NEW YORK (AP) — The journey from pop star to serious thespian is littered with casualties. For every Justin Timberlake, there are big-name hitmakers whose movie careers have stalled with dubious and disappointing results.
Which is just one reason why Janelle Monae’s magical movie ride is so noteworthy. The Grammy-nominated performer made her acting debut last year with two films — and both are nominated for best picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
She first wowed critics in her small but pivotal role in “Moonlight” as Teresa, the nurturing girlfriend of a drug dealer who befriends an introverted, impoverished boy who senses he is different.
But her biggest breakout would come with “Hidden Figures,” portraying one of three pioneering black women at NASA whose contributions to the space race were critical, but overlooked by history. As engineer Mary Jackson, Monae shows a depth and range that wowed critics and proved she could hold her own along a star-studded cast.
Though Monae may be one of the biggest surprises of the Oscar season, the 31-year-old sees her acting ascension as part of her natural progression as an artist (she studied acting for years).
“I always did both, and I consider myself not just an actor or a musician or singer, but an artist-storyteller, and my hope is to continue to tell untold, unique universal stories in unforgettable ways,” said Monae in an interview.
Monae’s career so far has certainly been unforgettable. Her albums — a captivating mix of funk, psychedelic soul, R&B and pop — have been critically lauded, and her electric stage presence recalls James Brown or Prince, who was a close friend and mentor. She’s a CoverGirl spokeswoman and a fashion muse known for her eclectic style: On this day, her hair was dotted with eye ornaments.
Space permeated Monae’s artistic world long before “Hidden Figures” — her alter ego was a futuristic android Cindi Mayweather, and on her last album, she paid tribute to Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space. She even dreamed of being an astronaut.
“I’ve been obsessed with space and sci-fi . I was obsessed and still am with Mae Jemison,” she said of the first black woman in space.
And yet Monae was unaware of the story of Jackson or the other central characters in “Hidden Figures,” based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name.
Jackson was one of the black female “human computers” working for NASA in the segregated South; while the main character, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) was responsible for the mathematical formula that launched John Glenn into orbit, Jackson petitioned and won her case to study engineering at an all-white school to further her career at NASA.
“I thought it was a fictitious story,” she said. “Once I found out that these women in fact did exist, and they did contribute to the space race and were an integral part of helping us win the space race, I wanted to make sure that no other young boy or girl or American, human being, went through life without knowing these phenomenal, brilliant-minded women.”
Monae was cast as Jackson after the Oscar-nominated Henson and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (up for another Oscar for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan) were on board.
“We auditioned everyone, and we were having a hard time finding someone who had the fire of Mary Jackson,” said director Theodore Melfi. “And then in walks Janelle, who auditioned, and I think she was burning up inside herself. She’s such an activist and such a passionate and strong woman, she lit it up for us and did Mary Jackson so much justice and depth.”
Sharing billing with heavyweights on only her second film could have been intimidating, but Monae credits her co-stars with making her feel at ease.
“Octavia and Taraji are my big sisters. The sisterhood that you see on screen is genuine,” she said.
Spencer echoed those sentiments and called Monae a “brilliant artist.”
“She chose material that she responded to. You can’t just pick films that don’t resonate with you. If you pick films that don’t resonate with you, then chances are, it probably won’t resonate with anyone,” she said.
Monae cared so deeply about both projects that she took a break from recording to devote herself to them. “I felt like these movies are bigger than me; it was for humanity. These movies bring people together.”
Monae’s advocacy also spills outside her art. She was one of the performers at the Women’s March in Washington a month ago, and has been outspoken in her support of gay rights, Black Lives Matter and other causes.
Melfi expects that sincerity to be present in Monae as she navigates her way through Hollywood.
“I don’t think you’re going to see someone who does a fluff movie,” he said. “I think she’s going to do movies that mean something to people and that can help shine a light on someone who’s suffered an injustice or some kind of movie that builds faith or builds character.”
And that next project could include her own script: Monae envisions science fiction movies where black people play the leads, and stories about other hidden figures in African-American history.
“I feel empowered to continue writing and telling the stories that I feel we so desperately need,” she said.
AP writer Jonathan Landrum in Atlanta contributed to this story.
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