Mary J. Blige Has a Back-Up Career As a Hairdresser Ready, Should Acting Or Singing Not Work Out

The Mudbound actress talks about her acting career, secret skills, and country radio.

Best Performances - 2018 - Mary J. Blige
Photographs by Juergen Teller; Styled by Edward Enninful

Mary J. Blige has toured the world playing countless sold-out arenas, but it was a movie screening at the Sundance Film Festival that moved her to tears. It was almost exactly one year ago when Mudbound, in which Blige puts in a stunning dramatic turn, premiered at the film festival, leading to a standing ovation from the crowd—and some waterworks from the music legend. “It’s different to get a standing ovation [for acting] versus a standing ovation being a singer,” she shared. “I never take them for granted.” It was a response that had lingered well into awards season, with Blige garnering countless accolades for the role, including a nomination for Outstanding Actress In A Supporting Role at this Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. Here, the singer talks about her role in the film, her secret skills, and more.

How did Mudbound come to you?

Mudbound came to me through Dee Rees. I’ve seen Pariah and Bessie, so when I heard that Dee Rees wanted me for the part and she just was offering it to me, I dove in, because it was Dee Rees and I was a fan anyway. And then when I read the script I was completely blown away. I cried, I got angry, I got happy, I got nosy; all these different things. I was just blown away at the character Florence and how close she was to what I remember my grandmother and all my aunts were in the South.

Was it scary to take on this role and strip yourself as Mary J. Blige away?

I was absolutely petrified the first day and I think I cried that first day, too, because I just couldn’t strip myself away. I couldn’t pull Mary J. Blige away, but by the second day, I surrendered. I had no choice. It was such a huge undertaking, and I had to get rid of myself in order to be able to pull it off.

Was the filming intense?

We were filming in New Orleans, and the weather was really, really hot. It was like 108 degrees every day and then some days it would rain and it would just be mud everywhere. And the mosquitos were eating us alive. But it was all worth it, because it kept us in character constantly.

Have you always wanted to act?

I always wanted to act. I acted when I was seven years old in a play and I loved it. I could hear everybody talking about how good I did in the play, so that kind of stayed in my heart until I got older. I kind of left it alone, because I knew singing was something that I really, really loved. And then when I got old enough to think about it again, then I just went for it. And here I am.

Were you at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival?

I was definitely at Sundance when they showed the movie and it was incredible. The response alone made me cry, but then the movie made me cry. It was amazing. I didn’t even know I was suffering that much until I saw the movie, because I had to give Florence a lot of my pain. I had to let her hold it and then when I saw the movie. I saw Florence and how heavy she was, but she couldn’t really express it. It just really made me cry.

Did you get a standing ovation?

We got a standing ovation, which was mind blowing.

How does that feel different than applause at a concert?

It’s different to get a standing ovation [for acting] versus a standing ovation being a singer. I never take them for granted. The whole film got a standing ovation and as I was walking out people were like, “Oh, my god. Oh my god!” And I’m looking behind me like, “What? What? What?” And they’re like, “You! You did such an incredible job.” It was amazing.

What was your favorite birthday party that you’ve ever had?

I think my favorite birthday was last year, because I haven’t gotten a chance to spend that much time with all of my female family and all my friends. When I tell you we drank so much tequila… I’m probably still paying for it. We partied. We went from Turks and Caicos to Miami, and we just kept going and going and going and going. That was the best birthday ever.

What was your favorite Halloween costume?

Remember the rock and roll band KISS? I was the guy with the tongue hanging out of his mouth. My sister and I used to fight over who was going to be the guy with the tongue. We fought over it, but I won. I won that time.

Do you have any secret skills?

People would be surprised that I can do hair. I can definitely take care of my own hair if I needed to. When I was younger, I did my own hair. I did my own weaves, I did my own perms, I did my own color. And then I would do some of my friends’ hair.

When was your first “I’ve made it” moment?

Being able to pay my bills would be my first success moment. But I think when I really understood that I was successful was when I was on a tour bus and the driver was from Texas or something like that and he would listen to the country station. And “Family Affair” came on the country station and I said, “Um, did you just change the station?” He said, “No, this is the country station.” So one of my songs came on the country music station and I said, “Oh, something different has happened here. I’m a huge celebrity, because my music is playing on not the pop stations, but the country stations.”

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