Michael Ealy’s latest film, Unconditional, marks a milestone for the 39-year-old actor. The first time his grandfather, a Baptist minister, has ever gone to see one of Ealy’s films in theaters.
“I would talk to him frequently about the role while I was shooting in Nashville,” says Ealy, who was raised Southern Baptist, “so he was excited to see this film.”
The inspirational film is a shift for the actor whose square jaw and piercing blue eyes make him a natural for romantic leads, such as with last spring’s romantic hit, Think Like a Man.
“This is the kind of movie that matters,” says Ealy. “It goes beyond entertainment and will hopefully be tangible to a vast audience.”
Based on a true story, the film centers around a woman on a downward, suicidal spiral after her husband is killed in a senseless act of violence. A chance encounter with an old friend, “Papa Joe” Bradford—played by Ealy, begins her journey back toward God’s unconditional love.
The real life Bradford established Elijah’s Heart in Nashville, a non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of underprivileged, at-risk children, despite financial challenges.
Ealy hopes the film will inspire people who become more involved in helping children.
“One of the things I find so special about what Joe does is that it’s not about how much money he makes,” says the Baltimore native. “It’s the time he spends day in and day out with the kids. It’s great if you give money. It’s great if you donate, but what’s really impactful and helpful is the time you spend. That’s how you can make a real difference.”
Ealy donates what time he can, visiting high schools to inspire and encourage the teenagers who look up to him. But the University of Maryland graduate tells the students to look elsewhere for a role model.
“I’m the first to say ‘Don’t look up to me. Look up to your teachers because they are there every single day,” says Ealy. “You’re contact to me is through a screen or when I come and visit but they’re here every day. Your parents are here every day. That’s who your role models should be.”
Perhaps it is close relationship with his own family that gives him that outlook.
“Who you hang with is a reflection of who you are,” says Ealy, who calls his parents, sister and close friends—who are more like brothers—his saving grace.
The church he grew up in was his second family.
“You have friends there that you see every Sunday and the women at church would always feed me,” says Ealy. “My family moved away shortly after I graduated high school and the church threw a big going away party for us. I had never seen that before
With a laugh Ealy describes his childhood church as an “it takes a village” type of congregation “because if I got in trouble it got back to mom and dad.”
He thought so highly of his church that when his church split after he left for college, it came as an unbelievable shock.
“I’ll never forget that feeling,” says the 2012 Teen Choice and 2011 NAACP Image Awards nominee. “My parents have been together for 44 years but when my church split that was the first time I felt what divorce was like. I couldn’t believe it. Like, this group is going this way. This group is going with the pastor that way. How could this happen?”
Though it was rough, his faith was already engrained in him and remains with him to this day.
In fact, the star of the USA Network series Common Law says that Unconditional came to him by the grace of God.
“The script sent to a particular agency at my agency and he said maybe Michael would like this,” Ealy explains. “He gave it to my manager who read it and said, ‘I think you need to read this.’ He knows me. He knows my taste.”
He told him that Joe Bradford was a strong role and Ealy agreed.
“For me it had a lot to do with the nobility of Joe,” Ealy says. “If I can rush to go play a bank robber in a movie like Takers, then I need to rush to go play a man of nobility and quality, like Joe.”
Though the film didn’t do as well as hoped in the box office, it did garner rave reviews from audiences who—on Rotten Tomatoes—gave Unconditional a whooping 92% positive response. Garnering a 71% positive response from critics, the film seems to have touched viewers with its inspiring message.
“I’ve always looked for films and roles with impact,” says Ealy who rose into the spotlight through films such as Barbarshop and Oprah Winfrey’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the television crime-drama Sleeper Cell.
Interestingly, acting was not the first career choice for Ealy who’d set his sights on becoming an architect until he saw that the curriculum included a great deal of math and science.
“I was struggling with Trig and physics and there was plenty of that,” he explains. “What I enjoyed about architecture was the creative aspect, which was drafting. I was good at drawing. But when we started doing beam analysis and trust analysis, I had to re-evaluate my plan.”
Though he graduated with a degree in English, for a time he says he was lost.
“My grades were terrible and I was definitely not living right,” says the actor who appeared in a number of off-Broadway productions before transitioning to the screen. “It was the summer of ’93. I was 19 and two of my best friends were making a movie. I auditioned for it and found my passion.”
He hasn’t totally given up on architecture, at least in some small form.
“I have a house, which has been somewhat of a project, a work in progress,” Ealy confessed. “It’s been a project of mine for many, many years, and it still is. When I’m not working I’m at Lowes or Home Depot even if I’m just trying to figure out where things go.
“I’m like hey, Jesus was a carpenter. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Fortunately for Ealy, acting doesn’t require too much math.
In his ten years since breaking into Hollywood, films to his credit include Underworld: Awakening, Takers, For Colored Girls, Miracle At St. Anna, and Seven Pounds. He’s also stared such heavy TV dramas as The Good Wife and Flash Forward.
Though he’s also taken on his fair share of comedy, such as his role in Californication, he calls drama his “wheel well.”
“The deeper, the more real we go the better,” says Ealy. “In Sleeper Cell, we went to places of sheer depth and I love the fact that Showtime was willing to go there. The more real you can make it, the audience sees that and not only appreciate it but respect it.”
The opportunity to showcase range in his body of work is also important to Ealy who stole hearts as the love interest in Beyoncé’s music video for the 2009 hit “Halo.”
His next project, a remake of the 1986 box office hit, About Last Night, which stared Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, will take him in yet another direction.
“Whereby I am righteous and noble in Unconditional, in this movie I am a heathen,” Ealy laughs. “I’m playing Rob Lowe’s part—a guy who is just trying to figure out this life, can’t quite get it together and doesn’t know what he has until it’s gone, which is a mistake many men make.”
The movie—tentatively slated for release next year—will also star Regina Hall and Kevin Hart.
“I don’t want to do the same thing every time,” says Ealy. “And the range—to go from Colored Girls to Takers to Miracle at St. Anna’s to Unconditional—the diversity is something I’m proud of.”