Mo’Nique‘s commanding presence has made her a thrilling comedienne, a ferocious talk show host (not to mention an effective emcee at the Apollo), and an Academy Award-winning actress.
In the four years since she picked up an Oscar for her universally lauded work in Lee Daniels‘ Precious as a monstrous, tragic mother, she’s chosen projects selectively and spent more time with her husband and three kids. Thankfully for us, she’s returning to the big screen with Blackbird, director Patrik-Ian Polk‘s feature about a teenage boy (Julian Walker) who struggles with his sexuality, religion, and familial woes in a small Southern Baptist town. Mo’Nique plays the boy’s religious, confused mother who, along with her husband (Isaiah Washington), questions her son’s identity.
To celebrate the movie’s recent premiere at the Pan African Film Festival, we caught up with Mo’Nique to discuss her history with gay men, her filming experience on Blackbird, and what the 46-year-old actress is anticipating at the Oscars.
Isaiah Washington and Mo’Nique in Blackbird
TheBacklot: You’ve said the fearlessness of Blackbird‘s script attracted you to the project. What felt fearless about it?
Mo’Nique: I think the whole movie is a fearless moment. When you take a young black teenage boy and you put him in a position where he’s telling the truth — and oftentimes in the black community to be gay is still looked upon as a sin. It’s looked upon as, “How could you? Why would you? — with this film, we’re saying it’s not a choice you make. It’s who you were made to be. My passion and my personal feeling is: For all who question and judge? Take it up with the universe. Not the individual. That’s how they were meant to be. When I got to page two of Blackbird, I said, “Oh my God. If we do this right, it’ll change people’s lives. It’ll change their hearts, and that’ll change their minds.” The fearlessness comes in when our brilliant director Patrik says, “Action!” and no one says, “Wait, what? We’ve got to do what?” It’s when everyone says, “Let’s go full speed ahead. We know what’s truly going on.”
TB: You’ve always struck me as commanding but nurturing. Did you become protective on set with Julian, who plays your son?
M: I did. And he’s a new baby. This is his first acting job! He’s new to it. You do want to be protective. For me, you get a nurturing feeling, like, “Baby, we’re going to be good. Let’s hold hands and walk through it together.” You do take on that responsibility, and I still feel it now. I talked to Julian yesterday and I said, “How are you doing, baby? You doing OK?” You develop that relationship and that love, and you don’t just cut it off when they say, “That’s a wrap.”
TB: You’re an executive producer on this with your husband. Does that mean you control the dynamic on set? As a producer, what parts of the film did you most focus on getting right?
M: What I’ve always taken pride in when I’m acting or going onto sets is that I trust people. I trust Patrik. I trust Julian. I trust Isaiah. When they say, “Action!” there was never a time where it felt like, “We’ve got to tape that again. We’ve really got to make this point.” When you’re telling the truth, you don’t need to keep punching it. When you say, “Action!” truth be told. And cut. That’s what the feeling is and that’s what this movie is. I don’t get in the way, and my husband doesn’t get in my way. And Patrik didn’t get in the way of what we were doing. That’s a great project.
TB: Your costar and fellow producer Isaiah Washington introduced you to this script. He’s had a couple of imbroglios that went over terribly with the gay community, though he’s since apologized. What was it like getting this script from him?
M: Isaiah’s my brother. He’s one of the most brilliant actors to do it. He’s the truth, you know? It was an honor for that brother to call me and say, “Hey, I believe you can do this. I believe you should be a part of this. Please take a look and tell me what you think.” This film gave me the the same feeling as Precious, when Lee Daniels called me and said, “I’ve got a script I want you to read.” Isaiah Washington called me and said, “I’ve got a script I want you to read.” Lee Daniels is one of the greatest talents ever in the game; Isaiah’s one of the most brilliant talents ever in the game. When you get [offered a role] like that? It’s an honor. I never thought in a million years for the rest of my career that I’d have the opportunity to work with another Lee Daniels or another Gabourey Sidibe. And I got another Lee Daniels with Patrik-Ian Polk. I’ve got another Gabourey with Julian.
TB: You’re playing a worried, morally confused mother of a gay teen here. As an actress, what are you pulling from to make this role effective?
M: I’m pulling from my Uncle Donald. I’m pulling from [pauses] all the young men who are struggling. I’m pulling from the parents who are choosing between religion and their sons and daughters. I know those people. I’ve been around those people. I’ve hung out with those people. If I give it the truth, maybe a mother will look at that truth and say, “Oh my God. I stopped loving my baby for who he was made to be.” I’m pulling from those fathers who say to their sons and daughters, “You’ve got to get out. I can’t believe you’re gay.” My uncle Donald who’s now deceased and died of AIDS — I watched my family mistreat him because he was gay. This was truly my love letter to all of those people who’ve been mistreated just because the universe said, “This is who you’re going to be. This is who you were made to be.” That’s where it comes from. [Pauses.] I’m gonna hurt you now! You brought tears to my eyes. Leave me alone! [Laughs.]
TB: You’ve had a gay following for a long time. Can you tell us about your first relationships with gay men?
M: The gay community knows all the love I have. When I was 16, I would hang out with a group of gay boys. They would say, “Mo’Nique, you ain’t nothing but an old fag hag.” And I’d say, “Really? Thank you!” That whole group, except for one, are all deceased. That whole group. That whole group that I used to hang out with, except for one, are gone. Those beautiful brothers, they would always make me feel so special. They were so welcoming. They never called me fat. They never said, “Oh, girl, you’re just too big.” They always said, “Oh, Miss Mo’Nique! You in that dress! Let me fix your hair.” They were such a welcoming, loving environment. So this is my love letter to them — to say thank you. I remember going to the Garage in New York, the Clubhouse in D.C., the Mill in D.C., going to Zanzibar’s in North New Jersey. I said to my husband Sidney, “They were always so welcoming.” He said to me, “It was two groups, and you were both the underdogs. You both felt like you were pushed away because of how you looked or who you were, so when you came together it was nothing but love.” So for all my babies — and I call them my babies because they are — I say, live freely with no apologies. I’ve seen too many suffer.
Mo’Nique in Precious
TB: You’re a comedian, an actress, a producer, and a talk show host. Who are your personal icons?
M: Patti Labelle. And Sylvester. Let me tell you something. Sylvester? Listen to me. I adore that man. I admire that man. [Sighs.] “I’m happy I’m gay. I was born that way.” You’re like, did he say that out loud? Back THEN? Back then! The other legends for me: Millie Jackson. Bette Midler. Those are the ones who, for me, wouldn’t waver on what they believed in and what they loved. Like, tonight I’m on a show with Patti Labelle. They might have to carry me off the stage, you hear? They might have to carry me off that stage, honey! I love those people because they’re lovers of people.
TB: And finally, will you be watching the Oscars this year?
M: If it’s coming on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, I’m gonna watch it. You know I’ve got babies now, Louis. Michael’s 10 and the twins are 8, David and Jonathan. Every TV in our house is on Nickelodeon or Disney, and they don’t play that. “No, no, mama. We gotta watch Jessie [the Disney Channel series].” If Jessie‘s up for an award, I promise y’all I’ll watch it. [Laughs.] But I’m cheering for everyone. I’m rooting for everyone. The Image Awards, the Oscars, the BAFTAs, the SAG — every award should be appreciated. Every award. But I will tell you this: I want to see one person walk that carpet wearing nothing. Wouldn’t that be a fashion statement? Nothing. Just some pumps on. That’d be a fashion statement.