ABOVE PHOTO: Janelle Monae poses for photographers upon arrival for the photo call of the film ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ in London, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)
By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — To get a sense of Janelle Monáe’s powers of transformation, look no further than her Instagram photos of past Halloweens. Monáe doesn’t just throw something on. When she turns into the White Rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland” or Diva Plavalaguna from “The Fifth Element,” Monáe looks legitimately ready to step onto a movie set.
“I am indeed a self-proclaimed transformer,” Monáe says, smiling. “I love going outside of what I think I know about me.”
Monáe, who grew up in a working-class Baptist family in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, first remade herself in music as a retro-styled dynamo. Performing in a tuxedo and a vintage pompadour, she fashioned herself as a time-traveling android alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather. Acting was probably inevitable for Monáe, who studied musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy before dedicating herself to music.
“It is that character building that I love,” Monáe said in a recent interview. “I love just getting my body into discovering a new way to talk and to breathe, and, hopefully, being a reflection for other folks. Go outside of who you think you are every day.”
But as much as Monáe has been a natural, full-body entertainer and a red-carpet head-turner – a self-evident movie star — it has sometimes seemed since her two 2016 big-screen debuts in “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” that Hollywood hasn’t known quite how to fully harness the wide-ranging talents of such a self-propelled, mold-breaking Black female artist.
But in Rian Johnson’s whodunit sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which debuts Friday on Netflix, Monáe may have found a film to suit her proclivity for shape shifting. In Johnson’s puzzle box of a movie, Monáe’s character is the most mysterious and enigmatic of a colorful ensemble. If “Knives Out” gave Ana de Armas a chance to shine, “Glass Onion” is a revelation of Monáe’s many layers.
“It’s been an incredibly transformative experience for me as an actor,” Monáe says. “I got an opportunity to show range. This character goes from comedy to the deep emotional, heavy-lifting dramatic scenes all the way to action, where I found myself working with a stunt coordinator at five, six in the morning in Greece after eating baklava.”
The less said about exactly how Monáe fits into “Glass Onion,” the better. In Johnson’s film, which had a one-week theatrical run in late November, Edward Norton plays a tech billionaire, Miles Bron, who invites friends to his private Greek island. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on hand for a murder mystery that spins out of control and a plot that, in dredging up Bron’s past, skewers a social media mogul not so unlike some of today’s real-world tech tycoons.
“I got an opportunity to honor those women who are the minority in the majority in those spaces, who have their ideas taken from them, who are not given credit for their work, who have to deal with these alligators, deal with these tech bros, deal with these geniuses who in fact haven’t done anything except for cause confusion,” says Monáe.
Monáe is something of a futurist, herself. Earlier this year she published a collection of sci-fi stories titled “The Memory Librarian,” adapted from elements in her 2018 album, “Dirty Computer.” In it, Monáe depicts a future world where human desires are controlled by an organization called New Dawn and the identities of LGBTQ people can be wiped by a drug called Nevermind.
Monáe earlier this year said on “Red Table Talk” that she identifies as non-binary. Her pronouns, she has said, are her/she, they/them and “free-ass motherf—–.” The film industry, especially this time of year when awards are given to actors and actresses, can be more codified in its classifications. Monáe, herself, was named best supporting actress for her performance in “Glass Onion” by the National Board of Review.
The multidimensional characters of “Glass Onion,” Monáe says, has given her more hope that she can find films that authentically connect with her. “I just want to tip my hat off to those writers and directors who are thinking about dynamism when they’re writing these characters,” she says. That includes Johnson, who she’s been a fan of since seeing his 2012 science-fiction film “Looper.” Says Monáe: “I was like: Who is this guy who likes time travel as much as me?”
Johnson, for his part, felt he was working with “a true artist.”
“It’s not like she has a tremendous artifice to her, but I’ve never met her where she doesn’t look better than I will ever look in my life,” he says, laughing. “She’s an entertainer but she’s also an artist. It’s not a facade that she just puts on for attention. All the stuff that she does comes from a place that’s really close to her heart.”
Through her Paisley Park-like creative hub Wondaland in Atlanta, Monáe is trying, she says, to “tell radical, rebellious, smart stories.” With A24, she’s developing a TV series on Josephine Baker, the French dancer and WWII resistance fighter. She’s eager for more.
“As timeless as I like to think I am, time waits for nobody,” Monáe says.
But regardless of future roles, for Monáe metamorphosis is more of a habit. On a weekend during shooting, Johnson sent out hand-written invitations to the cast to gather for their own murder mystery. Monáe arrived decked out as Sherlock Holmes, complete with top hat, beard, mustache, cane and cape. Or as Monáe says, “Ready to play.”