to Explain Film

It's a dream team cast assembled by one of Hollywood's hottest directors, but no one seems to understand Full Frontal.

Is it an indulgent little experiment? Star-baiting workshop in offbeat filmmaking? A cosmic Hollywood in-joke? Perhaps all that and more.

But when I sat down with star Blair Underwood, he couldn't shed much light on what Steven Soderbergh had in mind. He can however, tell you what it's like to kiss Julia Roberts in front of her new husband. And he says no matter what happens to the $2 million dollar movie, he's glad to have been aboard.

Bill McCuddy: Steven Soderbergh has turned into the 800-pound gorilla in Hollywood and when he wants to go make a little offbeat film, he can. How did he find you?

Blair Underwood: I don't know how he found me. All I know is he found me and I'm glad he did -- truly. I received a call from my agent one day saying that, 'Steven Soderbergh would like to have lunch with you, and discuss his new film. Do you think you can find the time?' (Laughs) Obviously, I found the time.

And you know, we sat down and had lunch for an hour-and-a-half, talked about everything except the movie. And at that time it was kind of secretive what the film was about. And I knew nothing about it and he explained it to me. And I understood about maybe five minutes of the pitch.

McCuddy: Blair, I've seen the movie and I don't understand it.

Underwood: (Smiles) This is what I'm saying. So [I said] 'Steven, it's you, I'm there.' Everybody was kind of signed on at that point except Julia (Roberts). He mentioned he had talked to her. She said, 'I'm there. If you're doin' it, I'll do it.' And she said, 'I read the script, I understood all of four pages,' [but] she said,' OK, I'm there.'

McCuddy: What do you tell people when they ask: 'What's this movie about?'

Underwood: (Laughs) What I tell people -- so that it hopefully makes some kind of sense -- is that it is a movie within a movie within a movie. But it's really about seven people in Los Angeles during one day, 24 hours, in and around the making of a film. It kind of deals with people connecting and missing each other. But it's intricate. (He notices my eyes glazing over) See, I know you've seen the movie and you're like 'I didn't see that.' (Laughs)

McCuddy: No, I did, but, I saw a 'movie within a movie within a movie.'

Underwood: Right.

McCuddy: I think. Or maybe a 'movie within a movie within a movie within a movie.'

Underwood: (Nods) Technically.

McCuddy: And a play!

Underwood: (Laughs) A play! That's right!

McCuddy: The play is the bonus track -- like on the DVD -- except he put it in.

Underwood: (Laughs) Coleman Hough, the writer, made a great analogy, I thought. She said 'This film is not formulaic.' It's not your mainstream film by Hollywood standards. And she likened it to breast-feeding a baby. She said, 'You feed a baby formula too long, they forget how to breast-feed, which is very natural, very raw.' And, you're right, (Soderbergh) is the 800-pound gorilla and he can do kind of whatever he wants. And he decided to go for kind of the breast-feeding again, just kind of make it natural and just try to find things. I think you used the best word, it's a 'workshop.' Let's experiment, let's have fun, let's play around and see what happens.

McCuddy: We're breast-feeding.

Underwood: Right.

McCuddy: But do you think he is so popular right now after directing Ocean's Eleven and Traffic and Erin Brockovich that no one would admit it if they didn't get it? The Emperor's New Clothes? Everybody going 'Yes, brilliant.'

Underwood: No, no, I think he is very popular right now, but you know we did a press junket last week and the two of us had the whole morning together and a number of people came in and said that -- very honest. 'I didn't get it.' 'It didn't make sense to me.' And he says, 'Well, that's OK.' He's so self-effacing anyway, real honest and direct and I think he gets a kick out of the fact that some will get it, and if you don't, that's OK. Whatever you come away with is fine.

McCuddy: But you're confident he gets it?

Underwood: No, he gets it. (Laughs) In fact, he said, 'You know this is one of those movies...' Because trust me, in shooting the film with the 'movie within the movie within the movie' and the play within that ... I actually play three characters in the movie. Oftentimes I would have to ask him -- and I was not by myself -- 'OK, who am I right now at this point in time?' And you're shooting in 18 days so you're shooting very fast. So one day I think I played all three characters back-to-back. And he said it's like he saw the UFO and nobody else saw the UFO but they had to trust him that the UFO was up there. It was kind of like that. But again, you said it best, it was a workshop. It was really all about the process. And some people have enjoyed it. Time magazine had a great review. And some just completely did not like it, which is fine.

McCuddy: And you're OK with that. You were just happy to be involved?

Underwood: Oh sure, there's nothing to lose. We all got paid 'scale plus 10' (base union wages plus 10 percent) to work with great actors and to work with him as a filmmaker.

McCuddy: Did you follow 'The Rules?' (A set of parameters set by Soderbergh at the outset that had the stars driving themselves to the set and doing their own hair and make-up).

Underwood: No man, I came with my entourage -- the limo everyday. I wanted a catered lunch everyday. (Laughs) No we did, everybody kind of got with the program.

McCuddy: Julia Roberts drove herself? Did her own makeup?

Underwood: She drove herself, got lost the first day of work, and stood in for herself. But I've got to tell you, it really makes for a nice environment because in between takes -- most of my scenes were with her -- we saved all of her scenes for the last five days of shooting -- you know there's nowhere else to go, so you really just sit there with the other actor, shoot the breeze and get to know each other and have fun. It's really kind of goes back to 'Acting 101' or just training like when I went to theater school, just focusing in on the work, which is really what (Soderbergh) wanted to do. He said it was in the middle of Ocean's Eleven where he was just so overwhelmed by the logistics of everything, a big 'event' studio type of filmmaking and he wanted to just strip it all away and just get back to actors telling a story.

McCuddy: Well that's cool if it's cathartic for him and you enjoyed it, but if the rest of us are scratching our heads, it really hasn't succeeded as a film.

Underwood: That's a good point. And the deal is, we don't know, and he admittedly won't know -- I think he has an idea now -- but he'll have a better idea after the film opens. But he's OK with that. He says it's an experiment.

McCuddy: What about the fact that Julia has a relationship with a guy in the film that's very similar to her real life with the guy she just married, Danny Moder?

Underwood: (Laughs) That's very funny.

McCuddy: Was Moder there on the set?

Underwood: Yeah, Danny was our assistant camera on that, because he shoots all that -- he's the camera operator -- so he shoots it all. But he was there and they were very much in love at that point. Yeah, he was there. I think she got a kick out of that and Danny got a kick out of it.

McCuddy: There are a lot of in-jokes like that.

Underwood: Yes.

McCuddy: Including the long rap lyric you do to Julia.

Underwood: Oh, right, right.

McCuddy: Which includes a Pelican Brief reference.

Underwood: (Laughs) That's right.

McCuddy: Was that ad-libbed? Or was that something you tossed in to an already established piece of material?

Underwood: No, that was ad-libbed. Well, it was not in the script. And Steven said, 'Listen, I really want you guys to improvise a lot. Just feel free to go with it, play it.' And he said 'Write down some ideas and notes, things you want to say, come up with.' The more I did it, it just didn't fit in the film I thought we were making.

McCuddy: Was the speech always a rap?

Underwood: No, it was nothing. It was a conversation between the two of them. The point of the scene was just to kind of see these two characters together, her basically interviewing the actor. That was it, just to see some interaction. But I had a friend of mine, whose name is D-Knowledge, who wrote this poem about being an actor in Hollywood, specifically an African American actor in Hollywood. He wrote it for me, I loved it, showed it to Steven about a month before we started shooting, and when I finished it he said, 'I know where I want to put it.' So we ended up doing it in one take. Shot it and he kept it in the film, which is great.

McCuddy: It's a piece of work. And you do it justice.

Underwood: Thank you. There's that irony as you say because I was speaking to Julia Roberts about her and Denzel's relationship in The Pelican Brief.

McCuddy: We should explain you're stating the entire rap thesis on where black actors are today.

Underwood: Right.

McCuddy: As this limo is driving down the street.

Underwood: Yes.

McCuddy: And the rap hits everyone, from Sidney Poitier as Mr. Tibbs, all the way up to Denzel.

Underwood: Stepinfetchit. Yeah, and beyond. I really thought what D-Knowledge came up with was very brilliant because it just encompassed the history of actors in Hollywood, black actors in Hollywood.

McCuddy: I have to add myself to the list of people who I suppose have asked you what it's like to kiss Julia Roberts.

Underwood: (Laughs) No, it's alright. It's alright.

McCuddy: Was that ad-libbed?

Underwood: The kiss?

McCuddy: Yeah.

Underwood: No, it was in the script. But the irony is we did the scene, we did the kiss, but in the final film, you saw it, you really don't -- it's hard to see. Because of Soderbergh's style of shooting, he doesn't really direct you a lot. He doesn't want to. He wants to let you just find it. So we know the kiss is coming up and she says, 'Well how do you want to do this?' And I said, 'I don't know, how do you want to do it?' And, my character is kind of driving the scene, I want her to come back to New York with me. And Julia said, 'Why don't you just take my face and just do it.' So I do, but, not thinking, the camera is behind me, I grab her and we do the 'scene.' But my shoulder kind of blocks it. And because of the style of the film we're running and gunning, so it's like 'OK, we got that shot, let's go on to the next thing.' And not until I saw it I said, 'You know what? We missed it. I missed it.'

McCuddy: No, you didn't miss it. We missed it.

Underwood: (Laughing and clapping his hands) That's true!

McCuddy: You were there.

Underwood: (Laughing) That's true.

McCuddy: You got the kiss. The rest of us had to go 'Hey.'

Underwood: (Imitating me) 'Where is it!?'

McCuddy: What's he doing there?

Underwood: Which makes it kind of better actually.

McCuddy: And Danny Moder, her husband-to-be, is running the camera?

Underwood: (Smiles) Danny is running it.

McCuddy: And you know he's thinking, 'Cut! Cut!'

Underwood: Well, he was so funny because it was a long dolly shot, dollying into us, and he's on the dolly trying to change the focus as we get closer. And he said, 'Thank god it was a long shot because I didn't see anything, I was trying to deal with the focus.'

McCuddy: Yeah, I'll bet.

Underwood: (Laughs) Yeah right.

McCuddy: And of course you work your shoulder in there so that you'll have to do take after take after take. And they go 'Cut. OK we got it.'

Underwood: Oh, man. No! (Laughs)

'Full Frontal' opens in limited release on August 2nd, wider in the weeks that follow.