Jasmine Guy: All That Jasmine

Different World star's minister father blasts her love scene with Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights screeched the headline on the latest National Enquirer at the supermarket.

How interesting. I was scheduled to have dinner with the very actress celebrated on this notorious front page, Jasmine Guy. And that Enquirer piece was only one of three stories in the same weekend about this Hollywood girl-of-the-moment. She was also being written about as Eddie Murphy's romantic interest in that actor-director-writer-producer's latest critically savaged moneymaker Harlem Nights. And, she had just won the NAACP's Image Award for her TV series "A Different World."

So, two days later, as I head over to Patina on Melrose, I wonder how Jasmine is handling all this publicity.

The answer comes quickly when she enters the bar at Patina to greet me. Heads turn, partly because people in this business love the sight of a celebrity on a roll, and partly because this one's all long legs in a very short black mini. Jasmine strides across the room with total confidence, basking in the attention.

"What a weekend!" she says with a smile, taking it for granted that I know she's been in the news. The owner leads us to a prominent table in the front room, where Jasmine is sure to be seen by everyone else. Putting aside the industry talk for the time being, we concentrate on dinner. I tell Jasmine I've heard she's a hardcore vegetarian and the kitchen here, run by the great chef Joachim Splichal, should have some inspired choices.

"Where did you hear I'm a vegetarian?" she asks. "I used to be, but then last year I smelled bacon cooking and that was that. It was over right then. Not that I was ever a true vegetarian anyway--I could never give up chicken."

Hovering nearby are waiters as solicitous as the animated penguin-waiters in Mary Poppins, and just as nattily dressed. Their pinstripe shirts, ties, and tailored slacks give Patina a Wall Street air that's perfect for today's coolly corporate Hollywood style. Patina's rooms are all soft grays and creams, creating a far different mood than the apricot-hued walls of the previous restaurant that was on this site, Le St. Germain. It was a movie crowd watering hole, too good a restaurant to last in a town devoted to fleeting pleasures. Its fate was sealed when the misguided owners opened a take-out kitchen across town called Le St. Germain To Go, a move that destroyed their elegant, classy image.

Scanning Patina's menu, Jasmine jokes, "Saltimbocca of John Dory? What happened, he didn't pay his bill?"

Jasmine has a certain directness to her, I find, as we order dinner and I ask about her recent trip to Europe. "In Amsterdam, a friend and I thought it would be, I don't know, fun to go to this exhibition of torture devices we saw a poster for. It was in a big, dark warehouse and the only things lit were the torture instruments and their explanations. It haunts me still." There's no doubt Jasmine has come a long way from her beginnings as a Southern Baptist minister's daughter. "I guess I had always thought a chastity belt was made out of leather, but it's iron with these clamps, and the women wore them for years until their men came back. Then, at the end of this place, was a coffee shop! It would seem like a pretty interesting place to meet pick-ups, don't you think? We got out of there fast." Jasmine is one skilled and--needless to say--uninhibited storyteller.

Over the first course (potato lasagna with wild mushrooms-- perhaps the best thing I've ever tasted), I ask her how she made the unlikely leap from teenaged Alvin Ailey dancer and Fame extra, to star of one of the biggest hit shows on TV, and co-star of Eddie Murphy's newest. "Sometimes I wonder, are all successful people ambitious? I guess they have to be," Jasmine says. "Still, ambition isn't synonymous with being a bitch, though some people like to think that they are the same and act accordingly." I tell her what Bette Davis said just before she died: "Drive and ambition are what set me apart, not just talent. Talent isn't enough: I know lots of talented people who never made it."

"Well," says Jasmine, between bites of crab gnocchi with chanterelles, "I have so many talented friends sometimes I get a real case of the guilts. I can't help thinking, why me?

"I've been lucky to have a role model like Debbie Allen. For a black woman to have done all that she's done, it gives me hope. A lot of times that's all you need. Dancers are trained to be good soldiers, and if you speak up you're fired. So it's very hard for me to say I want something better, but Debbie is always encouraging me. I'm learning.

"My parents raised me to make my own choices. I've heard about the stigmas that people have from being a preacher's kid, but it didn't happen to me. I was allowed to leave home at 16 to go to New York and become a dancer for Alvin."

I ask how she feels about the Enquirer's story on her father's supposed reaction to seeing her love scene with Murphy in Harlem Nights.

"I really wish people wouldn't read the Enquirer," she sighs. "I'd never do anything to embarrass my family. I know that in my career I'll probably do a more explicit love scene than that one with Eddie. But I'll check with my parents first. One life does affect other lives.

"I was nervous shooting that love scene," Jasmine admits. "It was established that there'd be no nudity before I accepted the role, but it was weird kissing somebody in front of all those people. I've never kissed anybody I didn't know. I wanted to grab Eddie in the bathroom and say, 'How many kids in your family, who was your girlfriend in high school, did you like her?' I wanted this quick personal course on Eddie just to get to know him."

I suggest that some people--okay, including me--objected to that love scene ending with Murphy's premeditated murder of her character. Jasmine looks like she didn't need to hear this.

"I don't see Harlem Nights as advocating violence; it's not a documentary. Lethal Weapon 2 was much more violent. Why did Harlem Nights get so much criticism for violence, and that didn't? It's racism," she declares.

"There's racism everywhere. Everyone asks me, 'You've been directed by both Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy, how do they compare?' Beyond the fact that they're both black, I don't have anything to say." But she can't help adding, "Isn't it evident that they're both really different men with really different goals and ideas? Would people ask me this if I'd been directed by both Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg?"

Jasmine's tirade is interrupted by the arrival of the entree. "I love eating out," she says, smiling down at her plate of seared white-fish with red onion marmalade and basil. "When I get home from work I don't feel like cooking, so it's become my habit to eat out a lot. I know it's pampered, but I figure since I'm single and making some money, I'll eat out when I want to." We try each other's dinners. "That's delicious," Jasmine says about the peppered wild duck with dates, turnips, and shallots.

Across the room, a table of industry types are checking Jasmine out. I ask if she gets recognized much. "When I go to a mall or movie, sometimes I have to duck my head and hide. If I'm around a lot of young black people, I get approached more. A lot of times, people don't come up, though," she says with a discreet nod toward the strangers giving her their cool appraisal. "They just stare and wait for you to blow your nose.

"I can see how people lose it here," she says about LA. "You're surrounded all the time by people who tell you how wonderful you are, all the time. There's no constructive criticism. You get caught up in being a celebrity instead of being an actor. So many of the people at the height of their popularity seem unaware that the days at the top are going to come to an end. It helps if you come from the theatre originally, because then you know that everything closes."

Still, for all the drawbacks to life at the top, being a current household name must have its advantages in getting deals cut, like the one that resulted in the record she has coming out this month. And Jasmine acknowledges that in fact she's hoping this album will make Hollywood aware that she's qualified for dramatic musical roles. "Like the lead in Dreamgirls" I ask, and she smiles. "It's a great story," she says. "I did Diana Ross onstage in Beehive, so..."

Not to mention the fact that she's already worked for proposed Dreamgirls director Spike Lee, I add. "When I worked with Spike I was in that musical number in School Daze, so he knows I can do it. It's a great part."

As we leave the restaurant and wait for our cars, I ask whether her record album has been timed to help her land Dreamgirls. "No, it was just time. In trying to get the record deal," Jasmine says, "I don't know how helpful my TV fame was, because although they knew who I was, they were openly skeptical: 'Here's another actress who wants to sing.'

"I wanted to scream, 'I was paying the rent singing for five years before I became Whitley on TV,' but you can't tell them that." She climbs into her black car, and winds down the window to say farewell. "I mean, unlike Bruce Willis or Don Johnson, I do know what I'm doing."


Edward Margulies is the Senior Editor of Movieline.