“Do you know LL Cool J?” Mo’Nique asked, offending all sense of hipness I thought I gave off.
Because of the downright Oprah-like poise and earnest spirituality Mo’Nique radiated so intensely from her eyes—which never broke contact with mine, but in a kind, non-threatening way—I presumed this wasn’t a rhetorical question. “Not…uh…personally,” I mumbled, fidgeting with the cuffs on my pink Oxford button-up. (OK. Maybe she was right to question my familiarity with ‘90s hip-hop.)
“Remember the song he wrote years ago with the line, ‘Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years?’” she continued. “That may need to start being my theme music.”
The stand-up comedian turned talk show host turned Oscar-winning actress turned Hollywood pariah stars in Sunday’s HBO biopic Bessie, about blues legend Bessie Smith, played by a gutsy and spectacular Queen Latifah. Just as spectacular is Mo’Nique, who has a supporting role as Ma Rainey, the trailblazing singer who served as Bessie’s mentor and close friend.
It’s another spellbinding, scene-chewing turn from the performer, one that will find her walking red carpets at award shows again for the first time since collecting a bookcase’s worth of trophies for her revelatory work in Precious in 2009.
She’s only had two film roles since winning her Oscar: 2009’s Steppin: The Movie, and last year’s Blackbird. Whether that’s of her own choosing or because of a Hollywood blackballing over alleged demanding behavior during that Oscar season has turned into a matter of ugly Hollywood he-said-she-said.
“I understand why people might say it’s a comeback, because they haven’t seen me in a while,” she told me. “People not seeing me was by choice. We had to take a position, as Ma Rainey took a position, to say if you’re not going to give me what my resume says I should have, I’m gonna sit it out.”
There is certain poetry in the fact that Mo’Nique is, at this juncture of her career, playing Ma Rainey, a woman whose legacy extends past her music and to her militant fight to be paid what her talent and audience-pull was rightfully worth, regardless of her race or gender. (And this was in the 1920s.)
Mo’Nique has been causing a stir of her own with a Hollywood Reporter interview in February claiming that she was blackballed from the industry after winning her Oscar, a punishment for refusing to play the campaign trail game without being compensated.
She said that she was offered roles in Empire and The Butler, both projects from her Precious director Lee Daniels, but those offers were taken off the table because of her reputation as difficult to work with—behavior she says was simply demanding pay she deserved. After a public back-and-forth with Daniels in which he denied offering her the role on Empire that went to Taraji P. Henson, Mo’Nique released emails between them that proved otherwise.
“Because of the position women like Ma Rainey took, they made it so I could have options,” she tells me. “Now I’m obligated to make sure the ones coming behind me have different options, so her fight won’t be the same as my fight, the same way my fight isn’t the same as their fight.”
Playing Ma Rainey in Bessie has emboldened Mo’Nique even more in that fight, and talking about the role is impossible without talking about the actress’s own crusade to be paid what she’s deserved.
For what it’s worth, everyone interviewed about Bessie has gone out of their way to dispel any notion that Mo’Nique is difficult to work with. “She showed up early, she was ready,” says writer-director Dee Rees, for one. “She banged shit out. She was a total professional. Not only did she know her lines, she knew everyone else’s lines. I would love to work with her again. She was fucking amazing.”
And it says something, too, the number of times Mo’Nique sweetly and sincerely calls me “baby” as we talk about the hard stuff: the controversies she’s found herself in, why she hasn’t backed down from defending herself, and what still has to be done to change an industry that woefully hasn’t progressed much since Ma Rainey was waging her own war.
Mo’Nique has a lot to say. And she says it all so well.
It took two decades for Bessie to finally be made. But in 2015, there is so much about Bessie that is incredibly relevant and timely. Why do you think now is a good time to have this on screen?
When you watch Bessie, Bessie speaks about gender equality. It speaks about wage equality and about human beings, from black people to white people. All of those things are all happening right now. We’re still saying, “Can you pay us fairly? Is it OK if we have wage equality? Is it OK that I love another woman, or love another man? Are those things OK?”
It’s almost scary how resonant those things—the wage gap, sexual acceptance, gender equality—are today.
When you see the Pope in 2015 saying we need wage equality, we need gender equality—well he’s not saying anything new. And we’re glad he’s saying it! But there was a woman back in 1920 named Ma Rainey saying, “You’re going to pay me what you’re supposed to pay me. You’re not going to mistreat me just because I’m a woman, just because I’m a black woman. You’re going to give me what I’m supposed to get.” She was making that stand back then when it was so unpopular for a black person, let alone a black woman, to say, “Give me my worth.” Now you have a white man, who’s the Pope, saying to pay people their worth. Wage equality. Look what she started, and look at how far it’s evolved.
There’s a lot of feminist power in the movie.
I think it’s a lot of strength, just period, as human beings. They just happen to be women. But those women were saying, “I’m unapologetic. I won’t waver. I’m going to give it my all and I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to swing my bat the way I want to swing my bat when it’s my turn. I’m not trying to take your bat from you. So why would you try to take mine?” Those women gave us a blueprint.
People have wondered why you’ve kept the conversations about being offered a role on Empire and being blackballed after the Oscars going, and you’ve given that answer. You’ve said it’s because of your pride and your integrity. Do you think by saying that you’re doing something that might change the way the industry works?
Well, we hope so. We hope that people become unafraid to speak truth. There’s this mystical thing that happens once we get to Hollywood. Because when we were growing up, I’m sure your parents said, “Don’t lie. Don’t let anyone bully you. Stand up for what you believe in.” But then we get there and it’s like, “Drop all of that off and go play the game.” I never dropped off those principles. And if I did, then how do I tell my children, “Don’t let anyone bully you. Take pride.” How do I pass that along if I’m not living it?
Does it become frustrating that the conversation when you’re promoting a movie that you’re so good in turns away from the work and towards these outside elements and controversies?
You know, when we do these movies and you watch the struggles and the hurdles that these people had to go through simply because they were black, and you watch the mistreatment from white people simply because they thought they could, you ask yourself, “Do those people still exist? Are they still around today? Are there still some black people that say, ‘I’ll let you treat me any way you want to, just let me in?’ And are there still those white people who say, ‘I’ll exploit every way I can possible if I benefit financially?’” Those people still exist, and the only thing you find changing are the faces, and not the stories. So how many times do we make these types of movies, and then we walk away like, “They were some different people! They were different people!” Well, those people are still here.
Dee Rees depicts sexuality in a really progressive way in this movie. It’s both matter-of-fact, but also essential to these women’s identities. What do you think about that balance?
I think it’s necessary. Because it’s who they were. To show it matter-of-factly, not to show it like “we gotta take it over the top” or “we gotta be real quiet with it,” it’s just what it was. Those women were women that liked other women! There are women today that like other women! At what point do we stop apologizing for it? At what point do we stop saying, “Please accept me?” Remember, in the 1920s it was illegal. If they saw you with a person of the same sex in a compromising position, you were going to jail. But those women were saying, “Prove it on me.” Because I’m gonna do me. I’m gonna be me.
Is it important to you to play a character that is empowered about their sexuality?
To play that character was an honor, to bring her to life in her fullness. I have an Uncle Tina. To say to my Uncle Tina, “Baby, that’s for you. Know that you’re not unique.” And my grandmother struggled with that. But maybe that’s been happening since the beginning of time. So to be able to bring that woman to life…and I didn’t walk away saying, “Oh my god, Ma Rainey’s a dyke! That woman’s a lesbian!” I walked away saying, “That woman right there was no joke. She was strong and loving and giving and nurturing.” Not, “She was gay.” That’s just who she was. I love the way Dee Rees did that.
So often in Hollywood there’s temptation to make sexuality of these figures a scandalous element of their lives.
And you find out that the scandal is that my heart says I’m attracted to a person of the same sex. What is scandalous about that? Scandal! Oh my gosh. On at 6.
What do you hope people will take away about you from watching your performance in this?
I don’t know if I want people to take away anything about me. Because it’s not about me. It’s about introducing this woman named Ma Rainey. And hopefully the imagery and the likeness that was put up on that screen, they will get to know that woman and know just how dynamic she was, and just what she gave to the history of music. Mo’Nique had nothing to do with that.
A lot of times actors will say things like, “I hope this will show people that I have more range,” or, “I hope this will show people that I can sing.” They have career goals, or things they want to prove, with certain roles.
I’m a talk show host. That’s it. Acting is fun, and I appreciate it. But I’m not that actress that says, “Maybe this will be the one, and they’ll really know!” Because you’ll find those people who really know. Her name is Dee Rees. It’s HBO. You’ll find those people that say, “Eh, we don’t have time for that part of it. We just want to get down with good people.”
It must be flattering that so many people wish you were acting more often than you have been.
It’s appreciated. It really is. And again, when it makes dollars it makes sense. And it has to make sense. I understand what people want, and I appreciate that. But what I can’t do is: I can’t take your compliments to the grocery store and say, “Don’t you know they told me I was good? Can you put me my things in those bags, please?” I can’t bring my Oscar to a shoe store and say, “Baby, could you put those in there for me. You see that trophy there, don’t you?”
I would love to see you try.
I would like to see me try. You know I’d be on CNN: “Mo’Nique has lost it. She brought that Oscar into the Kroeger.”
You’ve talked about the strength you felt while playing Ma Rainey. Do you think that strength is still with you?
Yes. In my closet I keep a picture of Hattie McDaniel, a picture of my grandmother, a picture of Whitney Houston, and a picture of this woman I met about two years that’s 66-years-old. All of them have a different story, but all of their stories make me stronger. I have to get my picture of Ma Rainey up in there. But I pass those women every morning and every night, and they all give me strength in different ways to say, “Keep going and swing your bat the way you want to. This is your journey. When you get to the end of it, it’s just you who’s going to leave here. No one else is going to take that last breath but you.” So all of those women feed me in different ways.