“Women go through a lot, man,” Pharrell said, sighing, as we met up in a recording studio late last year. He was there to discuss Hidden Figures — on which he served as producer, songwriter, and composer (along with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) — which would shortly become one of this season’s box-office smash hits. An in-demand recording artist and producer, Pharrell carved out time for Hidden Figures in an effort to help elevate the untold story of three African-American women at NASA.
Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (singer-actor Janelle Monáe) whose math skills proved invaluable when it came to launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit in the 1960s. Pharrell had plenty to say about the film, but he also wanted to discuss how it plays after Donald Trump’s election, a political shock he claims to have foreseen.
How did you get involved with scoring the film, and what do you think you brought to it that might not otherwise have been there?
I came on as a producer first, and then musically, I had songs I wanted to use in the film. And I wanted Hans Zimmer, my big brother, to do the score and he was like, “Yeah, but you’re doing it with me.” We were thinking about how we could approach the score differently for three African-American women in the 1960s. Usually, when you think of a score, it’s very Anglo or Euro in terms of the chord progressions — the sound of victory for them is a very different thing. Hans did Gladiator, you know? It’s very Euro. So the point was to do something different. How do we make the sound of victory from an African-American’s point of view in the 1960s, and on top of that, add another layer of being female?
So how did you?
We used an orchestra, but we challenged the system and asked for a more African-American string section, which was very challenging because a lot of the work has been scarce for them — for just string sections, period. We had to fly people in. We tried to get as many females as possible, across the board. It was no joke, man. It was awesome.
How did it feel to be in front of an orchestra that looks very different than the kind you’d normally find working on a film?
It felt like what was supposed to happen. It felt like something different.
You’ve got several songs in the film, but “Running,” which plays when Katherine has to make her way to the segregated bathroom on the other end of the NASA campus, may be the most memorable.
“Running” was about how in the 1960s — and still to this day — there’s a white-male matrix that we’re all living in. When you think about racial or gender inequality, that made the gravity for women in the 1960s very tough, and for African-American women, it was even more tough because they were dealing with segregation. So when you’re working at NASA — wonderful place, and when I say “wonderful,” I mean in terms of advancement for mankind heading towards the future — and you think about having to use the bathroom as an African-American, you couldn’t just go down the hall. You had to go to the other side of the campus.
You think about that, and you think about how the white people at NASA didn’t think about that at all.
Exactly, it was over their heads. They didn’t even recognize or weren’t aware of how much tougher it must be. You know, they did have campus bikes for men, if you had to get to the other side of the campus. But for a woman — black, white, purple, plaid, or polka-dot — you probably didn’t ride the bike because you had to wear skirts or dresses. Women were frowned upon if they wore pants. So it was twice as hard for Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary. “Running” was about what it must have been like to take a 30- to 45-minute round trip just to use the bathroom every day, rain or shine. And Katherine was a savant on top of all those pressures! What was she thinking when she was running? That’s what I tried to convey. Maybe she was thinking that this math she was doing would add up to a day where people didn’t have to run no more. And if they did, it would just be Barack for president, you know what I mean?
Do you feel like Hidden Figures plays like an entirely different movie now, after Donald Trump’s election?
It is. I never believed the polls.
You thought that Trump had it all along?
I always thought that it was gonna be tough.
Because they’re polls. Polls of 1,200 people at a time. I was like, “Why do y’all keep going off these polls?” Millennials don’t answer house phones, you know? Those polls worked at a time when there was no internet, and people talked in person whenever they could. There was no text message, there was no email. It was a different time. Now that you have that, you have all these different modes of information going around, and you’re checking in using these old 1950s ways, I just … I just never believed the polls. I was like, “Man, your polls are telling you something that’s a teaspoon in a pool of information.”
You could sense something different in the air?
Yeah, yeah. The uneducated or high-school-educated white male is fearful of what democracy and the ubiquitous nature of the internet has given people. It’s allowed all colors and a lot of diversity to be the thing, and they’re no longer dominating anymore, you know? You think about some of their kids that are going and shooting up schools and stuff, and there’s a lot of fear that’s out there in the world. The cops that are executing unarmed black men, for the most part — there’s fear out there. I just felt like [Trump] was the only one that understood that, and he tapped into it. He took everything that he learned from his TV show: He never cared about the polls, he only cared about Nielsen ratings and being in every headline.
He didn’t even have to spend like a traditional candidate would.
Nope. He saw the current and he rode it.
I’m still surprised that so many women voted for him.
They weren’t ready. But they’re gonna get ready! These next four years, they’re gonna get ready, and you’re gonna see women stick together in droves. There’s gonna be a lot of galvanizing. My culture, we’re going to galvanize; the Latin culture’s gonna galvanize and stand behind their Mexican brothers and sisters; the art world and music world are gonna come together because they’ll recognize that there’s power in numbers. And if they don’t, there’s gonna be a lot of laws that they’re not gonna like.
In some ways, with Hidden Figures doing so well, it’s almost a vehicle for healing.
It’s perfect for that, but that was never the intention. I knew that other thing was coming, and I did everything in my power so that I could sleep well at night knowing that I tried. I saw it coming, though. Aside from that, this film was just exciting to me not even thinking about that. I was just thinking, “It’s exciting to help lift some amazing women’s stories that people hadn’t heard before.” It’s really and truly amazing: One degree off in that math, and John Glenn wouldn’t have made it back into orbit. He could have ended up going too far into space and maybe wouldn’t have returned. This man really believed in the power of human computation.
What was it like to write music with these three specific women in mind?
Man. Octavia, to me, brings this very familiar character that you don’t often see portrayed correctly on television or in movies but we all know that character. We all know that strong, no-nonsense African-American woman who has seen a lot, done a lot, but is very educated. Janelle … she has feist in her. She’s feisty! She’s hot and she’ll tell you quick, but she’s very driven. Usually, when you see those kinds of characters, they just have attitude, but Janelle is playing this engineer who’s very, very talented. And then, Taraji, playing black female mathematics savant. We know them. Some of us went to school with them, but you’ve never seen any of them ever portrayed like this — Taraji took it to the next level. I’m just so proud of Fox and Chernin Entertainment and [producer] Donna Gigliotti — all of us being able to come together to help lift these women’s stories to visibility. It’s very rare. Like I said, you’ve met smart African-American women. You went to school with girls who excelled.
And they did that without an inspirational system of mentors and figures who looked like them.
That’s what so beautiful to me about this film. I love that their story was able to be told because we know those women but we never get to see them on the silver screen. And there’s a lot of women who came together to make this story happen. The hardship that they go through …
When did you wake up to that?
When I did my album G I R L. I named it G I R L because I wanted my fans to know that I recognized how much they had been there for me through all my songs … booty-shaking songs, everything! They were there for me and they understood and stayed with me. They’re my bosses, so I named my album Girl. They essentially paid for everything I’ve ever had.
Janelle said that she’s been offered acting roles over the years, but until Moonlight and Hidden Figures, she’d turned them all down. I have to imagine you’re getting offered characters to play, too.
Never? You’re not interested in that?
I mean, we get the offers, but I’m juggling enough, you know what I’m saying? I’m grateful for the bowling pins that I have. I like being an antenna for music, but being an antenna for personalities and character is a different skill set. Sometimes you can let something in and have a hard time letting it out — we’ve seen that with a lot of actors and actresses, where they end up badly because they allow those personalities to come in. As an actor, you’re not just entertaining — you’re channeling.
What do you remember about performing “Happy” at the Oscars last year?
I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was so weird, me on that stage. Like, what?
You got a lot of famous people on their feet.
We still have so many amazing GIFs from that performance. All these women in incredibly expensive gowns getting up and shaking it.
Man, Meryl Streep was awesome. I mean, come on! I’m a Tribe Called Quest fan from Virginia, and I was like, “I’m where, doing what? Whoa.” It’s still “whoa.” I still can’t believe it.