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How Janelle Monáe Built a Character We Don’t Often See in Television

“Alex is in a patriarchal system,” she said. “Being a woman in corporate America, being a woman who has had to play the game —older, cis-het, white men created a system that was not built for her.”

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monaé is highly contemplative about the roles she takes. From the time she’s presented with a project, she questions whether she’s passionate about the story and whether she can handle it with the care and precision it deserves. “It depends on where my soul is at that time,” Monaé told IndieWire. And in the case of Alex, the confused and conflicted lead of the second season of Amazon Prime Video’s “Homecoming,” Monaé was eager to jump into the role of a character who audiences question at every turn.

Season 2 of “Homecoming” builds off what was established in Season 1. In this case, the audience meets Monaé’s Alex as she wakes up in a boat on the lake. From there she’s set on a journey, told to the audience through flashback, to regain her memory. 

Monaé describes her character Alex as a hustler, and, really, that could describe the singer/actress/producer herself. “I ended up shooting ‘Homecoming’ and [her new movie] ‘Antebellum’ in the same year, and went on tour in-between,” she said. Just a week or so after finishing up the European leg of her tour Monaé was in pre-production for the Amazon series, so she needed to take time to not only reset and analyze her lines, but also do research and formulate an idea of who Alex was. 

“It’s always fun researching and building [a] backstory for your characters, and this character is so complex, so layered,” Monaé said. Being a fan of Julia Roberts’ and Stephan James’ performances in “Homecoming” Season 1 was a key reason Monaé signed onto the series in the first place. She dived right into, not just the podcast, but also researching short and long-term memory loss, which factors heavily into Alex’s quest for self-discovery. 

Feeling inspired by features like “Memento” and “The Bourne Identity,” Monaé wanted to craft a history for Alex that “motivated her to do things in a way that was very specific to how I act,” she said. Monaé doesn’t often discuss the backstory she creates for a character, but certainly saw Alex as a survivor of undiscussed trauma, putting up a tough exterior. “What I notice about some of the most exterior hardcore presenting folks is, at the core, they’re so soft,” she said. “And the reason they’re so hard is they’re protecting themselves, protecting that softness.” 

When Monaé read the script she immediately noticed that Alex wasn’t written with a specific race in mind: “I’m Black and I’m proud to be Black, so I’m going to bring my experience as a Black artist and as a human being to every character I play. I felt so much freedom in playing her because I really got to build her.” She worked closely with director Kyle Alvarez to break down what made the character tick, and create a woman easily able to adapt to anyone. 

Monaé says she’s a fan of collaboration and particularly enjoyed working with Hong Chau, who plays the equally conflicted Audrey Temple. In breaking down their process, Monaé explained the two regularly had conversations about their characters on top of rehearsal time and before jumping into a scene. And these conversations weren’t limited to the scene itself, but also the process of consent between the two actresses, who constantly checked in with each other to make sure motivations and intentions felt right. It’s a process Monaé said doesn’t always happen on every project, but came through here. 

As the series progresses the audience constantly questions whether Alex is a hero or villain. Her job as a conflict resolution specialist sees her regularly manipulating people to change their minds, which Monaé called an art. “We know people who have that skill set and those people are always questionable,” Monaé said. But more importantly, Monaé said it’s an opportunity to show that scheming and transformation in a Black woman — since many times characters who are ambiguous or anti-heroes are men. 

“Alex is in a patriarchal system,” Monaé said. “Being a woman in corporate America, being a woman who has had to play the game; that older, cis-het, white men created a system that was not built for her.” Looking through that lens, she says, makes her see Alex as a hero. But at the same time, the character has to get down into the dirty world of not just corporate America, but misogyny and white supremacy. 

Monaé said it should also force audiences to look at themselves and question the fundamentals of good and evil. “Are we judging each other based on the decisions we make and are we redeemable?” she asked. Ultimately, she says it ends up becoming “such a mindfuck,” that it’s hard not to stay up nights thinking about Alex’s choices.

“Homecoming” Season 2 also takes on an unexpected resonance in the current world we’re in. “I feel like I still am in ‘Homecoming,’” Monaé said. The actress goes on to explain that with the current political climate, the rise of COVID-19 that’s disproportionately affected Black and Latino peoples, the emphasis on consumerism are all resonant within the series. “It’s something we’re experiencing right now,” she said. With that, Monaé hopes audiences will look a little deeper at themselves and the world around them. “Yes, it’s entertaining…but don’t miss the message,” Monaé said. “Don’t miss an opportunity to be better, to do better.”

You can see more from Janelle Monaé in the video above. 

“Homecoming” Season 2 is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. 

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