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Janelle Monáe Talks Her New Film ‘Antebellum’

"We're fighters, we're survivors, and we won't be dying."

Janelle Monáe has fast established herself as the ultimate multi-hyphenate. The 34-year-old has been nominated for eight Grammy awards, has a plethora of musical accolades to her name and starred in a slew of critically acclaimed films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures. She’s been hailed as a trailblazer, consistently elevating the voices of marginalised communities through her work and platform, and an artistic genius, pushing creative boundaries of brilliance with her Afro-furist soul music.  

In her latest movie, Antebellum, she stars as both Eden and Veronica with the film spanning two time periods – Civil War-era 17th century and present-day – that heavily shape the circumstances of her characters; while Eden is a daring slave attempting escape on a plantation, Veronica is a sociologist and author currently on a speaking tour. From producers who also worked on Get Out and Us, it reckons with America’s brutal past by asking how much of our current reality is steeped in and guided by the same racist ideologies of slave plantations. Here, marie claire chats to Monáe about being guided by her dreams, making Antebellum and what comes next for an artist capable of anything. 

marie claire: Can you tell me what attracted you to the project?

Janelle Monáe: I was attracted by the script. I couldn’t put the script down when I was reading it, it took so many twists and turns on the page. I actually read it in one sitting and I was like, “I have to talk to the directors and writers,” because I wanted to know what inspired the film and what they were trying to say with the film. I had my own interpretations of the film, but I got on the phone with them and heard Gerard’s inspiration, which was a dream that he had, and he felt his ancestors speaking to him in this dream. Once I heard that, we connected because, like Gerard, I had written songs, come up with melodies, written entire albums and had stories inspired by my dreams. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and recorded them. And I do believe in the power of our ancestors speaking to us and planting seeds, seeding their vision in our dreams. 

So what I saw in this character was how similar she is to some of the superheroes of today. Superheroes like Maxine Waters, Marianna Kristen, and Stacey Abrams. Veronica aligned with all the women who are on the front lines moving their braces to denounce white supremacy, to denounce sexism and patriarchy. All of those women who are sharing the mic, who are amplifying the voices in our community, of people who are living close to the margin because of their race, their cause, or their gender. And that made me stay there. I wanted to honor these women. And I also felt the importance of connecting our past to our present. Our present really forms our future.

That’s brilliant. Veronica is a public intellectual and a strong independent leader who would stop at nothing to draw attention to racial injustice and violence. Do you think there are similarities between you and her?

Yes, we both believe in empowering our community, sharing the mic, amplifying the voices of those who are doing the work and keeping them with us. I think we’re fighters, we’re survivors, and we won’t be dying.

Janelle Monae in Antebellum
(Credit: Image: Roadshow)

What was it like working with the Get Out and Us producers?

It was great.They were very boots on the ground, on set every day, it was great having their expertise. And Jordan Peele, who is someone that we all should be thanking for revitalizing the whole genre, and putting black people at the center of it. He’s done so, so much to put it back on the map and to speak about social and political issues through art, and creating new ways that allow the conversation to keep going. 

The film is a nightmarish retread of America’s original sin, exploring the cruelty of slave plantations and how those racist brutalities heavily inform our current society. Was it a tough role for you to play?

Of course. It wasn’t a gut reaction. You know I live a certain life right now, I do have a certain amount of freedom, and having to play a role that at some point, you know, hinders that freedom. Emotionally, I knew this would take a lot, and I had to dig deep in meditation, digging deeper in frames, deeper and deeper in exercising, and make sure that I was physically fit as well. And there were times that I just couldn’t even talk to my family because I’m also the actor that likes to live in the spirit. I don’t want to break the spirit of the character, and I knew that I needed to keep the spirit of my ancestors very close, too.

The mood of the movie is extremely somber and dark. What was the vibe on set like for such an intense film?

I think there are somber and dark moments in the film but I wouldn’t say that the whole mood is that. I think that there are, there are more intense moments and we all felt it. We all felt the weight and the heaviness, and there were also moments where we all were cheering and excited, and we felt very victorious. There are comical moments in the film where we laughed. I love how it dabbled in a lot of relationships with each other, and there are sweet and tender moments with the family that he had. Yes, definitely an emotional rollercoaster.

In saying that, what’s your favourite memory from set?

One of my favourite moments happened in the second and third act. And I think it was the moments with my friend. Other than loving on each other and uplifting each other, being with my family, and my husband, my daughter, and speaking to all of those black women at the conference. When we’re not filming, we’d be talking to each other. I was making them laugh, and they were making me laugh. There was the idea of sisterhood that was just in the air.

And in the third act – once you go see the film you’ll know what I’m talking about – there were these moments where you had gone through so much, gone through a few heavy moments, that to get those moments of victory was important. And it was important to balance out the heavy and the light, and it made it all worthwhile. It was like, ‘this moment right here is why I said yes to the film’. 

You’re such an incredible talent; not just an actor, but a singer, a songwriter, and producer. Is there anything you can’t do? 

You know, I’m very excited about stretching myself. I want to direct. I will be directing. I will be producing more films. I have a company, Wonderland Pictures, and I hope that we can announce more this year and say the things that we’ll be doing. I’m super excited about getting into fashion that’s informed by community, and I’m also excited about music. I look at myself as a polymath and this all-round artist that doesn’t restrict themselves to one medium. But the most important thing is that there’s purpose, there’s a passion, there’s conviction, and to do it while having fun.

Antebellum is in cinemas now. 

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