Why Jessica Alba & Gabrielle Union Didn't Break The Bad Boys Universe By "Adding Vaginas" With L.A.'s Finest
Remember the Bad Boys franchise? It’s a lot of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence cracking jokes while catching the bad guys? Well, that testosterone-infused world is about to change with the debut of Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Unions’ new show, L.A.’s Finest, premiering Monday, May 13.
The Spectrum cable-only cop drama leaves the sunny beaches of Miami behind for the sunny freeways of — you guessed it — Los Angeles. And L.A.’s Finest trades in all of that dude banter in for a pair of women of color in the limelight. Union stars as Syd Burnett, holdover from 2003’s Bad Boys II, sister to Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett, newbie L.A. detective, and loose canon. Alba plays her supposedly straight-laced veteran partner, Nancy McKenna. Syd and Nancy are both sexy, intense, and relentless. Their portrayers also happen to be executive producers on the project.
Ahead of the premiere, Alba and Union spoke to Refinery29 about how much executive producing a series like L.A.’s Finest really changes the experience. The short answer? A lot. The long answer? Keep reading to find out. Especially since it involves a stepmom image rehabilitation program, cool teens, and the reminder that vaginas never take away from any story.
Refinery29: What did you enjoy most about adapting such a “masculine” franchise with two women of color now at the center?
Gabrielle Union: “It’s such a successful franchise for two men of color. We know it works. I didn’t think anything would be taken away by adding vaginas. It works. Luckily, [Bad Boys executive producer] Jerry Bruckheimer, [production house] Sony, and Spectrum were like, ‘Yeah! This is awesome. Let’s do it. And we’re going to finance it. We’re actually going to give you dope budgets so we can make sure it looks like it’s in the Bad Boys universe.
“The same way witty cop banter works for dudes, women appreciate it as well. Just like Marcus (Lawrence) is more of the family guy, and Mike Lowrey (Smith) is more of the single dude, is a bit of a ladies’ man. I think it's dope Syd is a ladies and a dude’s man. She’s sexually fluid, and we show that.”
And how did you expand the mom role, which tends to have pretty strict (and sometimes stereotypical) parameters?
Jessica Alba: “Like Gab says, I think you’re used to seeing The Mom as the perfect mom who does everything. She’s kind of frazzled trying to balance it all. But Nancy is a badass cop, and she’s trying her best to be present for this kid. This relationship may mean more to Nancy than it means to the kid. That’s just something you haven’t seen before. She’s not the best parent because she’s never freakin’ done it before, and she’s figuring it out. But that’s life.”
Union: “As a stepmom in real life it was important to me to show...I want to rewrite what it is to be a stepmom because there’s a lot of good ones out there and a lot of people who have blended families and can co-parent effectively and with reason and logic and empathy and sympathy. You figure it out.”
You can’t really fail when no one really believes you can do it.
Why did you want to tell this story in the first place?
Union: “There haven’t been a ton of two female-lead cop shows. There haven’t been a ton of two female lead shows period. And there really haven’t been very few two female lead of color shows. There’s a huge space for more.
“The reason I wanted to tell this story specifically with Jessica Alba is that I wanted to partner up with a boss woman who has a huge, full life, who could bring all of that in front of and behind the camera and be a real partner. Let’s kick ass together and take names and make history.”
Alba: “I mean we do still have to do stuff in the world. You know, we’re not dead yet … I love to move into uncharted territory. You can’t really fail when no one really believes you can do it. There’s no bar you’re being held to. You have the freedom to dream and create.
“For me, being able to do that with Gab was awesome. We got to be funny. We got to be sexy. We got to be feminine. We got to be hardcore. We got to be emotional. We got to be angry. It’s so many things women are in real life that you usually don’t really see in entertainment. Since you're often having to be filled through a certain type of man’s perspective. So we brought the weight of our life and our life experiences and we blended that with the life experiences of our co-creators and made a show we’re proud of.”
Why was it so important to not only be the stars of this show, but also the executive producers? And therefore the decision-makers?
Union: “If you don’t have the power to influence the experience in front of and behind the camera, you’re probably not going to get the experience you’re hoping for. So coming on as an executive producer, wanting Jessica to be a part of the show, she had to be an executive producer so we together can create the show we always dreamed of having. That we knew Hollywood was capable of doing if nudged. Sometimes it’s a foot in the back, you know. Strongly encouraged. We get on it.”
What kinds of changes did you bring to your dream set?
Union: “Having a family-friendly, efficient set that welcomed active parents. That doesn’t waste time. That makes an amazing show and has an inclusive environment where everyone’s celebrated. We strongly encourage super productive days so people can get home to their families in a timely fashion and be happy, functioning parts of the rest of their lives. Whereas a lot of shows feel like, ‘I pay you to sit and I pay you to do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it.’ We don’t approach filmmaking in that way. There’s a better, happier, more productive way of filmmaking and we found it.’
Alba: “Also anytime there was anyway we could turn a stereotype on its head, we actively tried to do that. And there’s always opportunity for that when you’re taking these kinds of stories. So Gab and I really would bang our heads together and make sure we weren’t falling into the comfort zone of what you typically see.’
There’s a better, happier, more productive way of filmmaking and we found it.
Are there any way you can tease how that attitude shows up in L.A.’s Finest?
Alba: “Hollywood maybe puts women in a box where you can only have one who’s strong and opinionated. The other one has to be passive and meek. The other one has to be a stick in the mud. That just isn’t the case here.”
Union: “Or there can only be a good, perfect, amazing mom or a bad, neglectful mom. And there’s nothing in between. We were like, Uh, no. There are all kinds of caregivers. Jessica’s caregiver is ‘The Mom,’ but she’s a new stepmom. She’s trying to figure out what that lane is and looks like to a teenage kid who had a mom. How do you maintain a healthy relationship with dad and also be a happy reasonably consistent adult female figure for a teenager? Teens aren’t as easy. Even our teenager [played by Youth & Consequences’s Sophie Reynolds] isn’t a typical annoying teen trope. “
Alba: “She’s smart.”
Union: “We try to make her different.”
And there’s a certain twist with one of the leads having their own very complicated backstory. Why was that so important?
Alba: “I think it’s just that you don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s like the very stereotypical judgement that people have, and it’s really fun when people think that they know something and then it gets flipped on their head because they didn’t know anything. Now what?”
Since the beginning of your careers, do you think “likable” has stopped being such an obsession for women characters?
Union: “I haven’t been on network television on a very long time. In cable and streaming, it’s not a note that I have gotten in a very long time. Back when I was on network TV — yes. If you were a person of color, if they were trying to create a certain kind of woman, that word had to be used over and over and over and over again. Because the alternative was you were going to be the sassy, asexual, Confucius-Yoda friend. So you might want to lean into the likable because they tend to write more for the likable one. The sassy Yoda friend is the first one who is going to die when the monster comes.”
Alba: “I think the standards of what's likable has shifted and changed as more women are consuming content and viewing things. Where someone may be looked at as ‘unlikable’ by a certain male person of a certain age, there are probably many more millennials and Gen-Zers who believe it’s okay to be flawed, it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to see someone angry and hurt and freak out. Because it’s more important to connect to the human than someone who’s like a plastic perfect person.
The likable women don’t even make it onto Real Housewives.
Union: “It’s like bor-ing. Great you’re philanthropic, and your husband likes you, and your kids like you?”
Union and Alba: “Next.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.