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After 'Friday,' She Longs to Be a 'Bad Girl' : Movies: Actress Nia Long, who grew up in South-Central and stars opposite Ice Cube in a new feature film based there, hopes the 'pretty girlfriend part' will become a thing of the past.

June 04, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't relegate actress Nia Long to the role of rapper gal-pal.

True, she currently stars opposite rapper-actor Ice Cube in the feature "Friday" and opposite rapper-actor Will Smith in the NBC sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

But Long, 24, is adamant that roles like the "pretty girlfriend part," as she calls it, will become a thing of the past.

"It's fun to be the pretty girl and girlfriend and girl next door, but it's time for me to spread my wings and find something to challenge me personally," Long said. "I'd like to be more the force, more the lead, rather than supporting."

Her newest movie, "Friday," takes place in South-Central Los Angeles, where she grew up. She plays the role of Debbie, the "hottest gal in the 'hood."

"Debbie is very smart, very pretty and just wants to get out of the neighborhood and away from everyone there," she explained.

She appears headed down a very different path in her current television role. In the fifth-season finale of "Fresh Prince" last month, her character, Lisa, and Will Smith's character were at the altar when the cliffhanger episode concluded.

"Lisa's probably the most different from me," said Long, who joined the cast this season. "She's college-sophisticated, a daddy's girl, and I didn't see much of my dad growing up."

Long, who began acting on television at age 9 and has appeared in the CBS soap opera "The Guiding Light" and the films "Boyz 'N the Hood" and "Made in America," was born in New York to an artist mother and poet father. Her father selected the name Nia, which comes from the seventh day of the African American holiday Kwanzaa and means "life purpose."

When the actress was 6, her parents split up, and she and her mother headed to Los Angeles.

"I saw my mom struggle as a single parent," Long recalled. "She didn't have the money." Now, she said, "I want her to have anything she wants. But she never wants anything!"

Long still lives with her mother in Los Angeles, although the older woman has been away recently, teaching and pursuing a master's degree in fine arts from Dartmouth. Long and her father "are now friends and talk often on the phone," she said. "You can't be unforgiving."

Perhaps seeking the stability professionally that had been lacking in her family life, Long had signed a three-year contract with "The Guiding Light" when "Boyz" was released in 1991.

"I didn't have any idea the film would be such a huge success," Long said, adding that she wouldn't have made such a long commitment if she had any such inkling. But reflecting on it now, she said, "It probably was the best thing for me." She not only got to act with some regularity, but also got important exposure to everything from directing to lighting to writing.

"The Guiding Light" was not without its disappointments, however.

"I think for my soul to be satisfied, I have to express my art, and a lot of times on the show, I wasn't on for three to four weeks because they weren't focused on an African American story line. And I would suffer for it."

She cites "Boyz" as playing a crucial role in Hollywood's acceptance of black filmmaking.

"I didn't know how mainstream Hollywood would accept it, but with 'Boyz' and with what Spike Lee has put on the table, it's opened a lot of doors."

Although Long believes that black films have come a long way, she said: "We have so much further to go. It's like we're in the infancy stages of African American filmmaking, because we have so many stories to tell, and all of us are not from the 'hood."

Acknowledging her years in South-Central, Long also points out that she has a strong Caribbean background, with relatives throughout Trinidad, Barbados and St. Thomas.

"[But] as far as blacks are concerned in film and television, it's one extreme or another," she said. "You're either so together or you're just in poverty, you know what I'm saying? . . . We're not all doctors and lawyers or gang members."

As for herself, Long said, she wants "to switch reels and play the bad girl and see how the audience reacts. I have such a positive personality on screen, and I'd love to see if my viewers would accept me as bad.

"I'm starting a new chapter. I've done every medium of this business: daytime, prime time, film and some stage. Now I feel I'm really able to make choices and say, 'This is what I want.' You can't come into this business unprepared."

With "Fresh Prince" on hiatus and "Friday" now in theaters, Long said she's keeping busy "reading scripts, going out on auditions."

"I'm in the process of changing a lot of people in my circle and getting that team together to really push me and take my career to the next level," she said, " 'cause I know I'm just one project away."

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