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Interview: Janelle Monáe on How Hidden Figures Was Her Dream Role

2016 has been a good year for Janelle Monáe. After making her movie debut in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, she can now be seen in a starring role in Hidden Figures.

Music fans will already know her voice. Her debut album The ArchAndroid was released in 2010. Monáe fuses soul, and funk into her music, and she has worked with Prince and Erykah Badu in the past.

In Hidden Figures she plays Mary Jackson, a NASA scientist facing opposition in the classroom but determined to excel and advance her career. Mary goes to court to fight the obstacles that stand in her way. We caught up recently to talk about the film and why its message has such resonance this year. Monáe’s passion is contagious, with a natural ability to inspire and make us smile. She’s a force to be reckoned with.

Awards Daily: I have to say, it’s made me feel so very inspired and really put a bounce in my step.

Janelle Monae: Wow. Wow

AD: I’m blown away that we live in a world where these great women did so much, and we had no idea who they were.

Listen to Janelle talk about  the importance of Hidden Figures

JM: I too, ask myself that daily. Why? Before I finished reading the script, I was asking myself that. As I was reading it, I thought it was a great fictional story, and finally someone’s in my mind, and it’s time for us to show movies that show African-American women in a different light. Yes, we’re beautiful. Yes, during the segregation era we were maids, but let’s show us focusing on the brilliance of these women. Once I found out it was true, I was taken aback.

As an African-American woman, my history, math, and science teacher never included them in anything. I know now after reading and studying that era it was because of the historical circumstances. Women were told they couldn’t vote, they were discriminated against, and racism was running rampantly, and they had a lot of obstacles to overcome during that era. It makes sense to have to learn more about the ’60s, and who the oppressors were. African-American women were absolutely oppressed back then.

AD: One of my favorite lines from the film is, “Every time we try to move ahead, they move the finish line.” Was that in the script, and what was your reaction?


JM: It was in the script, as I was reading it, I felt this was my dream role because when you talk about that era, there were men and women of color who were being lynched, water-hosed and shot for speaking their mind. The fact that this woman was vocal and she wasn’t going to sit back idly and accept discrimination because of her race or her gender, two things she was proud of, and she couldn’t change.

The fact that I got the opportunity to be the voice for so many women back then who thought these things but couldn’t say those things was just a blessing, and I was thankful.
It was just one of the lines that people felt back then. They felt they could never get ahead, all their opportunities were pulled from them because of the color of their skin or gender and it was unfair. She was just voicing what everybody felt back then.

AD: You’re also in another groundbreaking film, Moonlight. It’s so important for people to see both films because of where we now find ourselves. What has that experience been like for you?

JM: Thankful. Thankful. Thankful. When I read Moonlight — and that was the first film I was in — I was moved to the point I was crying and in tears. I had never read a script that was so well-written and touched me. Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney really poured their hearts out, and I felt so much empathy for all the characters. All the characters reminded me of people in my community, they’re nuanced, they’re complicated, and finally you get a chance to also highlight the black, young man, gay experience. I have friends who are gay, and they struggle with it daily, and they have struggled with it. Some have overcome it, and some have not. We see so many people committing suicide because they’re not socially accepted because of their sexual identity. For me, I thought that some young boy is going to go into that audience, and whether he’s openly gay, or struggling with his identity, whatever it is, I know now that after this film, that he’s not going to feel so alone. I just got teary eyed taking on that project because it was much bigger than me. It was about the other, and the one who was discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, or bullied because they embracing something that made them unique, and I think it’s so important to highlight those stories.

As it pertains to Hidden Figures, I had a very similar reaction. These are black women who are going to finally be celebrated. They’ve gone far too long being un-celebrated for their brilliance. These women were directly responsible for getting our Americans into space. Without their knowledge, without their genius, we would not have made America great again. The space race was something that in the ’60s that our president was just obsessed with winning, and we got our first Americans into space and to orbit the earth, and without Katherine Johnson’s skill set and all those human computers, we would not have achieved that. That was something extraordinary that I don’t think anyone had done before. When you talk about finally, that these women who have been oppressed because of their gender and their race, and getting their stories highlighted, and me making sure that no young girl can walk around and not have these superheroes. I’m so proud to honor them.

AD: How did Moonlight help you coming into Hidden Figures?

JM: Moonlight helped me a lot. I remember coming on set being nervous. I’m a drama student and have training, but when you walk on set, it still doesn’t get rid of the nerves when you are performing next to people like Naomie Harris, and I’m the freshman coming on set.

One of the things that Barry Jenkins told me early on was that, “There’s no such thing as making a mistake. As long as you choose honestly, and you’re truthful in your responses, every decision you make is the right way. So, I took that and I relaxed and I was so comfortable and I learned so much about the technique and the blocking, all those things that I had no clue about. If I didn’t have that experience, I don’t think I would have been prepared for Hidden Figures. I knew what it was like to be on set and have a crew and the boom, and people on set watching you. I have to credit Moonlight, and I’m thankful to Barry, and I’m thankful to Ted our director on Hidden Figures for trusting me and never trying to teach me on how to be a black woman, that it’s all in me, and to just be truthful and honest. He also said, “Whatever you choose is the right way.”

AD: I love that. What great advice. You are also a great musician, so  how will this fit into your music plans?

JM : The great thing is both these films deal with the outcast, and I’ve always spoken about “the other” in my music. I’ve always tried to stand up for women and the LGBT community, and women of color, and for immigrants, and those who are ostracized from society because they choose to embrace who they are. It felt right, and the message I’ve been trying to get across in my music is going to be amplified in different ways. I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller. I’ve never looked at myself as just a singer or actor, but more so a storyteller who wants to tell universal, untold unique stories in unforgettable ways.

I feel a bigger responsibility, especially when you look at the political and social climate. These films gave me more affirmation that I can’t give up, and that I have to use everything I have on my platforms to speak up, speak out, and to uplift, and to encourage us to move in towards a future that is inclusive for us all.

AD: What can we do to find more stories like this? We didn’t know about them until this film.

JM: I think there’s going to be a wealth of stories being told because of these films. They’ve broken barriers already. People are craving it, and they’re hungry for it. We need these to help us empathize with each other as human beings more. I’m hopeful there will be other writers, directors, and producers who understand the importance of finding more Hidden Figures and more Moonlights, and just pushing them out to Hollywood in the best possible way.