In between making music and redefining coolness, Janelle Monáe has decided to start acting. The transition from on-stage to on-screen talent is not uncommon in Hollywood (look at Madonna, Ludacris, the list goes on). However, rarely does someone prove to be so artistically ambidextrous—concurrently gifted in various creative arenas.
Monáe has pulled that off this year in two films. The first is Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' seminal work in which Monáe plays the supplemental mother to our protagonist, Chiron. It's a bruising piece of acting driven, in part, by empathy and strength.
Monáe brings those same qualities to her work in Hidden Figures, an inspiring drama about three African-American female NASA mathematicians who were instrumental in the race to space against Russia. In the spirit of her music, Monáe brings swagger, soul, and elegance to the role of Mary Jackson. She’s sarcastic and biting, unafraid to remain outspoken in the face of institutional racism.
When Monáe sat down with Complex, she fired away on her recent decision to start acting, managing the day-to-day craziness of her life, and her Tim Burton obsession.
Hidden Figures finally tells the stories of some really important women in U.S. history.
This movie will show what it was like to be a “colored computer.” That’s what they called them back then. They did all the math, all the projections to get the astronauts into space. Russia had beat us, and we were really trying to make America great again, and these women literally made America great again. And they were never given the credit.
When it comes to Moonlight, I’ve been thinking about this lyric from your song “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu. It goes, “And when you’re selling dope we’re gonna keep selling hope.” Was that your entry point into Barry Jenkins’ world?
When I read the script for Moonlight, I thought immediately, “Wow. Here’s a theme, here’s a story that I’ve spoken about throughout my music.” I’ve never looked at myself as just a singer or musician or an actor, but more so as an artist, storyteller. One who wants to tell untold, unique, universal stories in unforgettable ways. The story of being the other was very clear in Moonlight, and what it meant to be an outcast, and what it meant for people to discriminate against you or bully you or persecute you because of your sexual orientation or your gender or the color of your skin. These are things I’ve spoken about before and I felt obligated and responsible to continue to speak out against, because I don’t think we’ve gotten far in terms of equality as it pertains to the LGBT community.
Were you bullied as a kid in school?
I don’t recall being bullied in the way that Chiron was bullied. I do remember people making fun of the way that I would dress, because when you think about certain styles or trends at the time, I just wasn’t into it and I couldn’t afford it either. I was a thrift store shopper.
And people weren’t into it?
Not where I went to school. People were really into more name-brand things. So I had to make a decision early on. You know, even how I wore my hair was different. I was also an international thespian, heavy into acting and music and the arts. It wasn’t necessarily the most popular thing at my school. People respected it, but there were times where people would do a double take if you decided that you wanted to dress like David Bowie or Prince during seventh period.
Is that what you were dressing like?
Sometimes. I’ve always been a creative person. I also was into a lot of talent showcases, so costumes and getting into character was something I was doing since I was 11 or 12. I was watching Edward Scissorhands every day after school for like a year straight, you know what I’m saying?
Why that movie?
Because I was obsessed with Tim Burton and in love with Johnny Depp. Growing up in a predominantly all-black school where we also were in one of the poorest counties—Wyandotte County, Kansas—we didn’t have a whole lot of resources to go and study abroad. I’m not going to say that everyone wasn’t ready to accept a flamboyant black woman in school, but there were a lot of people who were afraid to embrace that because that’s not what they saw in their communities.
What should we change right now?
Moonlight is going to tell us what we should and not do. As you can see when you watch it, this character, little Chiron: all three versions of him, you have people in his life who nurture him, who positively impact his life, and you have people who ill-nurture him. If that’s a word, I just made it up.
We’ll go with it.
When you ill-nurture someone, what happens? I think that we’ll be able to determine what went wrong in this person’s life, and to say, “Okay, if this young, black, poor, gay boy were to come to me and talk to me about his sexuality, and he had fallen in love with one of his best friends who happened to be a male, what would my response be?” There are people in there like myself who simply listen. Teresa doesn’t judge him because she’s a surrogate mother to him, and his mother is struggling with crack addiction. You have so many different types of characters who interact with him, and I think it’s pointing a mirror up to humanity on how we actually make someone’s life better or worse as they’re figuring out if they’re going to embrace the things that make them unique or if they’re going to live in fear and hide themselves.
Is it daunting, though, to be a role model?
I don’t think you go into stuff saying, “I’m going to be a role model.” One of the things that I can’t get caught up in is this need to be perfect. I’ve never wanted to be perfect. I’ve never wanted to say, “Listen, I’m going to do everything right.” I think part of being a role model is about making mistakes and fucking up, and being able to admit when you could’ve done something better. People like authenticity. That resonates more with them. When you are real and something has happened and you address it like a truthful human being, we want to hear those stories.
With all the projects you’re working on, how do you not go mad?
One, I have to realize that I’m not in control of everything, but I am in control of some things, and I am in control of my reactions. I am in control to my responses to pressure. We like to say, in our circle of friends, that pressure’s a privilege. There are so many people who didn’t even get the opportunity to sit here and say, “I’m part of a film. I run a record label. I do music. I write stories.” Not everybody who paved the way for me got these opportunities. So you’ve got to keep things in perspective. You have to choose your battles, too: it’s like, are you really going to be upset because you’re really busy? Some people are not busy and are praying that they could be as busy as you are. But yeah, it gets stressful because you can’t be in five different places at one time. So I’m ready for cloning. That’s why I talk about science fiction. I’m ready to have a clone.
Five Janelle Monae’s?
[Laughs.] Like, I’m seriously sick of this shit! Yes! I have so many things that I want to accomplish. I could sure use five of me. It’s a lot of work, but with a lot of work comes great responsibility.
Are you comparing yourself to Spider-Man?
Spider-Man, Spidey. Spider-Woman.
So what makes you happy?
Being able to take on projects that I believe in, meaningful projects. I don’t like feeling like I need to sing or act for the sake of just singing or acting, and there are some people who are out here grinding because they have to do it to pay their bills. I absolutely have bills, I absolutely have to pay them, but I also don’t have a mansion right now. I’m thankful for that, because I get the opportunity to take on projects that I believe in and support myself at the same time. There was a time where I had to do certain things that I necessarily may not have wanted to do in the beginning, but now I have been very blessed and fortunate [that] I can hook up with other like-minded individuals and put out life-changing art into the world that I can look back on and say, “Man, I’m so happy I was a part of that project.”
If you could put a piece of art into the world tomorrow—forget budget, forget all the schedules, all the nonsense—what would you do?
Wow, that is an incredible question. I have so many things I want to do. Let me tell you, first of all, I’m all about femme-ing the future. Femme-ing, meaning, creating more opportunities for women: women in film, women in music, women in TV.
Did you just make that term up?
I just started an organization called Femme the Future and it’s led by Millennials who want to advance the careers and create more opportunities for women in music and media and film and TV. We want to do that through opportunities and mentorship. It’s less than five percent of women getting involved or getting acknowledged for producing film, TV, and music. There are six women who were nominated for Brits and Grammys combined for producing music, producing an album, and none of them won any of those awards. It’s a huge problem. I think that men are going to have to speak up, speak out, and hire. If you’re in the position of power you need to walk in a room and make sure you’re femme-ing the future by making sure that ratio of men to women is not in favor of men. It should not be. I mean, come on!