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Janelle Monáe honors women in ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’

Rian Johnson’s whodunit sequel streaming on Netflix

13 Photos
Actor-musician Janelle Monae poses for photos in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 2022, to promote her film "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery." (AP Photo/Jae C.
Actor-musician Janelle Monae poses for photos in Los Angeles on Nov. 16, 2022, to promote her film "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (John Wilson/Netflix) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK — To get a sense of Janelle Monáe’s powers of transformation, look no further than her Instagram photos of past Halloweens. Monáe doesn’t just throw something on. When she turns into the White Rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland” or Diva Plavalaguna from “The Fifth Element,” she looks legitimately ready to step onto a movie set.

“I am indeed a self-proclaimed transformer,” Monáe said, smiling. “I love going outside of what I think I know about me.”

Monáe, who grew up in a working-class Baptist family in Kansas City, Kan., first remade herself in music as a retro-styled dynamo. Performing in a tuxedo and a vintage pompadour, she fashioned herself as a time-traveling android alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather.

Acting was probably inevitable for Monáe, who studied musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy before dedicating herself to musical pursuits.

“It is that character building that I love,” she said. “I love just getting my body into discovering a new way to talk and to breathe and, hopefully, being a reflection for other folks. Go outside of who you think you are every day.”

But as much as Monáe has been a natural, full-body entertainer and a red-carpet head-turner, it has sometimes seemed since her two 2016 big-screen debuts in “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” that Hollywood hasn’t known quite how to fully harness the wide-ranging talents of such a mold-breaking Black female artist.

But in Rian Johnson’s whodunit sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which debuts today on Netflix, Monáe may have found a film to suit her proclivity for shape shifting. In this puzzle box of a movie, Monáe’s character is the most mysterious and enigmatic of a colorful ensemble. If “Knives Out” gave Ana de Armas a chance to shine, “Glass Onion” is a revelation of Monáe’s many layers.

“It’s been an incredibly transformative experience for me as an actor,” she said. “I got an opportunity to show range. This character goes from comedy to the deep emotional, heavy-lifting dramatic scenes all the way to action, where I found myself working with a stunt coordinator at 5, 6 in the morning in Greece after eating baclava.”

The less said about exactly how Monáe fits into “Glass Onion,” the better. In Johnson’s film, which had a one-week theatrical run in late November, Edward Norton plays tech billionaire Miles Bron, who invites friends to his private Greek island. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on hand for a murder mystery that spins out of control and a plot that, in dredging up Bron’s past, skewers a social media mogul not so unlike some of today’s real-world tech tycoons.

“I got an opportunity to honor those women who are the minority in the majority in those spaces, who have their ideas taken from them, who are not given credit for their work, who have to deal with these alligators, deal with these tech bros, deal with these geniuses who in fact haven’t done anything except for cause confusion,” Monáe said.

Monáe is something of a futurist herself. In 2022, she published a collection of sci-fi stories titled “The Memory Librarian,” adapted from elements in her 2018 album “Dirty Computer.” In it, she depicts a future world where human desires are controlled by an organization called New Dawn and the identities of LGBTQ people can be wiped by a drug called Nevermind.

Monáe said on “Red Table Talk” in 2022 that she identifies as non-binary. Her pronouns, she has said, are her/she, they/them and “free-ass motherf—–.”

She was named best supporting actress for her performance in “Glass Onion” by the National Board of Review.