Janelle Monáe has spent most of her career learning how to embellish and magnify every moment she can when she’s on stage or in front of a camera. When you watch her sing live or perform in videos for tracks such as “Tight Rope”, “Q.U.E.E.N” and “Electric Lady”—you immediately understand why so many people compare her to someone like James Brown, a man who is famous for having such a larger-than-life presence. In Moonlight, Monáe’s first feature film role to date, the 30-year-old musician/actor had to learn how to dial it down for the lens.
“Being in this film took a lot of listening,” she says, a day before the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Usually I have an audience and they’re doing all the listening but now I need to hear what my partner in a scene is saying so I am so aware of every sound and action…I need to be so I can respond truthfully.” Her attention to detail is part of what makes her scenes in Moonlight so unforgettable. The film focuses on the life of a young boy named Chiron (played remarkably by Ashton Sanders) who is going through puberty and questioning the conventions of masculinity. As he inches toward adulthood, he realizes society’s struggle with class, race and societal equality. Vulture.com has already predicted Moonlight will head to the Oscars in the Best Picture category and artists such as Madonna are praising the film’s cast (she was so moved, she posted a nod to Monáe on her instagram account).
In the movie, Monáe plays Teresa, who ends up becoming a vital ally to Chiron. Teresa becomes a beacon Chiron’s rather dark journey to self-acceptance. “People need to see themselves on TV so that they feel like they’re not alone and somebody cares enough about their story,” Monáe says of the importance of the film. “Then they can feel like they are valid. That’s why I chose to do this film,” she adds. “Whenever comes across my desk that I feel like can help bring awareness or sympathy and empathy to a community that’s discriminated against, I’m going to do it.” In order to prepare for the role of Teresa, Monáe said she took a moment to think about how to relay a genuine sense of empathy on screen. “I had to parallel what it means to be gay with being a woman. We’re both discriminated against so I drew from that,” she says. So much of Monáe’s performance is subtle and the fact that she does so much with so little dialogue in Moonlight is impressive. A quiet, complex scene Teresa has with Chiron—which occurs after he is assaulted on the playground—required the most takes but ranks as one of the most memorable moments in the film. “When you let the silence speak, there is great power in the moment but it is challenging to do right.”
In terms of future projects, Monáe can be in Hidden Figures—a drama that hits theatres on Christmas Day—which focuses on three pioneering black woman (played by Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer) who work for NASA in the 1960s. This isn’t the last space film that Monáe wishes to star in. Her dream is to play Mae Jemison—the first African American woman to go to space. “I’m looking for stories that haven’t been told,” she says. “In music, its the same for me. I want to sing lyrics that haven’t been sung.”
Check out the trailer to Monáe first film:
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