Being the best she can on-screen

Being the best she can on-screen

Mary J Blige was honoured with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star on January 11, her birthday, and it gave the 47-year-old singer and actor ever more affirmation that she made the right move three years ago when she left New York for Los Angeles. She needed it.

Blige's marriage was falling apart when she landed the role of a sharecropper's wife, Florence, in Dee Rees's lauded film Mudbound, and she poured her pain into the performance, earning multiple awards nominations. Her divorce has become tabloid fodder, but, undaunted, Blige has continued to campaign and show up at awards ceremonies.

I spoke with Blige in Beverly Hills on the eve of the Golden Globes, where the star joined the movement to wear black in support of victims of sexual harassment. She said she intimately understood the pain of keeping such secrets, having been abused herself for much of her childhood. "From the time I was 5 up until almost adulthood, I've had those exact kinds of things happen to me," she said. Here are edited excerpts from our interview:

Do you consider 'Mudbound' a breakthrough performance?

Definitely. It's the one that people are taking me seriously about. It's not a game for me. It's not, 'Give Mary J Blige a role, and because she's a singer, she can play games with it.' There's too many women that have paved the way, like Queen Latifah, and (Taraji P Henson), and all of those really strong women. I don't ever want to insult them by not taking the craft seriously.

Dee Rees has said that your concerts are like therapy for 30,000 people because you're so raw with your emotions. How did you channel that into acting, where, especially cinematically, it's on your face so closely?

That character was a place for me to just give everything that I was dealing with.
I was dealing with my own personal pain. I was really suffering. This was the place to just rest all this pain, and rest all of this confusion, but still at the same time trying to be a strong woman.

You're a glamour icon. You had to strip down everything for this role. No makeup, no wigs. Did that make you feel extra vulnerable?

The first couple of days it was hard, because I didn't realise I was depending on so many things to make me feel beautiful. So when Dee was, like, 'No, we want your all-natural hair,' and I said, 'No, well, can we do a lace front? Can she have wavy hair?' I didn't want my own textured hair. Because it's not the nicest textured hair. And I didn't really want that to be seen. Those are the things I didn't even realise that I was so insecure about. I didn't realise I was so vain. I didn't realise I was not that deep.

That's not really fair to say, though.

But it taught me a lesson. It taught me to love myself deeper. Because once I just exposed and let Florence live, I just went against the fear. It filled me up with a newfound love and a newfound confidence. It was tough at first. It was tough because I was really trying to get rid of Mary J Blige, who was used to wigs and weaves and make-up.

What was your reaction when you saw the first daily of you as Florence?

I couldn't believe it. I was not looking at myself; I was looking at a character. When I saw it at Sundance, I just broke down and cried.


Just to see that character and how strong she was and how much pain she was dealing with at the same time. Every other movie I've been in, I've seen myself. Rock of Ages, I see Mary J Blige. Prison Song, I saw Mary J Blige. But I didn't see myself (in Mudbound), which was creepy. I was, like, 'Who is that?' Yeah, so mission accomplished.

Has 'Mudbound'  opened other doors acting-wise?

A lot of scripts are coming in. People want to work with me. And it doesn't change anything. I'm still going to work hard. I'm still going to get whatever coach I need to bring whatever character to life. So many beautiful things are happening.

Is faith helping you as well with this?

Of course. If it wasn't for faith, if it wasn't for God, I'd be dead, seriously. From 2016 to now, this is all God. This is all a blessing. There's so many things that are being completely pruned and wiped away to prepare me for this.

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