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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.”