In music, Janelle Monáe has been an ArchAndroid and an Electric Lady. In film, she burst onto the scene in 2016 co-starring in the SAG Ensemble Cast winner Hidden Figures alongside Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer and the Best Picture winner Moonlight. And the multi-hyphenate star and self-described ‘freeazzmuthafucka’ hasn’t stopped since.
In her new adventure, Monáe plays Cassandra ‘Andi’ Brand in writer/director Rian Johnson latest mystery whodunit Glass Onion, a woman with a secret who is lured to a private island by her old business partner, the Elon Musk-esque billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) along with old friends Birdie Jay, a former supermodel turned fashion designer (Kate Hudson), Lionel Toussaint, a scientist who works for Miles (Leslie Odom Jr.), Claire Debella, a Connecticut governor running for Senate (Kathryn Hahn), Peg, Birdie’s assistant (Jessica Henwick), Duke Cody, an aspiring YouTube star and ‘men’s rights’ activist (Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). There’s murder afoot, first in the form of a simple game, then for real when one of them dies and the group starts pointing fingers, guns and more.
I talked with Monáe about her love of science fiction and Rian Johnson’s writing, her star-studded cast, fashion, as much as we could about Glass Onion without spoiling it (as well as what other character she’d play and who she wants to see in the next one), and how she defines her own success.
Erik Anderson: You’ve had a really great year. Your first book was published in the spring. You’ve gotten multiple honors, including the Trevor Project and Glass Onion had a huge festival run. How has this year felt for you?
Janelle Monáe: Oh, my goodness. I’m sitting in an ocean full of gratitude to still be able to tell stories and tell the sort of stories that I’m proud of. I’m so just honored to be a part of this film, this cast, to have been given an opportunity to play this role. I had so much fun making this movie with Rian Johnson. I mean, I’m grateful.
EA: I think so. You’ve shared a lot of elements of your personal life over the last few years in interviews in public and sometimes in a very nonchalant way. How do you know what you want to share?
JM: Sometimes it’s risky. And sometimes it’s freeing. And sometimes it’s risky and freeing at the same damn time. You just, you know what I mean? You know when you know. And you just have the necessary conversations privately before you talk through things. And yeah, it’s life.
EA: I feel like you sit kind of alongside artists like Grace Jones and David Bowie and Prince, where you use fashion as such a statement of who you are. What does fashion mean to you as representation?
JM: Well, first of all, I cannot believe you just mentioned me and all those people’s names. I mean, with those folks’ names, those aliens, those androids, those freeazzmuthafuckas, that’s what I would like to call them. No, those are my people. I love them. When I think about fashion, I think about storytelling. I think through fashion we can tell so many stories. And for a long time, the story around me wearing just black and white was centered around my working-class family, my mom and my dad who put on uniforms. And I saw them wearing that thing over and over and over again. And when they had it on, you knew they were working. And so, when you saw me in my black and white, you knew I was working. You knew I am doing what it is that I feel like I’m supposed to be doing at that time.
EA: Absolutely. And I’m just thinking about how much I’m still gagging over your Diva Plavalaguna Halloween fit.
JM: You saw my outfit for Halloween or my-
EA: … oh my God. Amazing. But the onion dress for the TIFF premiere. We love a theme. Themes are amazing.
JM: I think we love to tell a story.
EA: I’m telling you.
JM: We love that we can experience that.
EA: I mean, you’re talking to somebody who just went to the Pinocchio premiere, and I came with a hand painted wood grained suit. I’m kind of-
JM: … What?
EA: I’m with you. I get it.
JM: Oh my god. We definitely need to hang out. I have not seen Pinocchio, by the way. I want to really bad.
EA: It’s so good. Speaking of Glass Onion, let’s get into it. How did you and Rian Johnson connect? And how did you take your character of Andi Brand from the page to the screen?
JM: I feel like I just thought about Rian for so many years and sort of manifested him reaching out to me. That’s the only way to explained, because I have been such a big fan of Rian since I saw Looper. Have you seen Looper?
EA: Oh, of course.
JM: I was just blown away by it. I was like, who is this person who loves time travel as much as me? And I wish I had written it, directed it, starred in it. It was one of those movies for me. And so, I went on a rabbit hole, down a rabbit hole to, and watching all of his stuff. I saw Brick, which was is a high school who done it, right? Everything he had done. And then up until this first Knives Out, I loved just him and Daniel Craig together. Just this iconic detective who done it story. I was a big fan of that.
So, it was already a yes. And then he sent me the script. I knew the part that he had in mind for me. And I was like, “Oh wow. Oh, wow. Yes.” Then I got to the twist of everything in the story and I was like, “Oh yes, hell yes.” It is a hell yes. And then they were like, “Rian wants to know, would you mind going to Greece to film this?” And I was like, “Fuck, yes. Are you kidding me? Get me off my couch. Get me on the first flight out. We are doing this.”
EA: Yes. Was the location a bit of a respite of everything that was going on COVID-wise? Because the film takes place in a COVID world as well.
JM: Mm-hmm. We were very, very safe. And I have to give a big round of applause to production, to Rom and the whole team. They made sure we stayed in our COVID bubble, and we couldn’t go out and party and do all those things. We didn’t want to. Because we didn’t want to shut down the production. You know what I mean? You don’t want to be that person that … you know what I’m saying was reckless or went out and had fun. And then now we can’t film for months. So, we stay.
And I think it was helpful to stay in that COVID free bubble because we got an opportunity to bond as a cast. We got an opportunity to really know each other. We would hang out at each other’s places. And then also Rian would invite us to these host, these murder mystery parties up by the bar. He was like, “All right, meet me. We have drinks.” I was like, “Okay, I’m there. Drinks, you had me there.” But then it was the murder mystery party. We listened to the music. We got an opportunity to trust each other as humans. And I think all of that, when I watched it back, I was like, “Oh, you can tell we really liked each other.”
EA: Yeah. The little murder mystery stories are one of the most fun stories I’ve heard about the production. How many times have seen the film, more than once?
JM: Like five times. Four to five times. Yeah.
EA: I’ve seen it twice. You keep … you start bread crumbing. You think … you know the ending, but you have to work your way through it.
EA: Was the script like that? How do you, since you know how this story ends, how do you keep yourself in suspense for your performance so that the audience can be?
JM: Everything was on that page. The script is so original, such a wild, twisty ride. I didn’t predict anything that was going to happen in it. And you love the script. And then though the movie though, just takes it to another level because it’s the details. It’s the planting of the clues that Rian does. He maps out everything. And he really does live by what likes to say, “It plays fair.” If you go back and watch it, all of the clues, everything that it says it did indeed happens.
EA: It absolutely does. Can you talk a little bit about working with this cast, which is so eclectic and so fun?
JM: Mm-hmm. This cast is star-studded. All right? I grew up watching so many of them do their things. They’ve all led their own films. And it could have been intimidating in a sense. You know? Because you’re looking at Edward Norton, Fight Club changed my life. Right? And just to name, everybody’s done remarkable work. And so, you want to come and you’re like, “Okay, I got to make sure I’m on my A game.” But when you meet this cast, they are just as scared as you are. We’re all wanting to do the best thing we can with our roles, making sure we don’t let Rian down.
A lot of us hadn’t worked in months, even years. So it was just like those butterflies that you get when you haven’t done something in a while. And so that it meant a lot to see everybody just relax and just be there for each other and open up and just be like, “I’m figuring this out too. We’re going to figure this out together.” That made for some real connections. And I think lifelong friendships outside of just like, “We made this film together.” It’s like, “No, I got to go on a journey with them as they were discovering new things about themselves.”
EA: That’s what it feels like. And every time you’re all at a premiere together or at an event together, it feels very much like that all the time.
JM: No, it is. It’s nothing negative, I can say. No egos were there. It was just, yeah, we were just happy to … we were like, how can I put it? It felt like a theater, summer theater troupe. And you wrote home to your parents, please don’t come and get me. Leave me here.
EA: Oh, I love that.
JM: Yeah. I felt it was that vibe.
EA: How does the musician side of Janelle Monáe meet up with the acting side? Is there a convergence there?
JM: Of course. I mean, I think it’s all storytelling for me. So, when I have an album, I’m telling a story. It’s a concept. I’m becoming a character. I’ve become so many characters from the ArchAndroid to the Electric Lady, to Dirty Computer, to everything in between. And there’s never been a world where I’ve only done one thing to one kind of story, I’ve been very blessed to have since a baby Janelle, being able to sing in talent showcases and be in my middle school, high school plays at the same time.
And there is actual choreography that goes along with choreographing the action scenes. Even the comedy, we had to do pre-production and work through some of those deep, emotional, heavy lifting scenes that I had in this film. I did everything from comedy, which I hadn’t done a lot of to the deep dramatic moments up until the action. We had stunt coordinators. So, you have to be able to be on your mark. The timing, all of it. And I think I used my dance background to my dance background, helped me with this character. Yeah, for sure.
EA: It’s very apparent too. Because you’re right, there is comedy, there is an action, and they all come together at once.
JM: Up until the voice, too. I picked a voice. I picked a note. I picked a tone. And you do that with singing, too.
EA: It is. And I know we have to be very careful to navigate how we talk about this. Because-
JM: … how we talk.
EA: – it is a murder mystery. But yeah, you have such a pivotal role in this, and I think people are going to be maybe not surprised, but very, very pleased. If you could play any other character in Glass Onion though, who would it be?
JM: Ooh, I’ve never been asked that question before. I think it would be Dave Bautista’s character Duke, just to wear that leopard speedo he has on. I love that scene. I love that scene. When you see him in that, just so I can wear that. You have to.
EA: Yeah, when he is using it as a gun holster, oh my God. That’s a really great sight.
JM: I mean, only for the fashion, I think in terms of all these people, all these characters are just, they are so, the way Rian writes, I mean, he talks about this a lot. He was really inspired by Agatha Christie, who was for her time speaking to her time. And people would say, some of her characters were subverting the genre. And she modernized these characters and so did Rian Johnson. So, a lot of these archetypes we sort of know.
And these folks, some people will say, what is good? What is evil? Some of these folks sit between it. It’s not a black and white thing. You got to leave room for nuance. And I think that Rian took his time, and he did such a remarkable job at creating, building these characters to where you’re just like “Hmm, is this person really as bad as they are?” Or “Wow, I did not think this person was that bad. But they are horrible.” I think you’re going to leave yourself questioning everybody. Yeah.
EA: Indeed. And along with that, since we know there will be another Knives Out, who do you want to see in the next Knives Out Mystery?
JM: Are you kidding? I am going to go get plastic surgery so I can be in the next Knives Out 3 because you know it’s never the same cast. So that means I have to audition as another actor.
EA: Well, based on Halloween, I think you could probably do that.
JM: I want to work with Rian Johnson over and over and over and over again.
EA: Yes. I think everybody wants that.
JM: No, whoever he picks will be amazing. And you’re going to have, if you are listening right now and you are that actor, you will have an incredible experience. Enjoy it. I want to gift you the experience that I’ve had. Absolutely.
EA: Janelle, what do you think the key to your success has been?
JM: The key to my success? Ooh, wow. I define success on my own terms. I don’t live by like, “Oh, you don’t have a number one song, so you’re not successful. You don’t have a Grammy, so you’re not successful. You don’t have this, that” … and some people define success in their own ways. And I just allow myself to define it. And if I’m present and I’m happy and I’m engaged, that is success. That is success for me. Yeah.
EA: I love that. Janelle, thank you so much.
JM: Thank you for talking to me. I really appreciate your support.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery completed a one-week theatrical run on Tuesday, November 29. It will be available to stream December 23 on Netflix.