The role that saved Mary J Blige's life

Mary J Blige is feeling the cold. It is a sunny autumn day in London but the air conditioning in her hotel room is turned up high, writes Laura Harding. 

These desperate times call for distinctly unglamorous measures so she has bundled herself up in the fluffy bathrobe that was hanging in the wardrobe.

This look, bathrobe aside, seems in keeping with the Mary J Blige we already know — the performer, the show woman, the winner of nine Grammys, the queen of hip-hop soul.

And it is this persona she had to put away completely to take on her most challenging movie role to date, in the new Netflix film Mudbound, and this role of Florence Jackson, the wife and mother of a family of sharecroppers in the segregated US.

“Mary J Blige the business, not the person, is the manufactured, material, vain person,” she admits. “So I had to shed her once I saw Florence’s wardrobe and when I found out I couldn’t wear any lace-fronts and I couldn’t get a perm and I couldn’t wear lashes and I couldn’t wear nails, I had to shed the manufactured business Mary.

“Once I shed her it was easy for Mary to say ‘’You know what? I’m going to give every piece of darkness that I’m dealing with right now, because I have some challenges in my life as well, so I’m going to give you all of this heaviness and all of this sadness and insecurity and feeling inferior because this is what you’ve been told in this bad situation and I’m going to give it to you.’

“‘But I’m also going to give you Mary’s strength that she gained, so you can have all these different things.’ So once I committed to Florence, Florence started saving Mary’s life.”

It was while she was filming on location in Louisiana that Blige’s marriage to manager Kendu Isaacs was falling apart. In July 2016, she cited irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce.

“What I was channelling was all of the sadness that I was feeling,” she confesses. “I’m in the middle of a divorce now and during that time I wasn’t divorced yet, I just was in the middle of ‘something’s wrong and I just can’t prove what’s wrong but I’m sad and I’m miserable and I’ve been sad and miserable for about five years now’.

“So I just gave that five years of misery to Florence. I said ‘I’ve got to survive this thing’, because it was too heavy, so I gave all that to Florence.”

In the film she plays the mother of a young man, played by Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell, returning home from World War Two, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a white fellow veteran, played by Garrett Hedlund.

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The role, of an enduring, loving mother suffering the agonies of separation from her child and then terror and horror when he is subjected to the evil brutalities of the South’s deep racism, helped Blige find a way through her own struggles.

“It helped and it’s helping,” she says. “I’m still in the process of all this madness that I’m in and this movie is really helping me be happy because it’s another chapter, it’s a new chapter and I’m leaving this one behind so it’s helping.

“This role was therapeutic for me because I got a chance to take all of what was going crazy inside of me.

“When you sing you can just release and yell and go crazy but this was intense, I had to hold on to it, every single day. As Florence I had to hold it, she couldn’t outburst, she had to suffer, she couldn’t speak as much so I got to find out how really strong I am.”

The fact that she is almost unrecognisable in the film — even fellow cast members didn’t realise they were on set with her — was a big help.

“It was best that I disappear, when I see the film I’m able to watch it from a critical stand point and say ‘Wow I really lost myself to this character’ so it’s better that I’m not recognisable at all.

“I’ve seen a lot of my films and I did Betty And Coretta and I did Rock Of Ages but the one thing that stood out is I could still see me, Mary J Blige, and this character Florence just
possessed the whole thing, she’s taken it away from me, I’m happy about that.”

  • Mudbound is released on Netflix on November 17


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