After a stellar career as a five-time Grammy-winning music superstar, Mary J. Blige has become one of the breakout film stars of 2017. Her role in “Mudbound” as Florence Jackson, a Mississippi mother during World War II, has already brought her supporting nominations at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Critics’ Choice in advance of a possible bid at the Academy Awards. She could also be nominated for her original song “Mighty River” from that same Netflix film.
Gold Derby’s Zach Laws hosted a webchat with Blige just before all of the awards season madness began. Watch that video above or read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: So, Mary J. Blige, your new movie, “Mudbound,” has received very strong reviews from critics and from audiences already, particularly for your performance. When you hear praise for this movie, what does that mean for you and for everybody involved?
Mary J. Blige: It means a lot to me because, first of all the film is just phenomenal and the cast is phenomenal and to be part of something so amazing and to be under the direction of Dee Rees, who I’ve been a fan of since “Bessie” and “Pariah,” I don’t really have a lot of words except for I’m just completely honored and blessed to be a part of something so amazing. And to be recognized as an actress is the cherry on the cake because I didn’t see any of this coming. I wanted to do some great work and I wanted to start the next chapter of my career but I didn’t expect to have Oscar buzz and things like that (laughs).
GD: I should say that you’ve already been nominated by the Gothams for Breakthrough Performer. You’ve also won that at the Hollywood Film Awards, which are tonight, and you’ve got an ensemble award at the Gothams at the Hollywood Film Award so congratulations to you and the cast as well.
MJB: Thank you.
GD: You’re welcome. Let’s talk a little bit about Florence Jackson. Tell us a little bit about her.
MJB: Florence Jackson is a very strong woman in the South in the ‘40s in the Jim Crow era, just a woman who loves her family and will do anything but she’s a different kind of woman, different from the women from these times because the women had to be more silent and powerful than boisterous. You see everything on her face. She’s really full of expression. She’s a powerful, silent woman and she’s got a lot of love in her. She would do anything for her family.
GD: The quality that stuck out for me about her, thinking about her, is dignity. There’s a dignity about her in spite of everything, in spite of the time that she’s living through, in spite of the environment she’s living in, there is a dignity about her.
MJB: Right, exactly. She had to be that woman because in those times, you had to keep your dignity because there was so much humiliation and terrible things going on, you had to keep yourself together.
GD: And it’s interesting in the film the way that you have to take charge of the family. When your husband becomes injured you are forced to have to go out and work some more. Can you talk a bit about that?
MJB: I believe the women in the South, they were more helpers and partners and they really exercised that in their actions. They were out in the field just as much as the men were out in the field and when he broke his leg, it was automatic for her to take over. Someone had to feed the family and take care of everything.
GD: And with your oldest son away at war, can you talk a little bit about the relationship that she has with her children and particularly with her oldest son, played by Jason Mitchell in the film?
MJB: Right, I mean of course a mother… Florence loves all her children but just like most mothers they have this one that’s very special to them. Ronsel was very special to Florence and she really wanted him to make it home from the war. It was something she feared that maybe he wouldn’t make it home and she just really paid a lot more attention to him. I almost say less attention to the other children, but he was special to her.
GD: Getting into the mindset of the period, of putting yourself into the 1940s and the Jim Crow era, was that difficult for you? How did you find your way into that as a modern woman?
MJB: I found my way into that through the environment and the clothing and all the direction that Dee gave. Her dress, her shoes, where she lived, all of the mud, the mosquitoes, the heat, the house being poor but still clean. So the environment just helped me find my way and of course I knew this woman. This woman was my aunt. When I was a kid my mom would send us down south every summer and I saw this woman. So I knew this woman very well.
GD: What were some of the qualities about your aunt that you took and put into Florence?
MJB: Well my grandmother was a dignified woman, and my aunts, they were very dignified. They were very strong, but they didn’t say much. They didn’t say much, but when they did, they moved everything around. So I took all of those things.
GD: One of the things that people have said in reviews and certainly I felt this way watching the movie as well, you’re pretty unrecognizable in this.
GD: When you hear people say things like that, how did you disappear? What was the process of taking away so many of the qualities that you’re known for? Does that make sense?
MJB: The beautiful thing about disappearing in this role is exactly what Dee wanted. She wanted Mary J. Blige to disappear and to be unrecognizable and for everyone to recognize Florence. I was trying to keep Mary on board but Dee Rees said no. She said, “No Mary J. Blige, so that means no nails, no lashes, no weaves, no wigs, no pounds of makeup. We’re just gonna let Florence live.” And I think I was able to give Florence a lot of how I grew up in my childhood watching my grandmother be that strong woman and watching my aunt be that strong woman, and I was also able to give her a lot of what I was dealing with in my own personal life. So I was able to surrender because I really didn’t have a lot to hold onto in my real life. I was able to completely just surrender to Florence, once I did surrender.
GD: Was there a scene that was particularly difficult for you to do, something that you had trouble with approaching, or what was the most difficult part for you?
MJB: I think the most difficult part for me was the scene when I found my son strung up by the Ku Klux Klan. That was heavy. I think that was heavy for all of us.
GD: It’s certainly a difficult scene to watch, so I can only imagine what it would be like to be in that moment. What did you do in order to prepare yourself for that?
MJB: We did nothing, we just went into it. We stood in the rain, ‘cause it was raining that night, and when it was time, we just went into it. And I guess just going right into it just makes it even more effective because it’s just painful to see. Painful for a mother to see.
GD: I wanted to ask you a bit more about working with Dee Rees. Can you talk a bit about what that collaboration was like?
MJB: Working with Dee Rees was a joy. It was so pleasant, one of the best experiences I’ve probably had in my career, one of them, because she was so sure of herself and so strong, so assertive and yet humble and a team player. All these things just made everything easy to give her what she wanted, really a gift and a joy to watch her every day, come on the set when it’s 100-something degree weather every day and her just be consistent, like the same person every day.
GD: And shooting in Louisiana, how did that help you with your performance?
MJB: Well, it was 186 degrees (laughs). It was so hot and it was mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were ridiculous. In New Orleans, the plantation, I think we shot on a plantation so it all helped. It all just keeps you in character. It all just keeps it all into perspective.
GD: Now you also have a song in the movie, “Mighty River.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
MJB: Okay, well the song “Mighty River” was written by myself and Raphael Saadiq. “Mighty River” is to me, I believe, the silver lining in the movie, which is love, which is what in the end, saves the day. I just wanted to always speak about the silver lining, because there’s so much darkness. I could have spoke about all the darkness. In the song I say, “Our blood is red, we’re not so different.” We’re the same. And if we could get rid of our differences, love is the only thing that’s gonna help us get rid of our differences, so that’s basically what “Mighty River” is about, just love being the mighty river that’s gonna help clean us up from all this hatred and stuff like that.
GD: And really it speaks to the theme of the movie, particularly in one of the central relationships of the movie between your son and Jamie, Garrett Hedlund’s character, the ways in which these two people who are separated by very surface-level differences, are more brothers than Garrett Hedlund is with his actual blood brother in the film.
MJB: Right, I believe they really taught us how to love, Jamie and Ronsel, because they were so open-minded about what love was in a place where there was so much racism, and that’s really touching. That’s a big silver lining.
GD: Why tell this story today?
MJB: I think this story’s important to be told today because of how we’re living today. I don’t think we’re that far. How far have we come? I don’t think we’ve gone anywhere. I knew there was racism but I can’t even believe that there’s still lynchings going on, so it’s very important just to start conversations about what’s happening, what’s being said right now, and why do we have this opportunity? So we can learn how to love each other.
GD: And because the movie is going to be on Netflix, so many people will be able to see it. Can you talk a bit about the distribution model of this movie and how it’s going to be out for so many people at the same time?
MJB: I believe it’s a worldwide Netflix premiere and it’s gonna be in limited theaters on November 17 and I think it’s really genius because Netflix, the internet is the way people watch television these days and Netflix is the way people watch movies.
GD: Lastly, before we go, you are a Golden Globe nominee for songwriting, you’re multi-Grammy Award winner, and now you have Oscar buzz for acting. What has that kind of recognition meant for you in your career?
MJB: It means so much for people to recognized you for what you do, especially for acting. I could write a song all day long, but for acting it means so much for people to recognize me.
GD: It’s a great movie and a great performance. Congratulations on it. I can’t believe that a year ago today we were talking about “The Wiz Live!” while you were on location shooting this little movie, who would have know that it would’ve led to this? So congratulations on that.
MJB: Thank you so much.