It’s funny; looking in the mirror as me, I just see me. [Laughs.] It’s me with purple hair or me with fake nails. I still see me underneath. It was interesting seeing people’s reactions to me when I had all of the Noni get-up on.
Yeah. And some people just didn’t recognize me. A couple of times on the set I’d meet someone in the morning in the makeup trailer when I had no makeup on, and then met them later in the day when I was in character, and they reintroduced themselves to me. And I said, “Oh, no, we met this morning.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. But there’s something quite fun about that. Transformation for me is something that’s really interesting as an actor. It’s not often that you get the opportunity in one role to do the glamour and the superficiality but also the rawness and the organic nakedness of Noni’s true self. And [to] have that full gamut where she sort of metamorphosizes from this artificial pop diva to her natural self was a real treat to be able to [do] that all in one role.
Certainly I myself had no idea the scale of the team that goes into making an artist that makes hit records. In our times it’s become a little more formulaic I think. It’s definitely a producer’s medium for a lot of those records. We were really fortunate to work with the-Dream, who wrote all of the original music. Somebody like that can define a new artist’s sound entirely. The voice is the raw material, but then what gets done to it in the production—
In a way. And that was interesting for me to discover. And I think because of the media I think people want to believe the fantasy. There is an escapist element to a lot of music videos. We’re all aware that it’s not real, but I think part of what we’re exploring in this film is the idea of persona and the idea that in Noni’s case particularly, somebody that’s been groomed from a very early age into this world and hasn’t really had a chance to define herself in her own terms and the idea of when a persona takes over. Like you say, people really do believe it.
Wow, well, that’s the thing. Those ladies had it tough in the old, golden age of Hollywood [that] was sort of notoriously stifling. People being in these long contracts and their image was definitely controlled by the studios in those days. I think a huge difference nowadays is obviously the Internet and camera phones [laughs] and the media in general. Even though those stars had their troubles, I think there was still an air of mystique about them, whereas nowadays [with] social media we know a lot—or we think we know a lot—about our stars. [Laughs] But everything is put out there for public consumption. And that means that people don’t always have a chance to look after themselves psychologically. [Laughs]
And like Noni, she had quite an ambitious mother, shall we say, and starting from such a young age. In the film we explore that idea of parents not just with Noni but also with Kaz, played by Nate Parker--the parents that are trying to enforce their own ambitions onto their children. Hopefully one of the messages is to be yourself; be who you are and learn to find your authentic voice.
I think being famous in itself is not really a healthy aspiration. I think if you do something that you’re passionate about and you have something important to say and something to express--for some things like acting, sometimes fame is a byproduct of a lot of people appreciating what you do, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend aspiring for fame for fame’s sake because it’s an old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.” You need to have something else; you need to have something substantial behind you I think.
[Laughs.] I’m an actress, and this was great to play this role and it was great to explore this world and this character, but I have no aspirations to be a pop star. Noni was a wonderful character, and it helped us to explore many of these issues that women face today in terms of identity and perceptions of beauty and owning yourself, but I think the great thing about acting is that you can play a variety of roles, and I would hate to be in a position like Noni where I felt trapped in one pop persona.
I mean, who knows? Never say never. The music for this film was definitely all developed for this character, so if I felt like I had something to express in my own style I might explore that at some point, but there’s many many, many more talented musicians than myself, and I definitely think that I am an actress first.
You weren’t that worried that the deer population would find it inauthentic in any way.
If she has any frame of reference for Chicago, which she’s visiting for the first time: “Not really. The instant thing that comes into my head is the musical because I grew up on that kind of thing. I’m about to explore it. hopefully tomorrow I’ll get to explore some of the architecture. I want to do that boat tour, I heard that’s interesting.”
On musicals: “I used to be [a big fan]! I haven’t really seen anything recently, but I definitely grew up with a lot of musical theater in my childhood.”
What she most often sang along with in the car: “Oh my God. Probably the most annoying one was ‘Starlight Express’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but then I was also a huge fan of ‘Miss Saigon.’ And then when I was 16 I did ‘Into the Woods,’ and that also has some very memorable but also haunting choruses. ‘Starlight Express’ was probably the one that got played in the car when I was 10. [There are roller-skates]. That and ‘Cats.’ There was a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber in my childhood. And ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and that kind of thing.”