Peeking out from under a black Kangol, Gabrielle Union hardly seems like the heir apparent to Halle Berry: She's dressed simply in jeans and a black tee, and her angelic, dimpled face is so completely makeup-free, she has to bum lip gloss. When a reporter sputtering apologies arrives half an hour late for their breakfast interview at an L.A. eatery, the actress nods vigorously and sympathizes about the twisty drive up Coldwater Canyon.
A diva she's not. But in a burgeoning buppie cinematic universe where affluent, upwardly mobile African Americans search for love, Union, 29, is arguably the crown princess, whether she's pinning down Morris Chestnut's commitmentphobe in 2001's ''The Brothers'' or trying to steal Vivica A. Fox's man in 2001's ''Two Can Play That Game.'' Just off costarring in ''Cradle 2 the Grave,'' which opened at No. 1 in early March, she's poised for her most high-profile role to date, as Will Smith's love interest in ''Bad Boys II.'' Predicts director-writer Gary Hardwick, who worked with Union on ''The Brothers'' and ''Deliver Us From Eva'': ''She'll become our next black female A-list star.''
You'd never know it, watching her scarf down a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, ham, fruit, and a mug of chamomile tea. ''I'm from Omaha,'' she says in a throaty drawl. ''I like meat and carbohydrates.'' Come again? A Hollywood actress not on the Zone? It gets better: She likes to serve houseguests '80s relic Capri Sun. (Yes, the fruity drink still exists.) ''They have bigger pouches now, because you can never get enough, really.'' How about a couple more gems? She prefers Target to Tocca and enjoys ''long, drunken lunches'' with fellow actors at, of all places, the Cheesecake Factory.
It's exactly that Midwestern-girl-next-door sensibility that sets her apart from the fleet of glamour-puss starlets that regularly dock on Tinseltown shores. Maybe that's because she had no intention of becoming an actress. In 1994, Union, then a senior at UCLA, was juggling an internship at a modeling agency and law-school applications. But once her internship ended -- and casting directors kept mistaking the willowy beauty for a model -- her boss sent her on a few auditions. She got the first job she tried out for, a guest spot on ''Saved by the Bell: The New Class.'' She then made appearances on shows like ''Moesha,'' ''7th Heaven,'' and ''Sister, Sister'' before getting her big-screen break as Kirsten Dunst's cheerleading nemesis in 2000's ''Bring It On,'' perhaps the sharpest of the glut of turn-of-the-century teen films.
Not bad for someone whose aspirations were more basketball court than homecoming court. Union says sports -- and her father's sideline coaching -- helped her develop a thick enough skin to handle Hollywood politics. ''[My father] said, 'You are the only black person in your whole class. You're gonna have to prove to them every day that you're just as smart, if not smarter. Just as good, if not better. Just as fast, if not faster,''' she says. ''So not only am I trying to beat all my classmates, I'm trying to prove to my dad that I'm living up to his expectations.''