"There's no replacing Queen Julia," says the singer-actor, who stars in season 2 of Amazon Prime's Homecoming. Monáe admits to feeling nervous taking Roberts' place as lead after the Golden Globe-nominated first season — that is, until a surprise set visit from executive producer… Julia Roberts. "After we finished shooting a scene I heard this loud scream, and come to find out it was her," recalls Monáe, 34. "For her to respond with excitement, literally, and to meet and hug each other, that was enough to relax me."
For those already familiar with the show, it's anything but relaxing. Based on the hit podcast of the same name, season 1 of the stylish thriller was set at a transition facility for soldiers returning from war and tracked the relationship between Walter (Stephan James) and social worker Heidi (Roberts). Despite the tight grip (and brain-altering drugs) of the center's Homecoming Initiative and parent company Geist Group, Walter and Heidi escaped. Season 2 continues to move beyond the podcast, expanding past both season 1's story and its audio-centric elements.
"We were excited about broadening the world and telling story through setting and visuals," co-creator Micah Bloomberg says. To which his co-creator Eli Horowitz adds, "Season 1 was so confined and suffocating, and they were all wondering about the world outside the facility, and season 2 is very much about the outdoors and the natural world, and people trying to get inside the Geist headquarters."
And after a season inside, the new installment immediately gets some sun, kicking off with another military veteran, new character Jackie (Monáe), waking up in a rowboat with no recollection of how she got there — or who she is. "[Monáe] is just so compelling as a presence," Horowitz says of casting the pop star. "She's very accomplished and known, but her persona is still that of a chameleon. There's a curiosity about her, and we weaved that into the character."
To get into Jackie's disorienting head space, Monáe studied PTSD and memory loss, and watched Memento and Matt Damon's Bourne series.
Jackie's search for her own identity leads her to Walter, whom Heidi tracked down and found enjoying a new small-town life at the end of season 1. Like Roberts, whose character presumably left to make her own peace (the creators say her departure was always the plan), James thought he'd be one and done. But the actor was pleasantly surprised by the chance to explore Walter's evolution from what Horowitz calls "a damsel in distress" to a man on a mission. "We're seeing a dogged, more determined Walter," says James, 26. "His time away from the facility left a lot of room for thinking about what it is he's gone through. And it's interesting to see how [he and Jackie] use each other, need each other, and bring something out in each other."
Adds Monáe: "We're both searching for the truth. Geist is a name we realize has this significance to our path."
With the departure of one Oscar winner in Roberts, the producers turned to another to play Geist CEO Leonard Geist: Chris Cooper (who also happens to be one of Monáe's favorite actors). "You have this expectation of the big bad villain and head of the evil corporation, and what we enjoyed was finding how we could upend those expectations and turn them in a different direction," Bloomberg says of the previously unseen Geist. "[Cooper] took this strange idea for a character and made it into the spiritual center of the season."
Joan Cusack was also added to "the villain side of the world," where she joins Audrey (Hong Chau), who has somehow skyrocketed up the Geist ranks; she was notably seen using the Homecoming drug in season 1's post-credits scene. "People are going to have to watch that again with new eyes," Bloomberg teases. "It was discussions around that scene that gave season 2 its heart and spine."
That season 2 path led to a "barn burner," according to Horowitz, while James cryptically teases of the new installment: "Secrets. Lies. Exposed."
As for Monáe, she warns that "nothing is what it appears to be." And that's partly why she believes there's nothing quite like Homecoming. "It's doing something that is unique in the television space," she says. "When I read these episodes, I was like, 'Oh wow, this is still going to have a very special quality and take everyone in an unexpected place.' It's even more elevated this season — and even more suspenseful."
Homecoming will return to Amazon later this year.