When Mary J. Blige arrives on screen in the Sundance Film Festival standout Mudbound (which hits Netflix on Nov. 17), as a beleaguered matriarch living in Mississippi Delta poverty before and after World War II, you immediately want to know everything about her. Stone-faced and steely, Florence is a mystery, concealing a lifetime of pain and disappointment you’re unlikely to ever discover. (It’s not your business.)
Luckily for us, Blige imbues this woman with life — as captured by director Dee Rees (Pariah) — and speaks volumes with a bare minimum of dialogue. Here, Blige discusses her most emotional acting role yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we talk about the movie, I want to ask about your last album, Strength of a Woman. It was very emotional. What was it like sharing something so personal?
BLIGE: It’s a blessing, always. From day one, I’ve been speaking, and people have been relating to what I say: “Me too, Mary. We’re going through this as well.” I think with that project, it’s the same thing. For so long, I couldn’t speak because I didn’t really know what was going on in my life. I was confused. When [news of my divorce] broke out and things hit the press, what else was I going to do?
You’ve had such an incredible career as a singer. What drew you to acting?
It’s another way of expressing myself. I’m an emotional person, and I need different avenues to channel and get things out. Sometimes becoming someone else can be therapeutic too. It helps you escape all of the s— you’re going through. I’ve done other movies, like Rock of Ages, but this was me saying, “I’m going to move to L.A. and get serious and study being an actress.” Mudbound came in the midst of all that.
How did you relate to your character, Florence? Did you know anyone like her growing up?
When I was a kid, I used to go down South every summer. Both of my parents are from Georgia, so I know what those fields are. I know what those plantations look like. One of my aunts worked for and raised a bunch of kids in a white family. When we were kids, we saw that. She raised them. She loved them. She’s dead now, but they love her still. I got a chance to see that woman. I know who Florence is. Florence is my grandmother. Florence is my aunt.
What was your first reaction to the script?
I cried. I cried a whole lot when I finished it. It reminded me of the times we’re living in now and how everyone has to realize that we are closer [to each other] than we think. Only love can change the hatred in the world, and at the end of the day, we’re all realizing that love has no color and no race.