Janelle Monae Thinks Antebelleum Will 'Trigger' Some People [Interview]

Janelle Monae is more than just an incredible singer, dancer, songwriter and actor. She’s an activist and a community leader. In fact, few people have remained as busy as Monae during this stay at home period. Still, it was somewhat surprising that she found the time in her seemingly always packed schedule to topline the second season of Amazon Prime Video’s “Homecoming.”

READ MORE: “Homecoming” Season 2 review

Created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and directed by Sam Esmail, the first season of “Homecoming” tied multiple storylines to a fictional live-in facility for American soldiers readjusting to civilian life. Run by the Geist corporation, the operation used a treatment derived from a newly discovered plant they believe assists in diminishing post-traumatic disorders. Except, as an intrepid government investigator (Shea Whigham) and one of Geist’s caseworkers (Julia Roberts) discovers, it’s much more dangerous.

Neither Roberts, Whigham or Esmail returned for the second season, but Hong Chau, who plays an employee at Geist’s headquarters, and Stephen James, who portrays a victim of the treatment, do. How Monae fits into the puzzle would give too much away, but the first shot of the season premiere finds her character waking up on a boat in the middle of a lake having no idea who she is or why she is there. And if you missed out on the previous season it’s a smartly structured entry point.

Monae took some time last week to chat about her massively productive 2019, her upcoming thriller “Antebellum,” not being able to say no to Julia Roberts and what she loved about toplining her first television series.


The Playlist: How did “Homecoming” end up becoming your first television series?

Janelle Monae: Well, I was a fan of the first season and the podcast. And once I saw who was on it in terms of producing and directing, Sam Esmail – I loved “Mr. Robot” – and I just thought they really did an exceptional job the first season of “Homecoming.” And [new series director] Kyle Patrick Alvarez, I loved “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” And I was like, let me read the script because if they keep the elements that I love about the first season, which was like the scoring of the music and how short the episodes were and the details that were zoomed in on, which had like this Hitchcockian vibe to them? If they keep some of the things that I love, the suspense and the buildup that I love about the first season, I’m already in. And then when I read the second season, it exceeded my expectations. It was that, plus some. It was elevated even further. And I felt like this was a character I could really sink my teeth into and chew and bite something different. You know, lots of different flavors with Jackie and lots of different flavors with this character. I had so much room to play. And then I was just like, Julia Roberts is executive producing, and she had a say in picking me to lead this season. That was such a high honor. I mean, I’m not going to say no to Julia Roberts.

We don’t want to give too much away, but Jackie’s storyline is very unexpected. And some days you were at one location shooting all the different aspects of the journey she’s on. Was that challenging for you as an actor? Was it exciting?

It wasn’t challenging. I do that in my real life. I’m doing music, I’m doing shows, I’m deejaying, I’m living life. I’m taking care of myself, taking care of family, I’m into fashion. It’s all one life for me and I’m used to multitasking. But I carve out enough space for whatever I’m focused on. And so I knew I was just going to take it one step at a time. I can’t think about the next scene. I had to think about the moment that I was there, being present, don’t think about the future. When actors are in the future, you can see that. It was about being present and remaining present.

There are a number of extended one-take shots in the series and Kyle said he thought your experience as a performer and a dancer helped in that regard. Because, unlike other actors, you had that skill set already to understand the timing of it.

Yeah, I think he’s right about that. Sometimes I’m unaware because I’ve been performing for half of my life and coordination is extremely important because you only have that one camera, he can only move so fast and there are certain marks you have to hit. And if you don’t hit those marks, then everybody has to start all over. And nobody wants to keep doing the same take over and over again. But that was a hard one because it was dependent on the marks and like the technicality. So one of the things that I had to do was just kind of study. I sit back and watched the beautiful girl who was kind enough to stand in for me. She would go before me and I would just sit there and watch her. I watched her over and over and over and over again, studying her. And in the same way that I will study and learn a new dance, I learned how to stay in perfect timing to hit my marks and to get that shot.

You mentioned how you juggle so many aspects of your career. Even today, in this stay at home environment, I know you’re DJ’ing online and your production company, I saw, is doing a virtual charity event. Kyle also mentioned that there were times where you were not on set because you had other commitments. Longterm, when you consider an acting project, do you think to yourself, “O.K., have to give up three months of my music career for this” or is it all about making it work together?

Let me tell you what my last year was like. In 2019, we started off at the Grammys in February and nominated for album of the year and also doing a performance who took up like two, three months putting together. And then we ended up doing Coachella. And then I want to say, I went touring after that. And then maybe I went to Paris fashion week prior to that, maybe a little bit prior to that. And then I shot “Antebellum” for two and a half months, with pre-production included and I was in New Orleans. And then, that was May, June. And then after June, between June through August, I went on tour in Europe and we toured everywhere over there. And we also went to Japan. And right after I left Japan and obviously it was time to shoot “Homecoming.” So then I came to LA and I shot for about two and a half months. But there were spot dates before they had reached out to want me to do “Homecoming” that I couldn’t give up. They were so gracious to work around my schedule and build it around my schedule. There three days that I needed to be gone at different times, two to three days I needed to be gone, and I’ll never forget them, building production around that. That was so kind. And I was already so nervous coming into the situation that I did not want to cause any trouble. I was like, “I’m not Julia Roberts level so I can’t ask for these things.” But they were like, “Listen, we understand,” because I was telling them I couldn’t start until like after. And they were like, well, she has these things, we can work around it. And I was like, “You can work around it? What?” This is unheard of because the industry makes everyone think like it’s just impossible, take what you can and run with it. Don’t be too much of a hassle. So one of the things that was great was that they really did work around my schedule and I’m forever thankful for that.

Was there one aspect of playing Jackie or one particular moment that you thought was especially challenging?

Yes, I think it was those opening scenes. After reading the script, knowing I was going to wake up in a boat and this was going to be people’s first time being introduced to the character. And it was like, how do you play that? How do you actually play in losing your memory? And I watched a couple of films. I watched “Memento,” “The Bourne Identity” films. I watched this film that Nicole Kidman was in called, “Before I Go To Sleep.” And all of them deal with memory loss. And I was like, I can’t really play it like Matt Damon because Matt Damon is Matt Damon. So I have to bring my own flare to it. And one of the important things that I noticed about all of them is that they were listening. They were good listeners. And a lot of my responses are nonverbal because I’m listening. And when you listen to people, they tell you what you want to know. So, if I’m asking about myself, I have to listen intently. I’m listening, my antennas are up at a different level because none of this is familiar to me and I’m trying to piece all these things together around who I am. I don’t know who the culprit is. I don’t know who the suspects are, I don’t know who did this to me. I can’t trust anybody. Especially after certain incidents that you’ll see happen in the series.

Without giving anything away about what happens at the end of the series, would you be open to coming back for a third season down the road?

Of course, in a heartbeat. I’m forever thankful to Micah and Eli, the writers and Kyle and Julia Roberts and Sam Esmail, everyone involved for allowing me to lead my first television role. And to also have something to say with this role in how we treat ex veterans and how mental health is extremely important. And I’m sending my love out to anyone who is dealing with amnesia or short term, longterm memory loss.

Your next movie, “Antebellum,” was going to premiere at SXSW and it has hit written all over it. How do you feel about it’s August release date?

You know what, I love that everyone is excited about it. Like so many, I wanted the film to come out on time, but I would have hated it for anyone’s health to be in jeopardy because of a film that I was starring in. How we take care of each other is important. I think that “Antebellum” is for me, one of my most controversial films to date. I think the subject matter that it deals with, it can be uplifting, it also is terrifying. And I think that it can trigger some people and it probably will. I was able to stretch myself as an actor. That experience was a deeply emotional, spiritual experience and I did it. I said “Yes” because of my ancestors. And I said “Yes” because of all the black women who were superheroes in this world and who refused to be silenced. But it’s not a popcorn comedy and I want people to know that going into it. It’s right on time though and I think that, especially during this pandemic and with the election coming up and just where the world is, I think it’ll be a good compass to us and tell us where we need to anchor ourselves and where we need to march.

“Homecoming” Season 2 debuts on Amazon Prime Video this Friday.