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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At the 2010 Academy Awards, Mo’Nique wore white gardenias in her hair — just as Hattie McDaniel had in 1940 when she became the first African-American actress to win an Oscar. The Precious star later thanked McDaniel in her best supporting actress acceptance speech “for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to.” As The Hollywood Reporter recognizes the 75th anniversary of McDaniel’s historic win, we speak at length with Mo’Nique about her debt to her movie-star idol, her memories of her own Oscar night and the dramatic turn her career has taken in the five years since. As director Lee Daniels put it to her in a recent phone call, “Mo’Nique, you’ve been blackballed.”
How do you respond to those who criticize Hattie McDaniel for only taking maid roles?
If they knew who this woman really was, they would say, “Let me shut my mouth.” If they really understood the fights behind the scenes, the conversations we’ll never have the opportunity to hear. And then you say to those people, “Well, tell me what other roles were available.” Because what she was was an actress — and at that time, she wasn’t getting the roles that her white counterparts were getting. She was saying, “I’m an actress. When you say ‘cut,’ I’m not [a maid anymore].” So I say to those people: know that woman in full before you judge.
Is that what you meant in your acceptance speech about her enduring everything she had to go through so that you would not have to?
Do you know I keep a picture of Hattie McDaniel in my closet in an 8-by-10 frame? As I’m looking at her right now, it looks like her smile is shifting. Yes, I’m talking about you, Miss Hattie McDaniel! (Laughs.) What that woman had to endure was criticism from the white community and the black community. She didn’t have options to say, “No, I’m not going to accept that,” because she was an actress. I’m just grateful. I’m appreciative that she endured all of that so that this little girl named Mo’Nique wouldn’t have to.
Did you face the same kinds of criticisms about your role in Precious, that it put the wrong kinds of images out there? You’ve said in the past it was a difficult decision to take the part.
It was never a hard decision for me to take that role. When I got that script from Lee Daniels, by the time I got to page 10, I called him and said, “Lee, what the hell is this? What is this?” And I said, “Listen — if we do what’s on this paper, we can help save lives.”
When the movie came out, some people were saying, “Why would Mo’Nique do that role?” And, you know, people are always going to talk. But the reason why I accepted that role is because I knew that woman. I knew her. And I felt like, if we really tell this story, that people will come out and get help and get healed. So yes there was criticism, but it didn’t affect me the way that it did Hattie, because she had endured it for me. By the time it got to me, you know how they say,
“Let it roll off your shoulder”? It was rolling off the shoulder.
It’s a beautiful connection you have with this person who you’ll never get to meet.
Spiritually, I’ve gotten an opportunity to meet and talk with her. And I read her life story, which is absolutely amazing — just to see how amazingly talented this woman was, and the mistreatment she received all the way up to her death. This woman gave everything to the business. It help me to put my priorities in order and realize that my family comes first. Because when all of this is over and they say the last “action” and the last “cut,” I want to have my family. When Hattie died, she died alone with a nurse by her side, and no money. You know, I received a lot of criticism [around the 2010 awards season] because people felt like I wasn’t campaigning. Remember that? (Laughs.)
The things people were writing and saying, it was mind-blowing. But what I was saying was, “You want me to campaign for an award — and I say this with all the humility in the world — but you want me to campaign for an award that I didn’t ask for.” So when I’m in Utah at the Sundance Festival, and an Asian brother comes up to me and breaks down in my arms, and says, “Mo’Nique, I am Mary Jones,” do you know that’s the biggest award you could receive? It had nothing to do with a trophy. If people want to say I didn’t campaign because I took my family first? I’ll accept that.
But you proved that you don’t need to campaign. You won.
The members of the Academy proved it. They said, “You know what? We’re going to judge the performance, not how many parties she can come to.”
Is it true you heard Hattie McDaniel’s name during the ceremony when they said your name?
You know, when I was sitting there, and Robin Williams, bless his heart …
That’s right, he presented your award. How sad.
Yes, but what an honor that was. From one comic to another comic, and we know how we both got our start: standing up in little bars with three people there, two of them drunk and one was blind. And now you’re calling my name for this award? I just felt Hattie all over me at that moment, but I didn’t hear her name, per se.
How has the Oscar changed your life? Has it?
I get asked that question a lot: How did the Oscar change my life? What it did was that it gave me a new reality. And it let me know that an award wasn’t going to change my life — that I had to be in control of changing my life. I’ll ask you: How do you think the Oscar was supposed to change my life?
That it made everyone respect you more — that you’re not a comic who acts but an Oscar-winning dramatic actress. A force to be contended with.
And how else do you think it should have changed?
More choices, everyone offering you parts?
What else do you think it should’ve changed? (Laughs.) You know what I’m looking for.
I’m not sure — that it made you happier?
Do you think it should have changed things financially?
See? “Yes.” What I understood was that when I won that Oscar, things would change in all the ways you’re saying: It should come with more respect, more choices and more money. It should, and it normally does. Hattie said, “After I won that award, it was as if I had done something wrong.” It was the same with me. I thought, once you won the award, that’s the top prize — and so you’re supposed to be treated as if you got the top prize.
I got a phone call from Lee Daniels maybe six or seven months ago. And he said to me, “Mo’Nique, you’ve been blackballed.” And I said, “I’ve been blackballed? Why have I been blackballed?” And he said, “Because you didn’t play the game.” And I said, “Well, what game is that?” And he gave me no response. The next thing he said to me was, “Your husband is outbidding you.” But he never asked me what [salary] we were asking for. You know, my husband [actor and producer Sidney Hicks] and I had to change things so we wouldn’t have to depend on [others]. So we do it independently. We’re very proud of taking the independent route, and we have a movie coming out on April 24 called Blackbird.
What do you think Lee meant when he said that?
That I was blackballed?
And that your husband was “outbidding you.” What was he referring to?
You know what I learned? Never to think what somebody else was thinking. That’s a question you would have to ask Lee Daniels.* There have been people that have said, “Mo’Nique, she can be difficult. Mo’Nique and her husband can be difficult.” They could probably be right. One of the networks said to [Lee] that I was “really difficult to work with.” And I said, “Well, that’s funny, because I’ve never even worked with them, but OK.”
Whoever those people are who say, “Mo’Nique is difficult,” those people are either heartless, ruthless or treat people like they’re worthless. And that’s unacceptable. They’re set to say, “Mo’Nique is tactless, she’s tacky.” That’s why I have my beautiful husband, because he’s so full of tact, ’cause I’m a girl from Baltimore. I come from a blue-collar town — and being from that place, you learn not to let anybody take advantage of you. You don’t let people mistreat you. You stand up for what’s right.
So I can’t answer why he said I was blackballed. There may be people that feel that way about me. But I respect everyone, from the homeless brother and sister on the street to the executive that sits in the highest office named President Barack Obama. I respect everyone — but we over-respect no one.
Did he approach you about maybe being on his hit Fox show Empire?
Well, actually, I was offered the role in The Butler that Oprah Winfrey played. I was also approached by Empire to be on Empire. And I was also offered the role as Richard Pryor‘s grandmother in [Daniels’ upcoming Pryor biopic]. Each of those things that he offered me was taken off the table. (Laughs.) They all just went away. But that’s just part of the business, you know? I can’t be upset at anybody, ’cause life is too good. It’s just what it is.
But you were interested, and the offers suddenly evaporated?
For each of the roles, [Lee] called me. He’s always approached me first, and I’m appreciative of it, because I think he is one of the most brilliant visionaries in writing and directing. I’ll say this: Whenever you do see me on TV again, or in the movies, you’ll know somebody played me fairly. People say to me sometimes, “Mo’Nique, you’re trying to be a mogul.” It’s like, honey, by no means am I trying to be a mogul — because mogul stands for “money obsessed guys (or girls), usually lonely.” (Laughs.) I don’t want to be a lonely mogul. No.
What about your planned Hattie McDaniel biopic?
In having my conversations with Hattie McDaniel, you know what she said? “Mo’Nique, my story’s already been told. There needs to be a new story told.” So all I’ll do right now is wink my eye to you over the phone when I say that. (Laughs.)
*Lee Daniels issued this statement to THR in response:
“Mo’nique is a creative force to be reckoned with. Her demands through Precious were not always in line with the campaign. This soured her relationship with the Hollywood community. I consider her a friend. I have and will always think of her for parts that we can collaborate on. However, the consensus among the creative teams and powers thus far were to go another way with these roles.”
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