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Glass Onion Interviews: Janelle Monae & Edward Norton
I spoke with Janelle Monae and Edward Norton at the London Film Festival about Rian Johnson's Glass Onion.
Janelle Monae and Edward Norton visited the London Film Festival to promote Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the new film from Rian Johnson, premiering on Netflix on December 23rd.
I got a chance to speak with them briefly about making the film as PR reps flocked around us, dutifully monitoring that no spoilers slipped through the cracks a few months before the premiere.
This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
Janelle, your character in the film has multiple outfits that serve almost as suits of armor for her. How was it dressing up for the movie? Did it help with finding the character?
Monae: It was a lot of fun. She [my character] is a tech entrepreneur who clearly is very sharply dressed. I had a great time finding clothes that spoke for her before she even said a thing.
Edward, you’ve previously had experience with murder mysteries in directing Motherless Brooklyn, and with ensembles and comedies in the films of Wes Anderson, how was it returning to this genre in this style?
Norton: The dynamics were not unfamiliar, but it helps that Rian and I have been friends for twenty years. We met after he made Brick, and the last I thing I directed was a detective mystery. I think also some of the comedies I’ve made, like Death to Smoochy, certainly helped as well. So, getting together to talk about these things was delightful.
I think all actors really want to be in theater troupes. A lot of us come up with this fantasy of being a great theater company. Finding that camaraderie, the silliness, and we found that here. It was all fun and lighthearted, I hope it comes through on the screen.
It was like an adult summer camp.
I’m really glad you brought up Death to Smoochy. It’s one of my favorite films and something that I think is really ahead of its time. In that film, you play a children’s TV show host who everyone views as a genius because his simple approach to life is overestimated by those looking at it from the outside.
In Glass Onion, your character builds an elaborate world around him, even as he seems to have very little inner life to begin with. It’s physical and broad, and yet with a lot of internal goings-on. I realize this is a big question, but could you talk about balancing out that while still building an arc within the mystery? Is there a process or even a connection between performances?
Norton: Oh wow. That’s a big question. I’m not sure if I know how to answer that fully.
He considers this for a long time.
If something is well written, the shape or the arc of the reveal will be engineered into it. I guess without giving away too much, Rian layered in a lot of easter eggs, and kind of with all the characters, certainly with Miles, there are so many that are dropped if you’re just listening and viewing.
A friend of mine said she had a lot of tension while watching the film because she’d look and listen and notice that something is off, but she couldn’t pinpoint what.
It's like in the first one, with the donut, and here with the glass onion, Rian is very good at creating these things that when you look back at them, they end up stacking up. There are obviously secrets in the film that require all of us to pull off tricks that are like a jigsaw puzzle; you have to decide to know what’s really going on, and how you layer them in.
Rian has this thing he calls "fair play". He cares a lot that if you watch the film a second time, the things revealed are in evidence. That if something is presented in one way, if you look back at it, you make sure it’s there. In a way it’s clinical, we all had to make sure that indeed, the thing we know that is going on is really there already in the beginning. It really is in a way a clinical puzzle.
I hope that answers the question in some way.
[Personal note: It does, and it’s a far more eloquent and kinder answer than I would have expected for my rambling question.]
Your character – maybe even more than the others – is obsessed with leaving a mark in this world. Is that something that’s important to you as an actor or does that even enter the conversation?
Norton: Janelle and I just saw the David Bowie documentary and it’s magnificent. It’s almost like an existential experience. He’s at the absolute zenith of people who changed consciousness. He changed people’s perception of their own identity in popular culture. He’s an artist who had a big effect on both of us.
I heard an interview where he encouraged people to not think of their work in terms of how it lands with others but to treat it as a journey of self-expression and learning. He was adamant that you can’t look at it from the outside, because it won’t be interesting if it’s not an internal journey.
You can’t control what it does to other people, but it’s more likely to affect other people if it’s true to your own journey instead of trying to craft an effect. He was really committed to that without trying to assess the scorecard.
This might be me reading into things, but I couldn’t help but remember Cindy Mayweather, from Janelle’s beautiful Metropolis: The Chase Suite album, and her role as a true disruptor. Was that something that was on the page already, or was that something that grew as you joined the part?
Monae: That’s a great question. When I read the script, I saw a lot of parallels to many, many things, but what Rian created was something that I couldn’t foresee. There were so many twists and turns that let me get lost in his writing.
So, a lot of it was already on the page, but I tried my best to bring out the relatability to all the many people who’ve been in these tech spaces, who’ve been entrepreneurs who have stood their ground and who –
She catches herself and smiles.
Monae: Oh, I don’t want to give anything away.
Here’s where we get into how hard it is to talk about or promote this film without venturing into spoiler territory.
Monae: Oh yeah. [Laughs]. I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone or overtalk about it. You don’t want to give away too much.
Today, some productions go really overboard with preserving secrets. This one seems to have had a more relaxed atmosphere. Were you given the full script before you signed on?
Monae: I said yes before even seeing the script. [Both laugh]
I came aboard when I saw Looper, I was blown away by it. I said if he ever wants to work, I’ll say yes. Then I read the script and said “hell yes”. Rian has a tone to the murder mystery that felt like a fresh way of getting into this genre.
It’s almost an untapped genre in a way, today at least when you think about it. I think all of us appreciate the amount of nuance and detail in Rian's writing. That's why we can talk about dropping hints at different portions because when people see it the second time, they can enjoy it in another way entirely.
Is it true you hosted murder-mystery parties during filming?
Monae: Absolutely, 100%. Rian would get into it. He’d give out handwritten notes and invites for the evenings. Like “cocktails will be served at the grand hall” and stuff. We did that on the weekends during the filming. We dressed up, I think me than most.
[Monae is dressed in a dandy-influenced suit, complete with a top hat, that’s covered with the colors of the British flag.]
Norton: Yeah, this is just a casual Saturday for her.
Monae: It was fun, off-screen, bonding there and having that show up on the screen. It made things feel more organic when we were back on set.
Was that something that was a newly found love for the material or did either of you have an affinity for the whodunit genre before this?
Monae: I haven’t read a lot of them, but I love the films from Agatha Christie’s works, and I loved the first Knives Out. I saw it and thought it was something special. An outlier that year. And I figured that if I got the chance to work with Rian, who’s a real whodunit buff, as is Edward. I mean, you directed a murder mystery!
Norton: I love the tradition of the serialized detective, from Marlowe to Hammer. I think the idea of the detective who just floats through different mysteries is just great.
I know that we share a love with Janelle and Rian in that noir world, even if Glass Onion isn’t exactly that. I think Rian, not in any way to knock down reboots or period whodunits, but I do appreciate that Rian has come up with his own thing that’s rooted in tradition, but is able to take a satirical eye to different dimensions.
In the first one, I loved the dynamics of the family; the alt-right cousin, and how they can’t remember where Martha is from. It’s archetypes and things that are conventions of the genre, but they reflect the times that we live in. I think he’s done that even more in this one. I love the originality in that. Some of the laughs, I think, are especially fun, because he takes things that we see in the headlines and it just makes them work.
It feels like he’s open to collaboration despite how finely tuned everything is.
Norton: Rian’s a craftsman of puzzles, but he’s also extremely relaxed. He doesn’t treat the script like it’s set in stone. He’s confident enough in his constructions, and all of us, obviously, leave that to him. We talk about it, certainly, just to check that something works. But on the whole, the mechanism is in his hands. If I riff around manifestations of Miles’ pomposity, Rian is wide open. If you can get a laugh out of him, that’s the best thing.
Monae: Once he has you onboard, he has you there for your taste and opinion. He comes to you asking for your opinion, and that’s a beautiful thing. You get to own the character your own way.