by Lawrence Ferber
Oscar-winning actress and comedienne Mo’Nique throws the word “baby” around a lot—as a term of affection, for comedic effect, and when discussing her own children and her onscreen spawn.
During a phone interview about director Patrik-Ian Polk’s acclaimed gay-themed feature Blackbird, which she stars in and also executive-produced with husband Sidney Hicks, Mo’Nique expressed her appreciation for, and thanks to, the LGBT community.
“Thanks, to all of you,” she shared, “because there was a time, before anybody knew who this fat little girl from Baltimore named Mo’Nique was, [when the LGBT] community embraced me and loved on me, baby. It was a kind of love I had never experienced before from strangers, so Blackbird is truly my love letter to that beautiful community.”
The Mississippi-set feature, adapted from Larry Duplechan’s novel by director Polk (Noah’s Arc, The Skinny) and co-screenwriter Rikki Beadle Blair (Stonewall), stars openly gay newcomer Julian Walker as Randy, a black Christian 17-year-old with an amazing voice, open-minded school friends, and a tumultuous home situation. His younger sister disappeared without a trace five years ago, and Randy’s deeply religious mother Claire (Mo’Nique) doles out love, grief, and homophobia-induced abuse in equal doses. Dad (Isaiah Washington), now separated from Claire, maintains his distance. And then there are Julian’s nightly wet dreams about other boys, including a new and self-assured gay student, Marshall.
While discussing Blackbird during our laughter- and “baby”-filled telephone interview, Mo’Nique also touched on her friendship with Precious director Lee Daniels (whose recent claim that she was “blackballed” in Hollywood for not promoting Precious has caused a rift between the pair) as well as her upcoming performance as lesbian singer Ma Rainey opposite Queen Latifah in Bessie, HBO’s biopic about queer blues legend Bessie Smith that premieres this month.
Lawrence Ferber: Just as I was preparing for this interview, I got a call from scammers claiming they’re from “the Windows tech department,” wanting to implant my computer with malware and charge me a fortune to remove a virus that doesn’t exist. Such cretins.
Mo’Nique: I love those kinds of calls because you can have fun with them. You say, “How’s your mother doing?” “Excuse me?” It throws them totally off their game!
How did Blackbird come your way?
Isaiah Washington and I share the same attorney, Ricky Anderson. He called Ricky up and said, “I believe Monique and Sidney will want to be involved in this project.” By the time we got finished reading page one, we knew we had to be a part.
Do you like playing bad moms?
No, baby! I only played one bad mom, [in Precious]! What Claire was, was honest, and [she acted in accordance with] what she believed. I won’t say she was mean. I will say she was conflicted, because there were two things happening: “I believe in this Bible and what it says so much, but I also see my son who is a beautiful human being,” and she didn’t know how to balance that.
At least she didn’t throw a TV at him.
Okay, now! At least she didn’t throw a TV! People ask, “What did you walk away with from playing that character?” That woman had an undying faith. Most people would have given up [on finding their daughter] after all those years. But that woman said, “No, no, no—the more prayers that go up get answered.” She taught me some lessons.
When cameras weren’t rolling on the set of Blackbird, what sort of relationship did you have with Julian?
I told him to tell his mother, “Thank you for letting me share you.” When cameras weren’t rolling, he was very respectful, just a sweet spirit, and you feel like, “That’s my baby.” He’s so free, and so accepting of who he was, so I really got the opportunity to know that young man, and any mother or father would be proud to say, “That’s my son.”
What was the toughest scene to shoot? You do dole out some abuse at Julian, even if it’s not a TV projectile.
One of the hardest moments for me was when I had to spit on that baby. Because we had to do how many takes? [Laughs] I had to keep spitting and spitting, and every time I was like, “Julian, I’m sorry, baby.”
Was there a special screen spit mixed up for those scenes?
No, baby, that’s from the pit of my stomach! That’s real! Patrik wants it real, sugar! Like the scenes where I had to slap Julian—I had to slap him 10 or 12 times. That’s a lot of times, and he was turning red. Sidney said, “Momma, you don’t have to slap him that hard!” I was like, “Daddy, yes I do!” When they say action, that’s not Mo’Nique, that’s Claire! So every time Patrik said action, Claire got mad all over again!
What sets Patrik apart from all the other directors you’ve worked with?
You know, I would have to say Patrik and Lee Daniels are pretty much on the same page—two directors unafraid to say it. Patrik is this tall, gentle giant who has such a brilliant mind. When you hear him talk, he’s very gentle, and you would never know that’s what’s going to come out [in his script]. When you ask, “We’re gonna say that?,” and Patrik says, “We’re gonna say it!” For me and my husband, it was such a pleasure. It was a lot of fun.
Speaking of Lee Daniels, has he responded to your request for a public chat to clear up the whole discussion about you allegedly being blackballed by Hollywood?
Not that I know of, no. [But] my baby’s gonna come around.
One more Precious-related question: would you do a reunion with Gabourey Sidibe on American Horror Story, playing her mom again?
If it makes sense, I sure would do it!
You and Sidney recently joined the NOH8 campaign. I love the photo of you two.
It was such an honor to be a part of that. My husband and I get so tickled when we do things together like NOH8 and Blackbird and the comedy specials, because we’ve been best friends since the 10th grade. I remember standing on the balcony at our high school, and I said, “One day we’re gonna be stars,” and he said, “You first.” So when we do things like this, we look at each other and just chuckle. From the 10th grade to right here.
You and Sidney have a pair of 9-year-old twins. How would you respond if a homophobic comment came out of their mouths?
Well, that’s not the babies we have, so we know that no homophobic comments would come out of their mouths. We’re raising our babies to accept and love everyone for who they were made to be.
How was playing Ma Rainey, a 1920s lesbian blues singer, opposite Queen Latifah as fellow queer blues icon Bessie Smith?
Playing Ma was amazing, because I feel connected to that woman. She had such a big heart, and she didn’t take any mess. If you wanted it, she tried to make sure you got it. She loved people, and she wasn’t ashamed of who she was. People still have a problem with being gay in 2015. Isn’t that insane? But you’ve got to go back to the 1920s and 1930s, and it was illegal and they could lock you up, and that woman was unafraid to be who she was made to be. So to be able to bring her to life was such an honor, and to be able to play with a living legend, an icon, like Queen Latifah, was such an honor. She was Bessie Smith when they said action. Her performance, in my humble opinion, is her best performance to date. It’s going to blow you away.
This is a little hot-button to ask, but I know that if Latifah officially came out, it would make such a big difference in the world. I’m curious how you feel about that.
I believe people take their journeys the way they take their journeys. It is their right to take it the way they choose to take it. So I don’t have anything to say about it because she doesn’t judge my journey, whatever it may be. So how can I judge hers?
What’s your dream role, if you could play any real person?
You ready for this? [Laughs] Cleopatra—in all of her glory and beauty—and tell the real story of who that woman really was. She was this amazing, incredible woman who was unafraid to be beautiful and tough.
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.