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Janelle Monáe in ‘Hidden Figures’

Janelle Monáe on body language, black brilliance and space

We catch up with the singer as she makes a seamless transition into acting, starring in ‘Moonlight’ and also ‘Hidden Figures’, playing one of the women who helped make history in space

Janelle Monáe first seized our attention as an artist seemingly sent from space. A self-described android in her lyrics, the singer-songwriter has released records that revolve around Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, intergalactic sci-fi fantasies, and asking questions like: “Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep? Or will you preach?”

So it’s fitting that Monáe plays a “human computer” in Hidden Figures, which, along with Moonlight, marks her accomplished foray into acting. More specifically, her character is Mary Jackson, one of many essential black female mathematicians – including Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) – who crunched the numbers for NASA in 1962.

In fact, when John Glenn became the first US astronaut to orbit the moon on 20 February that year, his mission relied upon data calculated by these women. With doubts over IBM’s technology, Glenn would only set foot once the “human computers” checked the figures. Still, history lessons and movies like Apollo 13 have depicted space exploration as a strictly white male activity. Hidden Figures is the film that corrects that misperception.

With Hidden Figures and Moonlight now in cinemas, we phoned up Janelle Monáe to discuss her transition to acting, the truthfulness of body language, and hearing her Wondaland Records buddy Jidenna in Moonlight.

Pharrell, who did the soundtrack, grew up in Virginia where Hidden Figures takes place, and he said this was all news to even him. Did you know about Katherine, Dorothy and Mary beforehand?

Janelle Monáe: No, I was also a person who did not know about these brilliant women – Mary, Katherine, Dorothy, or any of the “human computers”, as they were called during that time. Once I found out it was true and these women did in fact exist and really helped get the first American into space, it became a personal responsibility to make sure no other young girl went through life not knowing about these American heroes.

You studied acting in New York a while ago. Why are you only getting into films now?

Janelle Monáe: Yes, I did in fact study acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I was constantly involved in music and theatre all through middle school and high school. Music is an art form that I love dearly, and it’s allowed me to bring so many people together and meet so many people. So I think that’s what the universe wanted me to do first and pursue. I’ve gotten scripts over the years, but I believe it was the stories of Moonlight and Hidden Figures that really touched my heart and aligned with the messages that I felt were extremely important to me. And just the celebration of people who are often discriminated against for their sexual orientation or their gender or their race. It’s already in my music, and will continue to be in my music. This is just a continuation of storytelling. I’ve never considered myself just to be a musician or just an actor. I’m also a storyteller who wants to tell untold, unique, universal stories in unforgettable ways.

In Hidden Figures, you have very composed, confident body language, which helps to communicate a lot about your character within a few seconds. Does some of that come from your stage experience?

Janelle Monáe: Oh yes. For me, it’s about being natural and being honest to the character. Whatever emotions I have as a performer or the character I’m trying to embody, I structure everything around that and allow that honesty, that truthfulness, to come out immediately.

I think a lot of it is not something that I really force myself to think about, because a lot of performing is really about your gut and trusting your inner compass, and trusting your decisions. But thank you for noticing that, and connecting with it instantly.

On the music side, your process seems to be very collaborative. How much creative input did you have on set?

Janelle Monáe: Unfortunately, in film, it’s a little different. On the recording side, with my album, I’m writing and singing and bringing in who I want to help produce the music. With A&R and artwork, I have a lot more control. But in film, it’s the producers and director. I call on what they like to do. I’ve been very blessed to have worked with two incredible directors, Barry Jenkins on Moonlight and Ted Melfi on Hidden Figures, and it was a collaborative effort in shaping my characters, Teresa and Mary. We had a rapport where we could talk to each other and come up with ideas and ways to really bring those women to life. I don’t know if it’s always standard, but it was beautiful to be able to collaborate with them.

“As a woman who runs a record label, to see her artist’s music in a film that means so much to humanity and is resonating with people, it’s such a special time to be alive” – Janelle Monáe

I spoke to Barry about the use of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” in Moonlight. Did you have any part in that? And what was your reaction when you saw that scene?

Janelle Monáe: I was very excited. He did not let me know that he was doing that. I had no hand in putting that in there. It was, of course, a moment of surprise. As a woman who runs a record label, to see her artist’s music in a film that means so much to humanity and is resonating with people, it’s such a special time to be alive and experience those moments.

Both Moonlight and Hidden Figures were filmed a while ago, but do you think they’ll have a different impact coming out so soon after a Trump victory?

Janelle Monáe: I hope both of these films will allow people to come together and see the same things in them. What we need most right now is to realise that we’ve gotten through some difficult times in history, and we persevered and made it through them. If we could do it back then, we can definitely do it now. But either we all get there together, or we don’t get there at all.