Janelle Monáe is shooting for the stars.
After carving out her own unique corner of the pop world, the six-time Grammy nominee has ascended to Hollywood stardom with memorable performances in two of the year’s hottest films, Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
“I allow the universe to rearrange and reinvent me,” she said in American Way magazine’s February issue. “I have had a gathering phase.”
But when the universe came to her with the script for Hidden Figures, a true-to-life film about the African-American women who helped put a man in space, Monáe — who has said that she plans to release new music in 2017 — was already four years into her highly anticipated next album, and she had no plans to delay that work.
Fortunately, she read the script. “I was a bit puzzled and upset that, as a young woman of color, I had no clue who these women were,” she told the magazine. “I knew that I needed to drop what I was doing and make sure that no other young girl or boy would go on without knowing about these brilliant women who helped get America into space.”
In the film, Monáe plays Mary Jackson, one of the real-life African-American women who helped NASA put John Glenn into orbit in 1962. “I think we’re all — no matter what gender, what race you are — you can’t look at these women and not see the genius and see that they’re American heroes,” she previously told PEOPLE.
With limited acting experience outside of some voice work in Rio 2 — and of course, her captivating music videos (see above) — Monáe worked with an acting coach to make sure she brought the same spunkiness she embodies onstage to the big screen. “I did not want it to seem that I am just a musician-artist who was sent a script. I had to audition,” she said. “I wanted to honor these three women to the best of my ability.”
Hidden Figures performed strongly at the box office and with critics. The film was nominated for multiple awards — it’s up for Best Picture at the Oscars later this month — and took home the SAG award for outstanding performance by a cast, beating out Monáe’s other breakthrough film this year, Moonlight.
She made her official big-screen debut with Moonlight last fall, playing a drug dealer’s girlfriend and confidant to the film’s hero, Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders. Like Hidden Figures, Monáe felt an immediate attraction to the coming-of-age story set in a tough neighborhood of Miami.
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“I empathize with her,” she told American Way of her character Teresa. “I felt like I knew all these characters. These are people in my community — from the drug dealer to the addict to the nurturing surrogate mom figure that I played to Chiron, who was still discovering his sexual identity. I knew all these people.”
Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, with her mom, a janitor, and her dad, a garbage-truck driver. But her father’s drug use and occasional incarcerations led her parents to divorce, and she, her sister and her mother spent time living with friends and family. “We had to store our furniture, and my cousins sold it for drugs,” she told the magazine.
Through the hard times, Monáe took solace in music and movies. “Coming from Kansas, all you have is TV, radio and magazines to measure your success, and none of the people around me were like those people, so I knew I had to leave.” After a failed attempt to break into the New York City music scene, Monáe relocated to the more eclectic scene in Atlanta, where she was discovered by Sean “Puffy” Combs and Outkast’s Big Boi.
After making a name for herself in music with her catchy singles and eye-popping live performances, the Yoga singer felt it was time to branch out. “I’ve never considered myself to just be a singer,” she said. “I have always considered myself to be an artist and storyteller. I want to continue to tell unique, untold and universal stories in unconventional ways. With both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, black people are presented as layered, complete human beings, not one-dimensional and not monolithic,” she explained.
The two films could not have come into her life at a better time, as she revealed to American Way that she “had reached a block” with her music. Fortunately for her fans, Monáe said, “The universe has a way of making sure that I have enough inspiration. I will be releasing music in 2017.”