Janelle Monáe’s last role, as both Glass onion‘s heroes, is arguably as layered as director-writer Rian Johnson’s plot. And just like the movie, their characters—twins Andi, a tech innovator and co-founder of Alpha, and Helen, a schoolteacher—provide a refreshing chapter in the murder mystery genre as black southern women who run a treacherous circle of ladder climbers. navigating the coast. .
It’s a fitting piece for the multihyphenate whose off-screen journey bears remarkable parallels to that of their characters. In conversation with the Kansas City resident, they epitomize the salt-of-the-earth nickname the Midwesterners are known for. And in their work, they showcase a creative style and brilliance that has left an unmistakable (and coveted) mark in an industry full of prominent and powerful people.
The role feels like an almost perfect match for the kind of storytelling the glass-ceiling-crushing queer non-binary artist has embraced as part of their personal and artistic identity. It also doesn’t hurt that Monáe is a murder mystery lover, who has hosted Glass onionthemed dinners ahead of the film’s December release.
“I am someone obsessed with murder mystery games like Mafia, Werewolf and Assassin. I play them with my friends and my family, so it just felt right. For example, I’m in one of the biggest murder mystery franchises,” they said The Hollywood Reporter. “The coolest thing is to host these parties with people and let people interact with the movie and the genre in an interactive way.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Monáe – who was honored with the SeeHer Award at Sunday night’s Critics Choice Awards – about their work on Glass onion, including how they connected with their characters (and kept them straight); why their character smashed boxes at the beginning and end of the movie; why the kind of diversity in Johnson’s murder mysteries isn’t a subversion of the genre; and what the role has taught them about their own directing ambitions.
There are some interesting similarities between you, Andi, and Helen in terms of where you’re from and what you’ve been through as black people. And with your work linked to your android persona during your much celebrated Dirty computer music era, you came here with some experience juggling different characterizations. Did that have any influence on your interest in the roles?
I think Rian Johnson wrote these characters that just super hooked me. You have Helen, who is from North Alabama and is a school teacher who lives a simple life, loves children, has no interest in associating with billionaires or someone from New York who resembles the disruptors her sister associates with. And Andi is this woman in all business roles – she’s the minority in the majority and she had to adapt to get to a certain level. She needs to make her presence felt inside her because there are so many of those tech bros and glorified self-proclaimed geniuses looking over her or trying to take and steal her work because they don’t have an original idea of their own. So I knew both women. I just want to add that race was never mentioned in this script. Anyone could have played these characters. But because I’m black, it suddenly means something else. I wanted to show and honor those women we know who are not believed every day, who let things be taken from them and who eventually stand up and avenge their sister – even if it’s not their biological sister. They stand up for all women who, for whatever reason, cannot stand up for themselves.
You juggled two characters, but you also did that in a narrative arc where it wasn’t always clear who was who when to the public. Did you film in chronological order to help with your performance?
We didn’t film in chronological order. We filmed everywhere. On a Monday, I could play Helen from nine in the morning until twelve in the afternoon, and then from one by one to four, I was Helen pretending to be Andi. Or from almost six in the morning I’m running up and down the stairs while Helen pretends to be Andi after the public finds out she’s Helen. It took great precision, no lie. It took me to know each of their ghosts intimately so that I knew where I was going when it came time to tap in. So I kept a notebook for Helen, I kept a notebook for Andi, I kept a notebook for Helen pretending to be Andi that could remind me where I was and what my center was.
Central to the film is a group of ‘disruptors’ who really underline its negative connotations. But do you feel that Helen and Andi are both disruptors in a good way? And do you feel like you came in as an artist and disrupted the industry in any way?
I think Helen is a real disruptor, the most real disruptor of all. I think Andy wanted to disrupt and break down those systems that would allow people like Miles Bron to abuse their power. I don’t think Andy abused her power. I think she really wanted to do something good with Alpha and her platform and the money they made and the clout they had. I just think she was trapped in a bad system. And no, other people have probably viewed me as a disruptor and that’s fine. But I don’t think it tastes good to walk around calling myself a disruptor. I do know how to burn shit off and I think when I got into the music industry and the entertainment industry there was something different and unique that I wanted to add to it. And I’ve tried to be honest about my evolution and my vision, regardless of the climate our industry is in.
Glass onion has many of the trappings of classic movie murder mysteries, but one of the things that makes it truly modern is its inclusivity. Do you think that’s now part of how you tell a modern murder mystery and maybe part of what draws people to it?
I think Rian writes to our times in the same way one of his heroes Agatha Christie does. She wrote before her time and subverted the genres. I think we know these characters, we see them every day. We see the amalgamation of a billionaire tech bro. And this is not just any man, these are women and men in positions that abuse their power. We know the scientist and the politicians and washed-up models who became influencers or fashion designers. We know the YouTube men’s rights activists and we know the teachers and Black women and the Black queer women and the majority minority who have to navigate these spaces and structures that simply weren’t built for them. We know these people right? And if we don’t, we can get to know them through this work. I feel like this is primarily a form of entertainment and I think Rian would agree. We’re here to entertain, this is a whodunnit. It’s kind of a Clue game already and it’s meant to be fun and all, but you can’t help it because of the times we’re in trying to connect those dots. I think people bring in the experiences they know and they see it through that lens.
Audiences learn about Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) husband, but seeing you star as a strange, non-binary person, even though your characters aren’t, also adds to how Glass onion — along with its colorful palette and fun drama — made this follow-up feel a little delightfully weirder than the first film. Was that important in terms of this role and your larger body of work?
I knew nothing about Benoit’s personal life and it was just a treat when I first saw the movie with Hugh Grant as his partner. I am clearly part of the LGBTQI+ community and felt proud. It just felt normal and I like that. I think representation is always important, especially given the climate we’re in. We are still trying to fight back against certain laws and trying to convince people that we should be respected and loved and have equal rights. Honestly, it’s just stupid to still have or ever have that conversation as if our strangeness is a response to heteronormative behavior or heterosexual people. We have existed throughout history. So I hope that through art in general we can continue to show that representation and show the freedom, the love and the care with which we share our stories on screen and remind people who we are and that we are here to stay.
There’s been a lot of talk about smashing glass statues, but there was another moment early in the movie where your character smashes the puzzle box invite. What was the box versus breaking glass like and what did those moments mean to you?
Both experiences were cathartic. (laughs) By smashing the box, Miles really wanted us to open the box and go through his experience and show how genius but not genius he is. It was just great that Helen and the audience at the time thought it was Andi, but it was great that Helen just said, ‘Forget all that. I’m going to find out who killed my sister.’ That foreshadowed what she was going to do at the end of the movie, which was to burn things down. I thoroughly enjoyed filming it, even though the box itself was beautiful. The way our production department made it, I honestly wanted to take it home. But it had to be beaten up and battered.
At the murder mystery dinner you hosted in New York, I took home some clues and other props because it just felt like a fun experience that I wanted to hold onto. Did you literally or figuratively take something from working on this film?
I didn’t get a chance to bring anything physical, although I did want the dress I was wearing at the beginning of the movie – the red, black, and white one. I think I probably brought some house slippers that I would put on if I ran around the set. And I took home all the memories I had filming with my castmates who are now related to me. I never saw Rian Johnson lose his cool. He remained so calm, cool and collected and checked in with us as human beings. I also think the thing I took out of that is that when I would start directing, I want to give my actors the same feeling that Rian Johnson made me feel. The next thing I do and after that, if I’m lucky enough to do more, is have a cast that becomes my family. Those are the things I took out of the shoot.
Interview edited for length and clarity.