[Janelle Monae] (www.wmagazine.com/gallery/afropunk-2016-see-stunning-tintype-portraits-of-janelle-monae-ceelo-green-earl-sweatshirt-and-more/all), owner of six Grammy nominations and the record label Wondaland, not to mention a fan base that includes President Obama, is turning out to be a wonderful actress as well. At the end of 2016, the 31-year-old Kansas City, Kansas native made her big screen debut with roles in the critically acclaimed films Hidden Figures and Moonlight. The two movies have a combined seven nominations at the upcoming Golden Globes on Sunday, with serious Oscar buzz to boot. In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Monae plays Teresa, the nurturing surrogate mother to a poor African-American boy grappling with his sexual orientation. And in the just released Hidden Figures, based on a true story, she stars as Mary Jackson, the brilliant mathematician who became the first African-American female engineer at NASA. The latter film recently incurred unwanted publicity when [a video of gospel singer Kim Burrell, who sings the movie's soundtrack with Pharrell Williams, showed her giving a sermon at the Houston church she founded, Love and Liberty Fellowship Church International, laced with homophobic rhetoric] (www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-kim-burrell-homosexuality-perverted-20170102-htmlstory.html). Both Williams and [Monae were quick to condemn all hate speech] (www.instagram.com/p/BOtFCavgE7B/?taken-by=janellemonae&hl=en). Here, Monae chats about her activist message, her dramatic background and relinquishing creative control on the film set.
How did Hidden Figures come to you? Were you actively looking for a film role?
I was approached by the director [Theodore Melfi] through my agent. I had just gotten finished doing Moonlight—it was the first film I had done. And maybe a couple of months after that, I got this incredible script. I was moved to tears. I was upset that I had not known about Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vonn or any of the colored "computers" who worked at NASA. Here we have these American heroes; they made history and they did something so extraordinary, and as a young African American girl I had never heard of any of them in my history classes. I knew then that it was something that I needed to be a part of. And when I went in to audition, the director was very excited to see me; he told me that he thought that I was Mary. And history was made after that.
Besides the material available to you (the film was based the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race), what kind of research and access did you have when you were preparing to be Mary?
Unfortunately and sadly, Mary Jackson is deceased now and a lot of her family were not available to speak. So I had to look online and do a lot of research for her. I also spoke to Margot Lee Shetterly’s father; Margot wrote the book Hidden Figures that sparked the fire to get the film done. Her father worked with Mary Jackson, so I sat down and spoke with him for a while. He told me a lot about how she was a matriarch at NASA—when new young girls would come in, she would mentor them and make sure [they had] the things they needed to feel comfortable. She was very protective. She was also extremely smart, of course. And she did some incredible things: not only did she go on to be the first African American female engineer at NASA, but she also took a pay cut later on in her career and started to work in HR to help advance opportunities and the careers of other women and minorities. So that was I think most inspiring, that she would want to make sure that other people had the opportunities that she had, that they were not being discriminated against or not getting paid the same because of the color of their skin or gender.
We don’t get to see how Mary ended up at NASA in the film. Did you create a whole backstory there yourself or were you able to piece it together?
Yes, from the information I had I created more of a backstory. I felt as though I would be Mary in that time, in the late '50s, '60s. I would be her. Not only did this woman have to endure racism and sexism, she handled those things very different lyfrom Dorothy and Katherine and the other women around her. She was the youngest, so she was a part of a new generation of revolutionaries; she was not going to sit by idly and allow someone to discriminate against her because she was a woman or because she was black. Those were two things she couldn’t change and those were two things she was proud of. She wanted justice. That’s what I felt, I made sure that her character throughout wanted justice, in her work place, for her family, based off of decisions that she made. [And this was] during a time when women were really just looked at as mothers—and she was a mother, there’s nothing wrong with that—but society didn’t want to see women advancing or making more money than their husbands, let alone an African American woman becoming an engineer. She couldn’t even attend some of the night courses because she was a woman and because she was African American, so for someone to get that done they have to have a different mindset. She’s a go-getter. She’s a fighter. She is not going to sit by quietly. Let it be because she doesn’t do the work well, that’s why she won’t get her career advanced, but it won’t be because of the color of her skin or because of her gender. Those are things she can’t change and things she’s proud of.
There was a notable feistiness to her compared to Dorothy and Katherine. It sounds like that’s something you identify with a bit, her outspokenness?
I found the parallels between us. Since I started in the music industry, I’ve always done things from my heart and not according to what society pressures me to be. I’ve moved to my own rhythm and followed my own soul clock, so any hints of misogyny or sexism or whatever that may be, I’ve written about it in my music. I’ve been very outspoken about the Black Lives Matter movement and making sure the Other—that person who is oftentimes discriminated against or outcast or looked down on—that they have a voice. And I think that Mary absolutely did that as well.
I was curious if you thought there was a direct through line from Mary and Teresa, whom you play in Moonlight, to your musical alter-ego Cindi Mayweather and everything you’ve done musically?
Both Teresa and Mary were allies and members of a community that I consider to be called The Other. The Other can be the black woman, the woman, an ally to the LGBT community, a part of just, again, the oppressed. They were champions of making sure the oppressed were protected and Cindi Mayweather is the same. I’ve always paralleled the androids to the future version of The Other so all three of these strong, female characters are heroes to The Other and to the people in their community who are oftentimes looked at as second class citizens, not treated with equality.
With these two films, were you specifically looking to express yourself in the realm of film or was it just coincidence that this all came about at the same time?
Well, I studied acting. I went to school at the American Musical and Dramatics Academy. I’ve always wanted to contribute to the film world and be in something meaningful. Both of these scripts are meaningful and they touched my heart and I saw the themes in these stories in my music and it just felt like a natural progression. And I’ve never looked at myself as just a singer or an actor, but more so an artist storyteller. I want to tell unforgettable, untold, universal stories and when I read these scripts I responded to, I respond to things that move me, and not only was I moved to tears, I knew this was not about Janelle Monae. It was about those young girls, those young boys who feel like they can’t see their future. And I just can’t imagine them walking into the theater and coming in with the mindset that “I may not be able to achieve a certain level of success because of my environment or because of the color of my skin or because of my gender,” but after they will have seen these movies, they will not have felt so alone and felt brave enough to go out and conquer their dreams. After I read those scripts, that’s what I imagined happening and that’s why I signed on.
You started by studying drama. How was it that you ended up in music first and then came to these acting roles later on, after so much success with music?
I think that everything is about timing. If those scripts would have been prior to music, I would have done them. I think having music be a big platform for me and something that I absolutely love doing, and I’ll be doing even when I transition out of earth, I’m sure, gave directors the awareness of who I was. The music was what they had known me for. You may have to ask them, but I like to believe, again, the things in their films were in my music, and they see pieces of me through those characters in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. I’m an artist storyteller and I can do both.
When you made that decision, though, to move from New York where you were studying drama to Atlanta to pursue music, why did you choose music as your creative medium versus acting, which you had been studying?
Music is a universal language, it brings people together and I was excited about creating community in Atlanta. I wanted to also explore my voice and what I wanted to say. Sometimes in acting, you can get lost in so many different characters. At least this is my thought process when I was in school. I wanted to tell new stories. And I’m also a writer. A lot of people don’t know that about me. Growing up [in Kansas City] I would write short plays and I was part of the [Coterie Theater’s Young Playwrights] (thecoterie.org) roundtable where local actors would perform some of the pieces from the kids who were part of that program. So I’ve always had a different way, a different perspective on storytelling. And I think music can tell so many stories. Music also has no sexual orientation, it has no race, you bring so many people together. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the person to connect millennials and bring us together and create something that felt revolutionary, that felt special, that felt therapeutic. Through music you can do that.
Did you do a ton of acting, though, when you were a kid? Is that how you ended up studying drama in the first place?
Yeah, I did. We would drive two hours and go on these retreats in Kansas. I also studied Shakespeare after school. I was in music and acting. I remember being in Cinderella. I remember actually not being able to be involved in The Wiz. I thought that I was gonna be Dorothy but my mom at the time didn’t have a car, so I had to go pick her up from work and the audition was running over, so I did the singing portion, but I didn’t finish the acting portion. So my teacher was just like, “Janelle, I can’t give it to you, I’m sorry.” So one of my friends ended up getting it and I was the understudy. I’ll never forget that. But you know, my mom was taking care of us, I was really sad about it and she was sad for me, but things happen and I’m just happy that I’m able to get back into the swing of things and redeem myself.
I think you’ve more than redeemed yourself. When you’re doing music, it’s your stories and your voice. Is it a very different experience for you being a storyteller through acting? Are there narratives you can approach through acting that you can’t in your music?
With film, you’re not in control of it. You don’t get the final cut. You don’t get a chance to express your voice as much as you do with music. With music, I pick my own songs, I’m writing my lyrics, I’m working with whom I want to work with, I know what the final album is going to sound like. So I will say, it is a big difference in that and you just have to trust. But luckily I’ve had two phenomenal directors, Barry Jenkins and Ted Melfi, and they are able to bring out the best in me. I’ve seen both films, and I’m proud of the outcome.
Was it hard for you relinquishing that level of control?
Sure. But it’s not about me. With my music and my album, yeah, I’m in control of telling the stories and I understand that. But I wanted to be a part of a larger community. These films have some incredible actors in them and you have to stay true to the story. And once I read the script, I wanted to stay true to the script. I don’t want to do anything that is going to make the story less engaging or intriguing—and it’s just not about me. It’s about a community of people coming together and creating something to help change minds and hearts.
And going forward, are you working on an album or do you hope to pursue more film roles?
I want to continue to tell untold, universal stories in unforgettable ways and [I want to continue to be a voice for the marginalized] (pitchfork.com/news/70663-janelle-monae-says-kim-burrell-dropped-from-pharrell-ellen-performance-for-homophobic-comments/). That is my life’s passion. For women, for people of color, for the LGBT community, for immigrants, for the other. I can relate in so many ways. So as of now, I’m being inspired. These movies are inspiring music, my music is just inspired by my truth and whatever it is that is in my heart. So I’m so happy I did these films because I think when I approach music again, I’ll have more clarity, I’ll have more ideas, I’ll have more life experiences and heroes to draw on.