Janelle Monáe Remembers Picking Up Smoking for Her ‘Hidden Figures’ Prep

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Janelle Monáe has always known she was meant to share her art with the world. The Grammy-nominated musician’s first onscreen role was just four years ago, in Barry Jenkins“Moonlight,” and she has since starred in awards contenders like “Hidden Figures” and “Harriet.” Everything the 34-year-old does is with purpose, and she finds herself gravitating toward roles that uplift women, Black people, and the LGBTQ+ community. Following up on her first leading role on Season 2 of Amazon Prime Video’s “Homecoming,” Monáe has two films out this fall: “The Glorias” follows the history of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, while “Antebellum” sets Black trauma of past and present on a collision course in a reality-warping thriller. Below, the beloved talent answers Backstage’s crafty questionnaire.  

How did you get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I applied for it when I did “Moonlight” or “Hidden Figures.” That’s when I got it. I’m having a hard time remembering, but I’m happy to be a part of the SAG community.

What's one screen performance should every actor see and why?
Oh, my goodness. This [question] is horrible! There are so many incredible movies. “Edward Scissorhands.” As a Black person, I just felt connected to Edward being an outcast and being a creative. And I think Johnny Depp did a remarkable job in that film, cutting hair and being a recluse and opening up and trying to get past trauma.

What’s the wildest thing you've ever done for a role? 
Mary Jackson was supposed to smoke in “Hidden Figures.” If you know me, I hate cigarette smoke and I hate smoking and I’m not a smoker. Shout out to all my friends who smoke weed and all that, that’s great, love you—that’s just not me. They ultimately ended up scrapping all the smoking in that movie, but during that era, they smoked! So I had to go and light up cigarettes and make people believe that I smoked. People around me, I didn’t tell them what I was doing and why I was doing it. I just showed up smoking cigarettes over and over and over again, just allowing myself to be this wild, cigarette-smoking Black woman who was trying to get from underneath the thumb of racism, whatever that looked like. I remember people being like, “Is Janelle OK?” Because I would just sit down and tell them everything going on and everything I hated with a cigarette in my mouth. I guess that can be one thing that was cool—I don’t think it’s really wild because that’s some people’s reality. 

What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice? 
Something that I tell myself is to enjoy the climb. Enjoy the process. Because once it’s over, it’s over, and you’re on to the next thing. But, really, the fun is in the process, getting prepared for the character. Enjoy that, don’t make it heavy, don’t make it stressful. Enjoy it and carry that energy into your practice. Practice having fun. Once you learn the lines, have fun, because that’s what you want when you step into that room. And just remember that your purpose is your purpose, so if you’re not supposed to do that role, you’re not gonna do that role. If you were meant to do that role, if it’s in your purpose plan, then you’ll get that role and you’ll be incredible in it.

What's one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
Life is not a rehearsal, so stay present as much as you possibly can. Don’t get stuck on the past, your past mistakes, anything someone has done to harm you. Show grace. Give grace to people even when you don’t want to, because you never know what battle they are fighting. We do to others as we see ourselves and as we think about ourselves. Just understand that you are uniquely designed to do something impactful that will outlive you. Understand that, even in the good times, the bad times especially—just know that everything with your journey is meant for you to happen, so don’t get too stuck on the past. Keep moving forward. 

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