GROWING UP IN IOWA CITY, NIA Long learned early on how to fend for herself. The only black child in her school, she was 6, she recalls, when "one day this boy pushed me off my bike and called me nigger. It was the first time I knew I was different." Long's mother, Talita, called the police and dragged her only child to face her attacker at his house. "I didn't want Nia to be scared," Talita, 48, explains. When trouble knocked a few months later, Long was ready. "A girl named Carrie hit me, and I punched her in the face," she says. "From that point on we were the best of friends."

Long's scrappiness won't surprise those who see her in love jones, the new romantic comedy in which she plays a feisty aspiring photographer opposite Larenz Tate. It certainly didn't shock Will Smith, whose demure girlfriend Long played on NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for the 1994-95 season. "She can hang with the ghetto-est of folks and swing in the suburbs at a tea party," says Smith, who picked Long for Bel-Air after meeting her on the set of 1993's Made in America. Theodore Witcher, 27, writer-director of love jones, concurs: "The public sees her as the girl next door, but she's much smarter, much sexier." Witcher was so impressed by Long, 26, that he gave her the part in jones without an audition.

Few things have come that easy to the actress. Born in Brooklyn, she moved to the Midwest in 1974 at age 4 with her divorced mother, then a master's degree candidate in printmaking at the University of Iowa. Four years later, Nia was uprooted again when Mom followed a boyfriend to South Central Los Angeles. Again, Long had to prove herself. "Girls would be, 'Such-and-such wants to kick your butt after school,' " says Long, who graduated in '89 from Westchester High.

Not all her friends succeeded. "My first boyfriend was into crack, and some deal went bad, and he got killed," she says. Still, Long managed to carve out a relatively tranquil life. "I knew who to avoid," she says. "It was very normal."

Her mother worked hard to make it so. Despite two master's degrees in fine arts, Talita drove a city bus and sold beer at the L.A. Coliseum to get by while teaching art part-time in local public schools and at the nearby Chino prison. She also encouraged Long to study acting in junior high. But life at home had its own drama. When Long was 16, her mother discovered that Nia's half sister Djamila, her father's child by another woman, was living in L.A. More shocking was the news that Djamila was her schoolmate. "She was in my Spanish class, but we didn't know we were sisters," Long recalls. "From that point on, we were tight."

Years of acting lessons paid off in 1990, when Long, who dropped out of college after two years, landed a role in John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, filmed near her home. "It was realistic because that's where I grew up," she says. "If I had been brought up in Beverly Hills, I wouldn't have known where to go with the role."

Where she went from there was back to New York City for a three-year stint on Guiding Light. The move gave Long a chance to reconnect with her father, poet and high school English teacher Doughtry Long, 55, who now lives in Trenton, N.J. "It was important for me to know who he was as a person," she says. In 1994, Long returned to L.A. to further her budding career, love jones won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Soul Food, a drama in which she costars with Vanessa Williams and Vivica A. Fox, just wrapped. Her love life has been full too. Long, who once dated Washington Bullets star Chris Webber, now commutes between West Hollywood, where she shares a modest apartment with her black chow Onyx, and Miami, where current beau Peter Thomas, 35, owns a restaurant. "We're best friends," says Long. "It makes the love and passion that much better." As for her early years of hard knocks, she is equally clear headed. "I thank God I grew up in an environment where things were real," she says. "It wasn't a movie. It wasn't glamorous. It was my life."

ALEC FOEGE
ELIZABETH LEONARD and ULRICA WIHLBORG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg.