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Janelle Monáe on her first acting role and embracing otherness

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The musician makes her theatrical debut with the film "Moonlight." She talks about what drew her to acting and why she's passionate about "telling stories about the other."

Janelle Monáe is mostly known as a musician and performer, and an accomplished one at that.

She’s released three albums and has been nominated for numerous Grammy awards, including Best Contemporary R&B Album in 2011. But Monáe is taking a break from music to pursue an acting career. 

She recently made her feature film debut in “Moonlight," where she plays Teresa, a mother-like figure to the main character, Chiron, who is a young man grappling with his sexual identity. Monáe is also starring alongside Taraji P. Hensen and Octavia Spencer in another movie called “Hidden Figures,” which comes out on Christmas Day.

The Frame spoke with Janelle Monáe about what she loves about acting, how she took inspiration from her mom for her role in "Moonlight," and why she connects with being an outcast. 


On how her passion for acting came at a young age

I started to act when I was young. I just remember just having a spark when I used to do my Easter poem in my Baptist church, and I just had so much fun being in front of people and making them feel humorous. But my family would be proud when they would see me on stage. 

On how her mother inspired her portrayal of Teresa in the film “Moonlight”

I see so much of my mom in Teresa. It's not even funny. When I think about just the strong African woman who was there for me and all of my cousins pretty much, she was always there to listen to us and not judge us.

My mom actually had to sacrifice her senior year in high school to give birth to me — that's a sacrifice. So I owe my mom so much, and she never tried to force me to become or be someone that I never spoke about being. She always encouraged me to follow my heart, and she knew how much I loved to entertain. My mom actually has wanted me to be in movies before my singing. She doesn't think I've made it until I've been in a movie.

On how she felt like an outcast when going to school for acting

I remember being the only black girl in pretty much all of my classes. So it was a big culture shock because I was coming from a predominately African-American school. 

I have felt like the other when I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy for the acting program. I was the only black girl in all of my classes. It was hard sometimes feeling like, 'I don't think I have anyone in here who understands me. Do you understand me? Are you judging me?' There are times when people would come up to me and say certain things because of what they had seen on television or [because] they haven't been around a lot of black women, and they just ask questions about my hair, my dancing, or why I talk like that.

Sometimes it could be very frustrating feeling like an outcast and feeling like you don't have anyone that could relate to you. But because it's never addressed and it's uncomfortable for people to talk about, we just go on and we just interact in these surface-level ways. It's so silly. Just have a conversation.

Once I started to have more conversations, I started to become more vocal and passionate about telling stories about the other and making sure that the person who is oftentimes marginalized was seen in my videos and that they didn't feel so alone. 

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