Nearly 30 years ago, audiences fell in love with “Vanessa,” the middle daughter of TV’s iconic The Cosby Show family –NBC Thursday nights– must viewing among millions of households from all walks of life. Today, Tempestt Bledsoe aka Vanessa, has returned to the weekly sitcom format in a role far from the one she etched in the canons of television lore.
From Emmy®-winner and executive producer Jimmy Fallon comes GUYS WITH KIDS, an absurdly funny new comedy about three thirty-something dads trying to hold on to their youth, while holding onto their new babies’ hands. Hilarious new dads: Chris (Jesse Bradford), Nick (Zach Cregger) and Gary (Anthony Anderson) have each other to help navigate their survival while still trying desperately to remain dudes. Balancing work or staying at home, painfully married or happily divorced, they know that taking care of the little ones while maintaining a social life is a daily challenge. The guys are on a roller-coaster parenting adventure, the likes of which we have never seen before.
Someone once said it is much easier to become a father than to be one. These three guys are about to find out just how true that is.
I spoke with Bledsoe about her new role as “Marny,” working wife of Gary and mother to their precocious children, along with her place in television history.
Our conversation follows—
Sandra Varner (Talk2SV): Welcome back to primetime, weekly TV. Tell me more about your new NBC show, now on Wednesday nights.
Tempest Bledsoe: Guys with Kids on NBC! The reception [from viewers] has been really great. The show is a return to a traditional multi-camera sitcom. It’s a really positive show, very family oriented. We’re exploring parenting from a different side– one that you don’t always get to see– what fathers are dealing with bringing up their infants and their young children, trying to negotiate their work lives and their marriages. And, still trying to find time to be guys, whatever that means. We’re having a good time.
Talk2SV: Does this show remind you, in any way, of The Cosby Show?
Bledsoe: It’s different in that I don’t get sent off to school when all the fun stuff happens on set. Just being older now because I’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s kind of come full circle for me, this time around playing a mom and a wife. Coming back to NBC as a grown adult has been great and I think that people are going to enjoy what they see on the show. People always have me frozen in their minds at a very young age and you can’t fight that; that’s just how people view you. I’ve been very blessed to be associated with The Cosby Show my whole life. So I think people are very receptive and open. When they see me, to say, oh what’s she doing now? What are we going to see her do? I’ve played a lot of different characters since the show but this is probably the first time they are really going to see me, weekly, as a mom and as a wife. The stuff I get to do with Anthony is hilarious, I think people are going to have a really good time with this show.
Talk2SV: Speaking of your onscreen television legacy, is it one that you are conscious of as you continue to work in this business?
Bledsoe: I wouldn’t use the word legacy necessarily. I know what you mean but when I think legacy, it’s a little grand. I think of it in terms of how I was brought up and the example that was put in front of us as young people with my parents, my mom and her influence. I think of it in terms of working with Dr. Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, seeing how they conducted themselves and the choices that they made in their careers, that’s what I think of. I think of them when you say legacy. But I do understand that the body of work that you put together is representative of who you are and your choices. A lot of actors don’t necessarily feel that way but I do because I was brought up around people who feel the same way. I’ve always consciously thought about how this reflects on me, what statement I’m making as an actor and as a person, especially as a person of color, choosing these particular roles to do.
As an actor you want to work so you are always pulled in two directions because there aren’t always a lot of opportunities for women of color and so you’re pulled between wanting to work and wanting to do your craft, not wanting to be in projects that you feel aren’t representative of your viewpoint or of what image you want to put out there. One can say, separate me from the work but, the audience doesn’t always do that. So you are torn and it can be difficult, at times, to walk that line but I’ve done the best I could to do. I feel that this show, this role is something that is long overdue. A return to network television to see a loving family, a loving couple raising their kids, parenting them well, struggling to maintain their identity as a couple. I mean, those are very relevant issues that the audience can relate to whether they have children or not; I think people are going to enjoy watching what we’re doing. So yes, to answer your question, I do think of it, legacy; it can be difficult at times but I do the best I can with that.
Talk2SV: By comparison, “Vanessa” was raised in an upper middle class family, a child of privilege as it were, raised in a dual income family with successful parents and so forth. “Marny” is a working class wife and mother living on one income to support the family. and in this show you are working class family.
Talk2SV: Where does Marny work, what does she do?
Bledsoe: I don’t know what I do (laughter). Don’t feel bad, that’s the magic of television; it can answer questions as they have to be answered. The only thing we know about Marny –right now– is they (her family) do very well. I mean, Gary, Anthony’s character used to sell commercial real estate; we found that out before he made the decision to stay at home and be the 24/7 dad. He was quite successful at it. At the moment, I believe I work as a management consultant or something like that. Marny wears professional attire and had a briefcase in an episode so we know that she’s off doing something professional. She has mentioned that she manages 150 people so I assume I’m doing something managerial. Eventually they are going to have to figure it out or they may not. It may always be a mystery, again the magic of television. I could be like the show with the neighbor behind the fence (The 1990s Home Improvement on ABC); you never saw what he looked like. I mean it’s possible. But you were saying as far as Vanessa being a child of privilege, I mean, I think I’ve played a lot of different roles. I’ve played convicts, I’ve played teachers, I’ve played a woman who had to rely on healthcare at a clinic because welfare isn’t paying enough along with the challenge of trying to figure out how they are going to eat each day. I’ve done a gamut of stuff.
Talk2SV: Yes, you are creating a portfolio; it’s just that your entre to the business was so strong, so memorable. As you alluded to, you were blessed; it doesn’t always happen that way. Usually, actors stumble into that great role, well into their career. There is plenty of trial and error before the big break or defining role appears. Speaking of roles, gifting or looks that set one apart, I appreciate the way you style your hair, naturally. You have gorgeous hair.
Bledsoe: Thank you.
Talk2SV: Has there ever been thought to do otherwise?
Bledsoe: I personally made the choice to wear my hair naturally, oh goodness, maybe 12-14 years ago. I’m terrible with time. It was a long time ago; I cut the relaxer off and dyed it blonde for a short period of time then, grew out of that look and just embraced my natural texture. But it was a long time ago. It’s a personal choice for me; some people say ‘they are not their hair’. I’m very much ‘my hair’. It is representative of my viewpoint; I’m very passionate about the topic of natural hair. But I certainly have played characters without it; I’ll throw on a wig in a minute for a character or if I’m doing a certain type role. I’m in the world of environment or what have you. I’m open to different choices and if I’m playing a character that may make a different choice; I think it definitely says something– especially in our community– about what your choice is as far as your hair is concerned. I am open to do all kinds of on camera looks but, for me, the natural look is my personal choice and it wasn’t even a concern or an issue with this particular role. When I walked in the door, that’s how my hair was and everybody was like, “Oh, my God, we love you so much just the way you are.”
Talk2SV: I think the acceptance of “your hair” speaks to just how we’ve evolved as a society particularly when you look at your acting history; you’ve worked with two late, great icons, Andy Williams and Dick Clark and, I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have embraced your look. But you’re working with Jimmy Fallon, a cultural darling. Speak to him in the lexicon of other producers, show executives that you’ve worked with.
Bledsoe: I think he is an amazing talent and extremely genuine. He is one of the most grounded, authentic people I’ve ever met as far as decisions go. It’s very difficult to maintain any kind of “feet on the ground” reality because of the business we’re in. When I first met him, I mean, he is so sweet, so nice and just such a fan of what we do as actors. He is so excited about this show and us (the cast) delivering the vision that he originally had for a traditional, multi-camera sitcom, a return to shows that he watched growing up. He is really amazing and very genuine, strikingly so.
Talk2SV: Were you surprised to find out who he (Fallon) was on this side of the camera?
Bledsoe: I wasn’t necessarily surprised but you hope for the best when you meet anybody in this business. He is just so warm and so gregarious about his love of life and the craft of what he does, humor and the actors: he’s such a fan. He roots for all of us (the cast) to do well. He’s really one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in this business, or period for that matter, just a great guy.
Talk2SV: And speaking of your present on screen sweetie, Anthony Anderson, did you have a professional relationship beforehand or did you have to do anything artistically to stoke the chemistry between the characters as husband and wife?
Bledsoe: No, I’ve known Anthony for a while, but just in a passing sort of way. It’s a very small community in Los Angeles so, of course, we’ve crossed paths and said ‘hi’ or what have you. We’ve known other people in common but we’ve never worked together. I wouldn’t say that we were tight or really good friends before the show, but friends, certainly. No special prep was needed for our roles, we just clicked on camera. You can try to manufacture that on screen chemistry and often you ‘have to’ as an actor. We don’t have to, the chemistry was just there from the moment we started doing the lines together. And that’s great for us.