Mo’Nique doesn’t like her new film “Blackbird” being called a “comeback.” “I’ve been here for years,” she says. But she says it with a hearty, warm, inviting laugh, and she regularly calls me “baby” and “my love,” even after I’ve asked potentially uncomfortable questions about Hollywood and about how this tiny, independent drama is the first film she’s been in since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (and many, many other awards besides) for “Precious” back in 2010. It’s a small role, but one important to her: she plays the harried mother of a high schooler in a Bible Belt town struggling to embrace or hide his homosexuality.
You spent over five years away from movies. What made you want to make this your return?
You know, “Blackbird” made sense. There were a lot of scripts that came through, and they just didn’t make sense. But “Blackbird” made sense. It’s a necessary film. And it’s about time the story was told.
What kinds of roles were they?
They were the kind of roles where, if you say I won all those awards [for “Precious”], it just wouldn’t make sense to do that. They were little roles. Being an actress was something that just fell into my lap. I’m grateful for it; it was amazing. But my first passion was to be a talk show host. When you see me act in something it’s something I really wanted to do and it made sense.
What was it like returning to acting after such a break?
I didn’t have a break because my son had these puppets from “Sesame Street.” Just because y’all didn’t see me doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. I was the best Miss Piggy in the world, do you hear me? I never stopped doing it. You don’t know the awards I’ve won around here for being Miss Piggy. [Laughs] Those are the best awards. When my baby says cut and says, “Mommy, you were wonderful” — come on, now, what could beat that?
The South and religious communities are among the last hold-outs in America for tolerating homosexuality. This isn’t only aimed at them, but it definitely preaches to this groups.
We know those people. That’s why we thought it was important to tell this story. Often times we may not know the devastation that we’re doing to someone until we really see it. Am I treating my child like that? Am I treating my husband like that? Am I turning away from my family? When it comes to homosexuality you want to just believe it’s in the South or in the church community. After showing it at film festivals we saw it’s all over. It’s not just in the South, it’s in the North, in the East, in the West. It’s black men, white men, Asian men, Latin men — all of them are saying, “That’s my story.”
It does seem radical, though, that a film aimed at communities that have been reluctant to embrace homosexuality opens with a gay fantasy love scene. A lot of films about gay characters aimed at masses tend to water the sex down or, in some cases, not even have the lovers kiss. Were you reluctant to go that far?
Not at all. But when you say it’s a gay fantasy love scene, do you see a man and a woman and say it’s a heterosexual love scene? Or do you say it’s a love scene? We are so conditioned to label things. We need to get away from labels and look at it as a beautiful coming-of-age love story. You get to watch the dynamics of how this young man goes on the journey to find out who he is. We want people to have conversations, because when you start conversations you open your heart and change things. You may be able to say, “They’re human just like me, don’t they deserve the same things I deserve?”
You helped produce this independently. Was there even a chance of a Hollywood studio getting behind a film about homosexuality in the African American community?
Every studio we took “Blackbird” to, they said the same thing. They said, “Wow, this movie is amazing. It moves me, it has a strong message, it opened me up. But we don’t think the masses are ready for this. It’s so important to support independent films, because otherwise we’re handing the reins to a handful of people to decide what we see and what we don’t see.
Do you find the studios are that interested in voices that aren’t from the majority?
Let me ask you: Do you find that to be true?
I don’t see much diversity.
Well, we’re seeing the same thing! [Laughs] I’m seeing the exact same thing you’re seeing, my love.
Has it gotten better, not just for women but for African American women?
When you see our beautiful sisters Patricia Arquette and Gwyneth Paltrow in 2015 saying we would like wage equality — and those are my life sisters in this business — what do you think we’re getting?
It seems like there might finally be some awareness, thanks to Arquette’s radical Oscars speech.
Here’s the thing, my love, because I’ve heard you say the word “radical” a few times: there’s radical and there’s just speaking the truth. When did speaking the truth is it labeled as radical? Did you hear her say anything that wasn’t right? It’s just the words you’ve thrown out there. When I watch a documentary and someone says Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was radical [laughs], it’s like, “Was he?” Not peaceful, not loving, not kind — radical. It’s the words that we choose that can make all the difference. So no, I don’t think it’s radical, I think it’s time.
Years ago you were pursuing a film about Hattie McDaniel. What is the state of that?
I had a conversation with Hattie McDaniel, and she said, “Mo’Nique, my story’s already been told. It’s time to tell another story.”
What stories would you like to tell instead?
There are quite a few stories of amazing woman. Madam C.J. Walker, Mahalia Jackson — there are so many amazing women who have gone unheard. I had never heard of Ma Rainey until I got the script for “Bessie” [the forthcoming HBO movie about Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah]. She wasn’t in my history books when I went to school. There are so many women you don’t see [on screens] who died broke and by themselves. That’s what Hattie said: Tell a new story.