Mary J. Blige is one of the six names in entertainment being celebrated at the inaugural IndieWire Honors on Nov. 2. Her leading role in Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” was a breakout at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and shows that the singer has successfully transitioned into a serious acting career. She will receive the IndieWire Honor for Breakthrough Performance (Film).
In “Mudbound,” Florence Jackson is a character who sees everything, but says very little. Yet behind the quiet strength of the wife and mother of a family of sharecroppers – refusing to lose their dreams or dignity in the face of the South’s insurmountable racism – Mary J. Blige delivers a performance in which we see precisely what Florence is feeling and thinking.
“Mary’s able to affect this reserved exterior, but have this very empathetic, alive interior,” said “Mudbound” writer-director Dee Rees in an interview with IndieWire. “Her eyes always are thinking, you can see the wheels turning. There isn’t this flatness — she has this duality, she can do the affectation and underneath have the real thing.”
It’s the type of performance you’d expect from a big screen veteran knowing how to access the intimacy between camera and character with subtle gestures, not an international R&B and hip-hop star known for pouring her soul out in front of sold-out arenas.
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“I am explosive on stage and expressive, but I’m a quiet storm,” said Blige in an interview with IndieWire. “The reason Dee wanted me for the role was because I have that character in me.”
According to Blige, in real life she doesn’t really speak unless it’s necessary for her to do so. In other words, the fearless performer with the blonde hair and bold sense of style is a quiet soul. “I had to give that quiet to Florence,” said Blige. “It’s beautiful to play because that’s a strong character in me.”
Blige is no stranger to appearing in movies and television shows, but she was intensely aware she was often appearing as Mary J. Blige, the recognizable singer who has sold over 50 million albums. “Singers are given roles so easily because they’re singers and I didn’t want that to be why I got roles anymore,” said Blige. “I don’t want to sing like I did in ‘Rock of Ages,’ I want to work hard and just kind of lose myself in it.”
When told that many at the Sundance premiere of “Mudbound” didn’t realize that it was her playing Florence, Blige lit up. “That was the goal,” said Blige. “I don’t want people to see Mary J. Blige at all. I wanted to disappear.”
The desire to disappear goes beyond a need to shed the recognizable persona she’s created as a music superstar. Blige has said that her personal life was crumbling when she decided to do “Mudbound.” Her 13-year marriage to her manager Kendu Issacs was ending as a result of Blige having discovered — via $420,000 in “Travel Charges” — that Issacs was having an affair. Her music – principally her 13th studio album “Strength of a Woman” – became an outlet to express the rollercoaster of emotions involved with the deception, but acting offered her the ability to escape them by entering Florence’s fictional struggles. Blige’s own raw emotions though didn’t help her slip into the character’s skin.
“The acting was a challenge – just being a mother and having to find that wife that had a husband (Rob Morgan) who cared about her, because I was going through my own challenges and it was hard [to get in the headspace] of trying to be intimate with this man,” said Blige. “It’s one thing to be this emotional person and have all this stuff, but it’s another thing to transfer it into this character and make this character come to life, so I got a coach to help me do all that.”
Hiring an acting coach isn’t unusual, but it’s something most actors don’t talk about in interviews. Blige, however, has no desire to hide the hard work, as she’s extremely careful not to portray acting as something that comes easy to her – which she sees as being disrespectful to the craft of her heroes like Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and Queen Latifah. The challenge of making “Mudbound” just confirmed for her that it was time to make the large changes – switching management and coasts – so that she could dedicate herself to becoming an actress.
“I moved out to Los Angeles to further my acting career,” said Blige. “There is time because acting is something I want to do, so I’ve made the time to put in the work.”
Blige is familiar with the slow grind of the movie business, with the false starts and pushed start dates involved with getting projects off the ground. Luckily, she has some flexibility with what she calls her “day job.”
“Music is different,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for so long, I have all the control. I can put the album out when I get ready, there’s no label saying, ‘do it now.’”
When asked what kind of roles she is looking for, Blige joked that she would take whatever Rees offers her. “I love the heavy stuff, just because it’s a way of escaping all the heavy stuff of life,” said Blige. “I would love to do more drama, because life and the world just keep happening – hopefully there won’t be quite so much messed up stuff happening.”
Blige went to see “Wonder Woman” twice this summer and, like many, was inspired. “Wonder Woman is Wonder Woman, [Gal Gadot] took that on home, but I would love to be in one of those Marvel movies,” said Blige with a smile. “I can definitely see that.”
IndieWire Honors is presented by Vizio and DTS with premier support from Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City.