EXCLUSIVE: Janelle Monae Delivers One-Two Punch With 'Hidden Figures' and 'Moonlight'

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Over a decade after releasing her debut EP, The Audition, Janelle Monáe made her onscreen
acting debut in a very big way. This past year, the 31-year-old singer-turned
actor delivered two standout performances: as Teresa in Moonlight, the indie darling and Golden Globe winner for Best Motion
Picture – Drama, and as real-life NASA engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, which recently topped Rogue One at the box office in its
opening weekend.

Both films have earned numerous accolades as well as praise
for Monáe’s performances, thrusting the performer into the spotlight of her
first awards season. Speaking with ET by phone the Monday after Moonlight, the first film Monáe ever
professionally acted in, won the top prize at the Golden Globes, she admits she
“didn’t know what to expect.” Of course, how could anyone anticipate the
momentum that would build for both projects over the last few months, or for a
singer making her acting debut? “I’m just so happy to be a part of something that’s
bigger than myself and pushes culture forward and continues to be celebrated,”
Monáe says.

MORE: 'Hidden Figures' Is a Feel-Good Civil Rights Film We Need Right Now

While singing has been the primary focus of her career, with
the release of three albums -- The
Audition
, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady -- over the past 13 years,
Monáe says that acting has always been part of her world. Growing up writing
scripts and short stories, the singer later attended the American Musical and
Dramatic Academy in New York City. There she studied acting in addition to
singing in an a cappella choir before she eventually moved to Atlanta and was
discovered by Outkast rapper Big Boi.

“I’ve always known both worlds and navigated both worlds,” Monáe
says, explaining that both are different forms of telling stories. “I’ve always
considered myself to be a storyteller and I find it exciting to be able to be a
storyteller in both worlds.”

And for Monáe, it starts with the story. 

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As she explains it, “I dropped everything that I was doing
to be part of Moonlight” after
reading the script, which was adapted by director Barry Jenkins from Tarell Alvin
McCraney’s semiautobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

“The script was just exceptionally written,” Monáe continues,
adding that she felt a “big responsibility” to play Teresa, a surrogate mother
to Chiron, a gay boy growing up in Miami’s projects who turns to a local drug dealer
and his girlfriend for parental support. “We know a Teresa.”

Luckily for her, Jenkins believed she was a perfect fit for
the character and made her know it. “I’m ever so thankful he had that much
faith in me as a newcomer,” she says, admitting that she was full of nervous
energy. “That definitely gave me the courage. And once we got on set, he pulled
me aside and told me, ‘Listen, Janelle. There’s no such thing as making a
mistake.’”

MORE: 'Moonlight' Star Andre Holland Is Focused on the Craft, Not the Attention

When it came to a poignant scene in the first act during
which Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks, “What’s a f****t?,” Monáe found herself waking
up in the middle of the night, trying to figure out how Teresa was going to
play it. “You can’t just plan for a response,” she says of having to find a
moment of honesty, which for her was rooted in how she would react if her
9-year-old nephew asked her that question. “I was thinking of him and little
boys and possibly my future son. How would I want a woman who’s become a
surrogate mom, how would I want her to respond to that question?”

When it came to filming that scene with Hibbert and Mahershala
Ali
, who plays Juan, her boyfriend, Monáe gave Jenkins the only thing she could:
what she was feeling in that exact moment. Monae says Jenkins didn’t want the
cast talking too much prior to filming in hopes of getting genuine performances,
so she didn’t prepare or discuss the scene with Hibbert. “What you saw was the
first time we went through that take together,” she says.

On the Moonlight
set in October 2015, Monáe had no idea that three months later she’d be
auditioning for Hidden Figures, eventually
being cast opposite Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer. “They never acted as
though they were above me,” she says of her co-stars, both longtime actors who
have earned two Academy Award nominations and one trophy between them. But
without Moonlight, she doesn’t
believe she would have been ready. Not only did the indie drama give her the
confidence, it also gave her the technical experience she needed. “I learned
how to stay out of people’s close-ups and what it felt like to have so many
eyes, in an intimate setting, staring at you and a camera watching your face,” Monáe
says. 

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From there, it was about making Mary Jackson, who in 1958
became NASA's first black female engineer, proud. Admittedly, like most
audiences who have seen the film, Monáe didn’t know Jackson or Katherine
Johnson or Dorothy Vaughan’s legacies. “None of us knew,” she says, adding the
importance of doing right by these women and making their stories known. “What
I want people to know most about is this woman, Mary Jackson. This story, Hidden Figures, waited over 50 years to
be told, and I just want to make her proud and all the other women that worked
so hard and persevered over so many obstacles to put an American in space and
do something that had never been done before.”

While she couldn’t have planned for it, Monáe does recall
writing in her journal about what she wanted to be a part of when it came to
her budding film career. “It’s kind of scary, some of the things I wrote down
have been happening. I will say this: Playing Mary Jackson was a dream role,”
she says.

“I really did have to walk a tightrope -- no pun intended,” Monáe
says of getting into Jackson’s head and bringing justice to her story,
including a standout courtroom scene that sees her going toe-to-toe with a
judge over letting a black woman into a segregated high school in order to take
night classes for an advance college degree.

MORE: Janelle Monáe Has Classy Response to Jenna Bush Hager's 'Hidden Fences' Gaffe

The moment, combined with her work in both films, has
certainly catapulted Monáe to unexpected heights for a debut actor, landing her
on multiple “Best of 2016” lists and nominations for a Critics’ Choice Award
for Best Supporting Actress and for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild
Awards
. She’s even seen her name mentioned alongside Viola Davis (Fences) and her co-stars, Spencer and
Naomie Harris (Moonlight), for Oscar
consideration, which in itself is an honor. “To be even mentioned in the same
breath as these women,” she says in awe, before admitting she’s a “Viola Davis
stan” (“She is definitely my shero and I’ve loved her and adored her for quite
some time now”).

And while a one-two punch of standout performances onscreen
is enough to boost the ego of any actor, Monáe is remaining humble, unfazed by
whatever happens. “I won’t stop if I’m not nominated and I won’t get a big head
if I am,” she says. “I’m enjoying the climb and the journey. I’m in no rush to
be No. 1.”