Janelle Monáe on taking over as Homecoming star: 'There's no replacing Queen Julia'
"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,'" she tells EW. "It's even more elevated this season — and even more suspenseful."
EW previously debuted the exclusive first look at the Amazon Prime Video thriller's sophomore installment and Monáe's Jackie, whose arrival happens to coincide with the non-return of Roberts' Wendy. Co-creator Eli Horowitz (adapting from the popular podcast of the same name) says Roberts being one-and-done was "always the plan." And as season 1 ended with Wendy, season 2 begins with a new military veteran, Jackie, 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."
One of the few remaining actors from season 1 is Stephan James, who played Walter, a soldier being manipulated and drugged upon his return from duty. While Walter's relationship with social worked Wendy was the heart of the series, James sees something similar in the new status quo.
"I loved the Walter-Jackie dynamic, just as much as I loved working with Janelle this season," shared James. "She really nailed it as far as being able to carry this show in its second season, to take on the reigns. I’m excited about our dynamic because there’s such an arc to it in terms of where Jackie and Walter first meet to where they end off. And it's interesting to see how they use each other, need each other, and bring something out in each other. The audience is in for something special, just as Heidi’s relationship with Walter in season 1 was its own thing. There are definitely those markers in season 2 between Walter and Jackie."
Ahead of Homecoming's return on Friday with seven new episodes, EW chatted with Monáe about getting to hug "Queen Julia," trying to avoid spoilers on her own show, and watching The Bourne Identity to get into the proper mindset.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your relationship with Homecoming before joining?
JANELLE MONAE: I was a fan of Homecoming season 1, especially when Julia Roberts was signing on, and I also loved Stephan James, and knowing those two were going to be in a show together, I was intrigued. And I was a fan of Mr. Robot from [Homecoming season 1 director] Sam Esmail, so I wanted to follow anything he was going to be involved in. I listened to the podcast and watched the show and fell in love, so, when I got the call to lead the second season, it was a no-brainer.
Considering you're so busy with all of the different things you're doing, other than being a fan, what specifically jumped out about this opportunity?
I knew that I loved the first season, then I found out Kyle Patrick Alvarez was shooting it, and I was a fan of his film, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and then 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. And then having the blessing of Julia Roberts, knowing she was going to be executive producing, knowing that she wanted me to be involved, as well as the cast, I just felt like I was going to be in good hands. The material itself, it’s just doing something that I feel like is unique in the television space, from the music to the way the cameras operate. I feel like it cut through differently and doesn’t feel reminiscent of anything on TV. I’m super excited about this project. I can’t wait for people to finally see what we worked so hard on.
You mentioned Julia Roberts, did following her starring turn in season 1 add any extra pressure or make you hesitant?
Well, first of all, Julia Roberts is the queen and one of my favorite actors. She actually showed up on set when I was doing a scene with Stephan. After we finished shooting a scene I heard this loud scream, and come to find out it was her. For her to respond with excitement, literally, and to meet and hug each other, that was enough to relax me. But, yes, going in I knew that the second season doesn’t depend on the first season, if that makes since. It was only following the podcast for the first season, and so there wasn’t like a podcast for the second season, so this season has elements from the first but it’s not dependent on those characters. So I knew reading the scripts that that was the case, but maybe fans didn’t know that, so maybe they thought that I was replacing Julia. But, in fact, I’m not. There's no replacing Queen Julia.
What can you tell me about your character, Jackie?
Another thing that was intriguing was being able to play Jackie, this woman who lost her memory. She wakes up in a row boat, she doesn’t know how she got there, who she is, and you get to go on this journey with her, searching for who she is, searching for her identity. She remembers nothing about herself, so I loved the search of self-discovery that she’s going on. As she knows, she thinks she’s a military veteran, and so it just has you on the edge of your seat as this woman is meeting all these people and finding out all of these things about herself.
Jackie is kept in the dark and discovering things as the season goes. When it came to the plot and mystery, did you want to be in the same position as Jackie, or did you want to know ahead?
I’m such a fan of the show, and, like most people, it’s very therapeutic and a safe space when you can watch a show not looking at it as an actor but looking at it as a fan of that show, and I didn’t want to spoil that from a fan perspective. I didn’t want to read the episodes and everything be spoiled and I couldn’t enjoy this season like I did the last season, so I opted not to read the last episode until it was close to filming, because the way we shot it we had to bounce around, so I had to know my arc. On the other hand, which was most important, was that I understood the character and where she started from and where she was going to end up so that I could build to that. I did a lot of research on memory loss. I watched the whole Bourne Identity series, I watched Memento, watched stories from veterans who were dealing with PTSD or folks who lost their memories from traumatic experiences. So there was a lot of research that went into it and I had to force myself to read every episode; part of me really didn’t want to spoil it for myself, but I’m an actor so that’s my job.
This is your first starring role on a television series, so what was that experience like?
Oh man. I will say that I got the opportunity to work with such a collaborative team, from Kyle to Eli and [co-creator] Micah [Bloomberg] to Sam and the whole cast. Just knowing that they were excited about having me there and that they value the power of collaboration was so comforting. I took a lot more risks. I’m the type of artist where I need to see a few takes of work, because that actually helps enhance the work that I do, and Kyle was so relieved and happy. He was like, “Most actors don’t want to see themselves,” and he just kept saying how he noticed better takes after I had watched that first take. So it was great that we rehearsed, which I love doing. I love talking through the scenes with the director and the rest of the cast, troubleshooting things. I just felt in good hands the whole way, and it felt like family. For that to be my first experience, it’s going to be one that I’ll never forget. I’ll always remember my days shooting Homecoming.
In addition to you, there are many other new additions to the show, but Stephan is one of the few returning actors. In the first season, Walter was kind of the heart of the story, and now Jackie seems to be in that position. What can you share about the dynamic between those two characters?
We're both veterans searching for what we don't know. We're both searching for the truth. Geist is a name we realize has this significance to our path. Geist the company plays a larger role this season. So, particularly with me, it’s like the area of my past that I can’t remember. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll just say Geist plays a larger role this season. Chris Cooper plays the founder, Leonard Geist, so I’m super excited about that. He’s one of my favorite actors.
How would you describe season 2 in only a few words?
What I will say will either make them watch or not. [Laughs] I would say mystery, psychologically thrilling, and nothing is what it appears to be.