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How Mary J. Blige channeled her personal struggles into 'Mudbound'

Mary J. Blige, left, and director Dee Rees on the set of
Mary J. Blige, left, and director Dee Rees on the set of "Mudbound."
Steve Dietl / Netflix

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R&B legend Mary J. Blige recently made history as the first person nominated for an Academy Award in the original song and supporting actress categories in the same year. The nods are a response to her work in Dee Rees' powerful film, "Mudbound," in which she plays the matriarch of a sharecropping family. She also co-wrote the song "Mighty River" with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson.

Known for her ability to move stadium crowds to tears, Blige is no stranger to emotional delivery. The role of Florence demanded a more nuanced approach. So Blige being drew on her Southern roots and the challenges of her personal life to imbue the character with subtlety and depth. 

It wasn't until "Mudbound" was finished that Rees asked Blige to write a song for the film. She wanted something that embodied the movie's themes of equality and tolerance. John Horn caught up with Blige to talk about her acting and songwriting processes. 

Mary J. Blige at the 2017 Sundance Film festival premiere of
Mary J. Blige at the 2017 Sundance Film festival premiere of "Mudbound."

Interview Highlights 

On channeling her lineage to portray Florence:

I actually saw my ancestors for real. My grandmother was this woman. My aunt was this woman. And I could say that I lived it because, when I was a child, my mom used to send us to Georgia. My mom is Southern, my dad is Southern. And they're real Southern — from Georgia where there's dirt roads and they almost look like they're living on plantations. My grandmother, she had a farm, she had chickens. I had to pick beans. So we knew how to go down into the fields and pick beans. We knew how to kill a chicken because we saw my grandmother kill a chicken. The women were really strong and they did a lot of work in the field. I knew this woman, Florence. 

On her character's silence:

Well, that's how it was back then. If you said too much you could get hurt or you could get lynched. Anything could happen. A lot of other women were like that back then. They didn't have to say much. My grandmother was like that. She was very powerful but she didn't say much. But when she did say something, everybody listened, her husband listened. For a woman it was a double thing. She couldn't say anything in [public] because she'd get hurt for it. And then they were just more submissive back then. 

Mary J. Blige, left, and Carey Mulligan in a scene from
Mary J. Blige, left, and Carey Mulligan in a scene from "Mudbound."
Steve Dietl/Netflix

On conveying emotion and story without relying on dialogue:

There was a lot going on in my personal life at the time that was no one's business. So I used all of the restraint of not telling anyone or showing anything that was going on in my life to give to Florence. That's why I just came across [as] being really who she really is.

On co-writing the song, "Mighty River":

Once I was done with the movie, that was something I really wanted Dee to ask me to do. But I never would ask her. She finally came to me and I was like, Yes! I love the movie so much I wanted to write a song for it. 

On being recognized for two different awards for the same film:

It feels great because not only can I get more opportunities as an actress now, it's also like, Wow, she's a very relevant artist. Not that I wasn't before. But, you know how when people get older they want to try to push you away. This says, She's earned her way. She's very important. We have to express that. It makes it easier either way.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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