When Will Packer calls, Michael Ealy listens. At this point, they’re two for two, and with any luck their latest project, About Last Night (opening Valentine’s Day), will see the producer-actor duo earning their third straight No. 1 at the box office.

“I think there are some people I know who sometimes take issue with the same actors working with the same producers,” Ealy begins. “And what I find interesting about that is, nobody gets mad at Matt Damon and George Clooney for doing 17 movies together. I’ve done three movies with Tim Story, the third one being Think Like a Man Too, which will open at number one—let’s just claim it!—and if that happens, that would be three movies number one opening weekend and the second weekend. Why break that?

“It doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to let other people in and let other people eat,” he continues, on a roll. “That’s gonna happen naturally, it just will. But I find that it’s funny that people bring that up, because at the end of the day, it happens in Hollywood, period. It’s not like it’s an African-American producer-actor thing. It’s just that people like to work with who they feel comfortable with on that day, and I respect that.”

And About Last Night pushes the envelope of adult Black people in a sexy, romantic way; one that Ealy says he hasn’t seen in a long time.

“I found that when I read this particular script, what I liked was it was done by people that I knew and trusted and at the same time,” Ealy says. “We took the relationship a little bit further. This was the first movie since Love Jones that I feel got the rise and fall of the relationship right.”

Newly-married Ealy takes on his first leading man role in this film, which romantically pairs him with Joy Bryant. Kevin Hart stars as Ealy’s BFF, and Regina Hall plays Hart’s love interest. About Last Night is a remake of the 1980s pic of the same name starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins. Both films are adaptations of a 1974 David Mamet play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

“I think at the end of the day, an actor’s job is to approach a role with an open mind,” says Ealy. “This was based on a play that takes place in Chicago. It enabled me to say, ‘Well okay, I can bring my own light into this. What is Danny like when I do him?’ You know, that’s what I want. ‘What is Bernie like when Kev does it?’ Those were the exciting factors for me.”

Ealy and Regina Hall—who have been traveling the country on a coast-to-coast promotional tour—are hoping that this also continues a trend of Black films making a smattering at the box office. The narrative in Hollywood right now is that (shock!) Black people go see movies starring people who look like them.

“I feel like there was a bit of a lull between 2000 and like 2007,” Ealy opines. “Everybody remembers the heyday. That renaissance filmmaking. The Matty Rich and John Singletons. There was plenty of film for our people to imbibe. I feel like this is kind of a second wave and a new renaissance of Black film.

“I’ll even go so far as to take credit, that I feel that Think Like a Man kind of spawned it,” he boldly proclaims. “I feel like there were a slew of films green-lit within a month after Think Like a Man opened so strong and kind of shocked the world. The imagery was something that intelligent, educated people could identify with.”

And that’s what Ealy hopes happens next, as this new wave of Black film success continues to roll along: more positive, diverse images of Black people.

Ealy says, “I feel that the images that we put out are crucial, I just do. People in my business in my position say, ‘I don’t want to be a role model.’ You can’t say that anymore. As much as you don’t want to be, you are. So you have to kind of acknowledge that to a certain extent.

“There’s gonna be roles that are tougher,” he says. “Like for me, Beau Willy in Colored Girls. There are people that took issue with that. But my approach to that was a soldier who suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder, and that’s an image that nobody wants to really see. I just feel like it’s always important to play someone who is impactful. And in the movies that I’ve chosen, the television roles, I’ve been blessed to do that.”

In an open, talkative mood, Michael Ealy reflects back to his first entrance into cinema.

“I started out as a thug in Barbershop,” he remembers. “Before that, when I was in New York, I had gotten so tired of auditioning for Law & Order to play the Black kid who gets outsmarted and beat up in interrogation. I got tired of doing it, so I said I’m not even gonna read for those roles anymore.

“And then when Barbershop came around, Ricky reminded me of Tupac. He was a thug more by environment than he was by his mind. He was a smart cat, and I think that is starting to be able to change the imagery a little bit of a thug. Take this Richard Sherman situation. You’ve got a guy who’s brilliant and smart. And because he raises his voice and is passionate, he’s labeled a thug. And we gotta stop that, we can’t have that. You’ve got to be able to express yourself and not be labeled a thug or wear tattoos and not be labeled a thug.

“So it’s important to recognize all of that,” Ealy continues, “and at the end of the day, we are responsible for the images on that screen. This particular movie, what I loved the most about Danny was, he’s a guy who doesn’t get the relationship thing right. He’s raw. That’s accurate for a lot of guys. It was accurate for me for a while. And he’s also someone who wakes up one day and realizes, ‘I have a job, I don’t have a career.’ You know? And I think those things make him more relatable to certain people.”

So are things getting better? Especially should this new film come in at No. 1 in the box office? Ealy is hopeful. But cautious.

“Listen, in Hollywood, things are not perfect,” he admits. “They just aren’t. And it’s gonna be a little bit longer before they are. But when I think about how far we’ve come, I can’t help but be proud of the people that fought this hard for us to get this far. I can’t be more proud being a part of this movement now, and I think we often forget about the imagery in television as well.

“It is exponentially better in television than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. We have leads in shows. I’m playing a machine on a TV show now [Fox’s Almost Human]. And I’m quite sure, while no one will say it, they did not imagine it going this way. So we’re breaking down barriers, and we’re trying to make it so the younger cats that are coming up won’t have to deal with what we had to deal with when we first started out.”