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Mary J Blige on channelling her heartbreak into acting

The Queen Of Soul stars in new Netflix film ‘Mudbound’ – here she discusses intimacy, love and the making of the movie

This weekend, Netflix’s much buzzed about new film Mudbound launched, a stunning Southern epic by American director Dee Rees, spanning themes of racism, war, friendship, and struggles for success, set before, during and in the aftermath of World War Two. It centres around two families, one white, the other black, both set on “clawing their way upwards” (to quote Rees) while living and working on the same stretch of weather-beaten Mississippi farmland. In spite of its period aesthetic, it feels timely and urgent.

Proud and volatile Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) are the farm’s new owners, having recently relocated there with their two children to pursue Henry’s agricultural ambitions – accompanied by Henry’s bigoted and curmudgeonly father. Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) are hard working sharecroppers, who have worked the land for many years and are raising their four children to dream big in a world where social prejudice reigns supreme.

Both families are affected by the onset of war, when Henry’s lively younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jacksons’ dutiful eldest son Ronsel are called up to serve as a pilot and member of an all-black Tank Battalion respectively. When the men return, both deeply traumatised and profoundly changed by their exploits overseas, they bond over their shared experiences, forging a friendship that the Jim Crow South simply isn’t ready for.

The film, like the Hillary Jordan novel upon which it’s based, is narrated, in turn, by its six key protagonists, shedding light on their innermost thoughts as the story unfolds, rising to a devastating and violent crescendo. Each of the central performances are faultless, but none more so than that of Mary J. Blige, who is almost unrecognisable from the ever-stylish musical persona we know so well; her hair worn naturally and her face make-up free as she plays the quietly strong and fiercely loving Florence.

She was Rees’ first choice for the part, and was thrilled to receive the script. “I was already a fan of Dee and her work,” Blige tells us over the phone from the States. “I saw Pariah [Rees’ brilliant, semi-autobiographical debut about a young black woman’s struggles with coming out] and Bessie [her HBO Bessie Smith biopic] and loved them, so I was already in. But when I read the script I thought, ‘I need to play Florence’.”

The reasons for this were twofold, she explains. “First off, the message at the end, that love can and will save people no matter how bad others treat them, was so strong. But I also felt that the part of Florence was going to be something that could help me at that stage in my life.”

She is referring to her marriage – now ended – which was on the rocks when Rees first approached. “This was at the beginning [of the marriage breakdown], where I didn’t really know what was going on but I could feel something bad was happening,” she says candidly. “After I accepted the part, I would go over to my acting coach every day – she’s a friend of mine – and I would let it all hang out. I would tell her everything and be crying, and after we finished talking she would say, ‘Give it to Florence; put everything that’s going on inside of you into this character.’”

“I would tell her everything and be crying, and after we finished talking she would say, ‘Give it to Florence; put everything that’s going on inside of you into this character’” – Mary J Blige

Channeling Florence’s Southern roots was a somewhat less demanding process. “Both my parents are Southern and my mom sent me down south every summer to see my grandmother and my aunts, and they were all Florence. My grandmother had her own farm where she raised her own cows and chickens and grew her own vegetables,” Blige explains – who herself was born and raised in New York, where she shot to fame in 1992 when she released What’s the 4-1-1-?.

She also had a personal precedent to look to for Florence’s work as a part-time housekeeper and carer for McAllans’ young children. “My aunt Laura Bell worked for a white family who loved her, who still love her. When she passed, they were at her funeral; those children were her children. So I really knew who this character was.”

Filming commenced in the summer of 2016 – a gruelling, 28-day shoot under the blistering Mississippi sun, which Blige says plunged her even further into Florence’s world. “The atmosphere on set was pretty rough,” she discloses. “It was very, very hot; the mosquitoes would just carry you away; and I believe we were on a real slave plantation, so the environment really helped you to stay in character. I’d look around and see Florence’s life; that’s what she had to take in. And of course Dee had stripped me of all the material things I would usually want, so I really only had what Florence had to survive – three dresses, her home, her family. Other than the cameras and Dee coming over one-on-one to give us directions on certain things, everything was very real.”

“Dee had stripped me of all the material things I would usually want, so I really only had what Florence had to survive – three dresses, her home, her family” – Mary J Blige

Blige’s admiration for Rees was galvanised by her experience, and she credits the 40-year-old director with equipping her with the tools she needed to surrender herself entirely to the role and portray Florence’s (often unspoken) feelings with total credibility. “Dee was one of the most amazing directors I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with quite a few. She’s the sweetest person but very strong, assured and confident; she knew what she wanted from us. She would have us shooting things over and over again, but we’d be doing it so fast I’d be like, ‘I did it?’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, you did it. Go ahead to your trailer!’” the actress laughs.

One particular scene, however, took longer to achieve – but it provided Blige with one of her favourite memories from shooting. “It’s the one where Hap, my husband onscreen, and I had to dance and hug. I was having so much trouble being intimate; I thought it would ruin my marriage – which was already ruined, although I didn’t know it at the time – so I was trying not to give myself to him completely. We did a take and Dee was like, ‘No! Go work on your intimacy.’ I went away and thought, ‘I’ve got to let go of Mary right now, because Mary is in the way,’ and when I finally gave in and we got the shot, Dee came over to us and said, ‘You guys had me back there crying.’ It was all beautiful.”

When Blige finally watched the film in its finished form, it was her turn to cry. “I just couldn’t stop! It was amazing,” she exclaims. “The message felt even more powerful: that the only way to get through life is to help each other, and to know we need each other. We have to learn how to love our neighbours like we love ourselves because it’s rough out here and it’s going to get rougher, I believe. There are a lot of people experiencing what African-Americans have been experiencing for years; they’re experiencing it now and it’s like, ‘Wow, what do we do?’ And the answer is we need each other, we really do, and I hope that’s what people take away from the film.”

Mudbound launched on Netflix and in cinemas with Curzon on November 17th