If there is any silver lining to the weeks that Janelle Monáe has spent sheltering in place, it is the opportunity it has afforded her to refocus on the fundamentals of performance and shed some of the excess of what she calls her “p.c.” — that is, “pre-corona” — days.
“Having to use less tools and figure out how to innovate, it just reminds me of when I started becoming an artist,” she said recently.
For Monáe that has lately meant playing more piano and guitar, even picking up a brush and painting, which she said she hadn’t done in years. “I’m not super-creative,” she added sheepishly.
This week, she will appear in her most ambitious role to date, playing the lead character in the new season of the Amazon thriller “Homecoming.” These episodes, which will be released on Friday, cast her as a mysterious woman who is trying to piece together her own identity and — this being Monáe, of course — learns it is more layered and complicated than anyone initially suspected.
It is a huge opportunity for Monáe as “Homecoming” pivots to a new story line — audiences will have to wait to see how it syncs up with its first season — and reinvents itself in the absence of its original series lead, Julia Roberts.
That’s the daunting part of the job; the satisfying part, Monáe said, lies in furthering herself in a discipline that is as important to her as her music and in once again upending expectations for what she might do next.
“That’s where I find my freedom,” she said of her unpredictable acting career. If people want to characterize her as a chameleon, Monáe said, she is fine with that. As she explained, “No matter where you put me, I’m going to figure out how to survive in that environment.”
As Monáe sees it, she has been telling stories and trying out different selves throughout her life. Going back to her childhood in Kansas City, Kan., she said, “I was always ‘acting an ass,’ as my mom would say, meaning like, acting up, always rebelling.”
Though she studied after high school at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan, Monáe flourished as a musician in Atlanta, creating intergalactically attuned pop music and futuristic alter egos through which to perform it.
Monáe said that she sees her music and her fanciful role-play as components of a unified creative expression. “I like fully realizing an idea and maximizing the potential that it can have,” she said. “I’m not going to just, say, release a song. No, let’s do a whole short film with it.”
But she always had aspirations to succeed in stage and screen acting, even if music is where she broke through first. As Monáe put it, music “has been like a bra” to her.
“If you go to a lingerie store, maybe you want to have the best-selling bra,” she explained. “But there are other things, too. There’s robes and full-out thongs that you can get.”
After a playing small voice part in the animated feature “Rio 2,” Monáe yearned for a role in a big-budget fantasy feature. “I was like, man, I really need the science-fiction trilogy world,” she said. “That would be a dream.”
Instead, her live-action debut came in “Moonlight,” the Academy Award-winning feature that cast her as Teresa, a mother figure to the young man seen at three phases of his life (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes).
Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed “Moonlight,” said that he cast Monáe after spending a short Skype session reading scenes with her and talking about her upbringing.
Jenkins said that the protagonist of “Moonlight,” who is known variously as Little, Chiron and Black, “wasn’t someone who was foreign to her — it was young men that she knew, it was people in her family.”
Crucially, Jenkins said, Monáe was hardly a pop-music dilettante looking for film credits to pad her résumé.
“This was a person who is very comfortable in their own skin and very comfortable performing,” he said of her. “She wasn’t pretending to be an actor for this audition — she was an actor. But she was also a person who understood the character, and that was more important.”
“Moonlight” was released in 2016, the same year that Monáe also co-starred in the biographical drama “Hidden Figures,” playing Mary Jackson, one of the few black women to work as a NASA mathematician and engineer at the dawn of the space race. The one-two punch of those films, both commercial hits and critical successes, helped establish Monáe as a credible screen performer, even as she continued to work on her music and live tours.
More recently, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, the creators and showrunners of “Homecoming,” were contemplating plans for the second season. Season 1, adapted from their fiction podcast of the same title, had told a time-twisting if self-contained story about a former social worker (Roberts) experiencing inexplicable memory loss and the military veteran (Stephan James) she helped to make the transition back to civilian life.
Roberts’s character had always been intended as a one-season role, Horowitz and Bloomberg said. (Roberts remains an executive producer of the series, as does Sam Esmail, who directed Season 1.)
For Season 2, the showrunners wanted an actor whom audiences would find just as compelling, to play the part of an enigmatic woman who wakes up alone in a rowboat and is suffering from amnesia.
When the possibility arose that Monáe could play this character — who is known to viewers, initially, as Jackie — the showrunners were excited about the presence she could bring to the role, as well as the message she would convey about the new narrative direction.
“We didn’t want to repeat the same tricks of Season 1,” Bloomberg said. “We wanted each season to come to a satisfying conclusion and then leave a trap door into the next one.”
Horowitz said that Monáe’s involvement would immediately address for viewers any questions they might have about how the show would move beyond her celebrated predecessor. “It’s not like she is 80 percent of Julia Roberts, and that’s pretty good — she’s just so firmly her own thing,” he said. “It declares that this isn’t a pale substitution of before. This is instantly a fresh start.”
Monáe, who counts herself as a fan of shows including “Insecure,” “Ozark” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” said that she was drawn into what she called “the Hitchcockian vibe” of “Homecoming.”
“There’s details you miss in other shows because there’s so much going on,” she said. “It’s so zoomed in, it makes those small details stand out as much as the subjects.”
Monáe shot her “Homecoming” role over a 43-day stretch last fall, having already played an international concert tour and filmed a lead role in the horror movie “Antebellum,” which is planned for release later this year.
There wasn’t an abundance of time for her to prepare for “Homecoming,” which brings back some familiar faces from Season 1, like James and Hong Chau, while introducing new characters played by Chris Cooper and Joan Cusack. But Monáe read up on memory loss and watched films like “The Bourne Identity” and “Memento.”
“I was overprepared,” she said. “I was up researching, asking questions.”
While she filmed the series, Monáe was also contending with a diagnosis of mercury poisoning that she was treating with DMSA chelation therapy, which she said proved unexpectedly useful to her performance.
“It messes with your nervous system, so it kind of worked for my role,” she said. “When you’re seeing Jackie, I really was in a forgetful state for a lot of it.” (She said she has since been given a clean bill of health, adding, “Heavy metal is fine, but not when it’s in your organs.”)
Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who directed the new season of “Homecoming,” said he was reminded of Kim Novak in “Vertigo” as he watched Monáe work in front of the camera.
“Janelle is an incredibly enigmatic presence, and I mean that it in a positive way,” Alvarez said. “She’s very warm and accessible. But in the way that the best stars are, there’s something you’re never sure about, you don’t totally know about them. And that’s the exciting part.”
Though the pandemic has placed a temporary hold on her professional output, Monáe said that her “Homecoming” experience would invariably weave its way into her subsequent work. “I definitely feel stronger as a person,” she said. “I feel like it was a time in my life that I won’t forget.”
But what that next project will be, only the cosmos knows.
“The universe tells me what I’m supposed to do,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the next assignment.”