Janelle Monáe and I have gathered to discuss a movie, and specifically a role, that we really can’t talk about yet. The excitement around her turn in Glass Onion, following its premiere last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, was immediately palpable: Oscar buzz swirled, even though the nature of Monáe’s character and performance remained tightly under wraps. That won’t change for a few more months, with Glass Onion opening in select theaters in November and streaming on Netflix starting December 23.
So here we are over Zoom, ready to do the dance. My first question for the actor contains a spoiler from the movie—just between us!—and Monáe stops me: “Well, I don’t think we can talk about [redacted], right?” Right, right.
Monáe loves a whodunit. Before Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel came her way, she hosted murder-mystery parties every Tuesday at her home, a tradition that carried over to the starry Glass Onion company, as they got to know each other in their COVID production bubble on the Greek islands. She knows the power of surprise, but more crucially, she knows what makes this movie a blast.
That might be why Monáe runs away with Glass Onion, despite being in the presence of several Oscar nominees. (Daniel Craig is of course back at the top of the call sheet, as the Southern-drawled Detective Blanc.) Monáe had already proven herself as a chart-topping musician before making her debut as an actor in more dramatic films like Hidden Figures and Antebellum. Eventually, she wanted to let loose and be funny. In Glass Onion, she proves just how compellingly silly she can be, from her vocal range to her facial expressions to her faculty with a zinger. Ironically, in all that, she found a new kind of depth as an actor too. “When my friends saw it, they were like, ‘Oh, that’s the side of Janelle that we get to see,’” Monáe tells me. “‘You guys don’t know this side of her.’”
This was the moment for Monáe to take such a project on. On her very first movie, Moonlight, Monáe learned a key lesson from director Barry Jenkins. “Barry taught me that you’re making the movie in front of you, not from what’s on the page,” she says. “Being a good actor is about being a good listener and a good watcher, and I’ve been just doing that a lot more—allowing myself to be present, not having my response figured out.” She’s an enigmatic presence in Glass Onion as Andi, the ex-business partner of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who is hosting the luxe friends’ getaway at the center of the film. She’s the eyes and ears of the first act, if not the audience surrogate, the person telling us all is not paradise in Greece. Every cut to her speaks volumes.
I’d argue Monáe—a huge global star—is an actually underrated actor. Her transcendent empathy in Moonlight, that infectious spunk in Hidden Figures, and her quiet strength in Harriet all showcase a versatile performer who keys into the souls of her characters and brings them to vivid life. Glass Onion finds Monáe hitting the kind of crafty and knowing genre beats so seamlessly, you’d think she’d done a hundred of these movies before landing in Greece. It’s so expertly controlled; you don’t see any of the machinations, only the fun.
And Andi doesn’t say a whole lot early on. As the attention around the film may indicate, payoffs for both actor and audience await, deeper into the twisty narrative. “I worked the longest hours of all my cast members,” Monáe reveals. (Once you see the movie, you’ll see why.) “It’s a very, very big role. And there were moments where I was up until six in the morning shooting certain things. I knew what it took to get a take. And when you know what it takes to do something—when you live that experience—[you’re waiting] for the release.”