Macy Gray is best known as a Grammy-winning singer, but she has had some memorable supporting roles in movies, including 2010’s “For Colored Girls” and 2012’s “The Paperboy,” a sexually charged, racially provocative film noir from director Lee Daniels. Set in 1960s South Florida, an investigative newspaper reporter named Ward Jansen (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (played by David Oyelowo) chase a sensational, career-making story. Gray plays Anita Chester, who is the Jansen family’s loyal maid.
With the help of Ward’s younger brother Jack (played by Zac Efron) and sultry death-row groupie Charlotte Bless (played by Nicole Kidman), Ward and Yardley try to prove that violent swamp-dweller Hillary Van Wetter (played by John Cusack), who is romantically involved with Charlotte, was framed for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. Based on the best-selling novel by Pete Dexter (who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels), “The Paperboy” peels back a sleepy small town’s decades-old façade of Southern gentility to reveal a quagmire of evil as dark as a Florida bayou. I spoke with Gray by phone for this exclusive interview the week that “The Paperboy” had its U.S. premiere at the 2012 New York Film Festival.
What surprised you the most when you saw “The Paperboy” for the first time?
I don’t know what surprised me. It’s such a wild movie. Everything in it is kind of crazy. I think the performances are really awesome. I had read the script. For the whole movie, I was kind of on edge. It’s pretty crazy.
You had most of your scenes in “The Paperboy” with Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey. Of these two co-stars, which one is more of a jokester?
Zac. He’s just a funny kind of playful guy. There wasn’t a lot of clowning on set but he and I kind of hit it off together. We just had a lot of fun together. There wasn’t a lot of joking around on the set.
Lee Daniels said that he originally had Oprah Winfrey in mind to play the role of Anita Chester, but what are some of the things that you think you brought to the character that no one else could have?
I think mainly I just liked Anita, and she wanted so badly to fit into this family that she really adored and that she considered family. She kind of raised the boys. One day she would find out that would never be, no matter how well she took care of the kids or how long she was around, she would never really be family.
She’s uneducated, so I’d try to play her kind of slow. She doesn’t have a lot of vocabulary, so she processes things kind of slowly. So I think I just understood her right away. I’m sure there are other actresses who could have done better, but I just brought my ideas when I read for Anita.
Nicole Kidman said that she stayed in her Charlotte Bless character when she was working on “The Paperboy,” even when the cameras weren’t rolling. You didn’t have many scenes with Nicole, so how would you describe your interactions with her?
We were on the set for two days together. I was really in awe of her. I was so blown away that it was Nicole Kidman. Yeah, she was very much in character and very into her part. I think she inspired me, because she really nailed her part. Her character drove a lot of the movie, so it was inspiring. I don’t know if everyone fed off of that, but it definitely helped make the whole movie run, because everyone was so into their parts.
How would you describe your approach to acting? Do you feel comfortable doing the type of Method acting that Nicole Kidman does or do you leave your character behind when the cameras aren’t rolling?
I really read the part before I go on set. I do a lot of character study. We discussed Anita quite a bit while we were getting ready for the movie. I lived the part a lot before I got on camera.
You were supposed to be at the 2012 New York Film Festival press conference for “The Paperboy,” but you weren’t on the panel with Lee Daniels, Nicole Kidman and David Oyelowo. What happened?
My plane got delayed.
Nicole Kidman said that she doesn’t feel comfortable saying the “n” word on screen, so she declined Lee Daniels’ request to do that in “The Paperboy.” What are your personal thoughts about people saying that word?
It definitely depends on the context. Within my [African-American] culture, people consider it OK to call each other that. Some people are really sensitive about it. They don’t want to use it.
I truly believe everybody says it. Maybe you don’t say it in public, but at home, it’s just so ingrained in our culture and our perspective. But it’s been a little desensitized. It’s not as sensitive as it was when maybe my mother was growing up.
It depends. It’s always offensive, but to the point where people fight about it and shoot people over it, I don’t see much of that anymore. A lot of people are just numb to it at this point — not that it doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t know if it’s worth the fight anymore.
Your album “Talking Book” is a remake of Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album of the same name. What is your first memory of discovering Stevie Wonder?
I think when I was a kid, I saw video footage of him making a record in a studio. And I just remember how passionate he was about singing a song and how beautiful his voice sounded. He’s such a genius artist who knows everything there is to know about music. I was just really impressed by him as a musician. Of course, he sings songs that we all love, but he as a musician and the choices that he makes are really awesome.
If you could pick any song to sing with Stevie Wonder, which one would it be and why?
He has a song called “Superwoman” which I love so much. You have to be a fan to really know it. It wasn’t a big hit or anything, but I just love that song so much.
Have you met Stevie Wonder?
Yeah, I met him a few times. He had a birthday party a few years ago, and he invited me to sing for it.
What was Stevie Wonder’s involvement with your version of “Taking Book”?
So far, not a lot. I haven’t been able to sit down with him and go through it. I’m so nervous that he won’t like it. That’s my biggest fear. I just hope he likes it. That’s all I care about.
You previously worked with Lee Daniels in his 2005 movie “Shadowboxer.” How do you think he’s evolved as a filmmaker?
Lee is much more settled into directing. He’s much more comfortable directing people, and he’s a much, much better storyteller. His casting is insane. He sticks the most interesting actors in playing these parts.
You’ve worked with Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry, who have their share of fans and critics, but no one can deny their accomplishments as independent filmmakers. How would compare and contrast Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry?
They’re both insanely driven. They’re both very passionate about making movies. They believe in themselves and the choices that they make. I would Tyler is a lot more serious. I don’t know how he is with everybody else, but with me, he was very serious about the message he wants to get across.
Lee is a mad storyteller. He’s not afraid to be shocking. Compared to any director, he just pulls his own life into his stories. I know in [“The Paperboy”] book, Yardley is not black, and I don’t think there are any homosexuals in the book, but Lee [who is openly gay] tells the stories that he knows about, and puts all that on camera. He’s very, very daring, more than any other director. Tyler is really skilled and really serious, and the message is very important to him.
You have credibility as a music artist and as an actress, but is there anything that scares you about either music or acting? What fears or challenges do you want to overcome?
Singing, I’ve got it down. I can do it in my sleep. I still study singing. I still work at getting better at it, but it comes so naturally to me. I can sing with a sore throat or when I’m sick. I’ve just got singing down, because I’ve been doing it for a while.
Acting is much more of a challenge. I felt a little inferior sitting next to Nicole Kidman. So it’s just a matter of me getting more comfortable and secure with my talent and what I’m capable of and what’s possible for me.
I’m not like a Julia Roberts. There are parts I know I can tackle, but I’d love to get up there any be able to play anything, like I can sing anything.
What’s next for you, besides more touring?
I’m working on another album of all original songs. Before that, I’m doing an EP called “Boys,” which will also have all original songs.
For more info: “The Paperboy” website