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Dee Rees on Mary. J Blige’s Acting Career: ‘She Never Came Out of the Role’

IndieWire Honors: The "Mudbound" director recalls what it was like to meet the woman "whose music was the soundtrack of my college years."

Dee Rees and Mary J Blige'Mudbound' Cast Dinner, Toronto International Film Festival,Canada - 11 Sep 2017

Dee Rees and Mary J. Blige

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Mary J. Blige is one of the six names in entertainment being celebrated at the inaugural IndieWire Honors on Nov. 2. While she is world-renowned as a singer, she has been generating acclaim for her supporting turn as Florence in Dee Rees’ Southern period drama “Mudbound” since the film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. For more on Blige’s side of the story, go here. Rees shared these thoughts on what it was like to approach Blige for the part:

I grew up listening to Mary J. Blige’s music. When I initially met her, it was like, “Oh wow. I’m meeting this woman whose music was the soundtrack of my college years.” I’d seen her to do “The Wiz” live. To me, if you can do the Wicked Witch live, you can play anybody. There was a bit of awe with that. Her shows are like being at a therapy session with 30,000 people. She’s not just singing for you; she’s reliving things for you — pain, joy — and I knew she could bring that as an actress. I was so glad when she said yes. 

I just loved Mary as an artist. I think she’s got this deep empathetic sense. I knew she could bring that empathy to the character of Florence, who I needed to have this tough exterior and a vulnerable interior. She sees everything. Florence is an observer. I knew that Mary could bring that. Physically, she has this beautiful kind of star in her eye, with a perpetual tear.

I was surprised by how open and bold she was. Because she’s a megastar, she has a lot to protect. She was able to take on this material and work with me. She never made me feel like I was lesser than her. She didn’t have a star attitude, she was totally humble, and she was willing to not worry about appearances and commercial concerns. She never came out of the role.

I let her disappear into the process. The more matter of fact she was about it, the better it was for me — we didn’t have to worry about who was looking. I would love to work with her again. Here’s what I want people to know the most: Mary’s got chops. I’m excited to see what she does next. 

She’s super serious about her craft. She comes to set early, knows all her lines, and knows everyone else’s lines, too. She brought her own personal history to the role. She wasn’t finding it; she had it. She completely committed. As an actress, she stays in character. She wasn’t becoming Mary in between takes or disappearing to a trailer. She was staying on set, staying in the suffering, and basically just inhabiting the role. She’s just so committed to her craft and absorbing the material. 

I hoped she would trust me enough to become someone else: to take off the hair, the makeup the nails and go to a completely natural look. She is beautiful, and was able to become this whole other persona. Mary was able to put aside Mary and become Florence. She wasn’t there. She just trusted me, and she’s an icon, so just being able to strip down and be seen was an incredible thing for her to do. 

I let her disappear into the process. The more matter of fact she was about it, the better it was for me — we didn’t have to worry about who was looking. I would love to work with her again.

In general, films being made tend towards popcorn movies; there’s a lack of humanistic roles overall, not only for people like Mary. More characters like hers would be welcome. 

Here’s what I want people to know the most: Mary’s got chops. I’m excited to see what she does next. 

IndieWire Honors is presented by Vizio and DTS with premier support from Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City.

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