Thelma the Unicorn Interview: Brittany Howard Talks Acting Debut in Netflix Musical

Thelma the Unicorn Brittany Howard Interview
(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Netflix)
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ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Thelma the Unicorn star and four-time Grammy Award winner Brittany Howard about making her acting debut in the animated musical. Directed by Jared Hess and Lynn Wang, the film is now available to stream on Netflix.

“Thelma is a small-time pony who dreams of becoming a glamourous music star. In a pink and glitter-filled moment of fate, Thelma is transformed into a unicorn and instantly rises to global stardom,” reads the film‘s synopsis. “But this new life of fame comes at a cost. Thelma the Unicorn is a quirky, hilarious, and heartfelt ride from directors Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Lynn Wang (Unikitty!).”

Tyler Treese: How did you first get involved in Thelma the Unicorn? This is such a great first acting role for you since you get to implement your tremendous musical gifts as well and really have a fun time with this character.

Brittany Howard: I got involved when one of the directors, Jared Hess, came to one of my shows, and he asked me if I would be interested in voicing Thelma. He said that he and his wife, who wrote the screenplay, actually had me in mind the whole time. I was surprised to hear this, and I had to go think about it.

So he gave me a copy of the book, the original book, and I read it, and I just thought it was so full of heart and it was such a good message about being yourself. I actually got a little emotional reading the book, and I was like, “This isn’t something I’ve ever done before, and I’m kind of nervous about it, but I’m gonna try it, and I’m gonna give it my all.” I’m really glad I did, and I’m super proud of this film.

One of the fun aspects of this musical movie is you got to cover Lenny Kravitz here. How was it putting your own stamp on “Are You Gonna Go My Way”? Because that’s a really fun cover.

It’s so fun. It is actually a song I’ve always wanted to cover. So this just worked out. But I’ll also say, Lenny has such a unique voice, and I ain’t gonna lie, it was kind of challenging covering the song. I had to figure out how to do it my own way.

You’re no stranger to trying out different genres of music, but there’s something very funny seeing you do a song like “Here Comes The Cud.” How is it just having fun with a song and doing this very goofy side of yourself that isn’t always seen on your albums?

“Here Comes The Cud” was probably my favorite moment in this movie because I got to do the autotune, which is something I never touch. I also got to rap a little bit and it’s actually one of my favorite moments. I loved embodying that.

“Fire Inside” hit streaming ahead of the release, and that’s such a great song as well. It really shows off your vocals.What do you like about that track in particular setting the stage and being the introduction to some people to Thelma the Unicorn?

I love that song. I feel like one of my favorite elements of “Fire Inside” is there’s just a simplicity to it. I feel like that’s why it’s so catchy. It is not doing too much, it just sticks to the rhythm. It has a great rhythm section in the track. It’s not overly complicated. I love the lyrics as well, and I just love how, as a singer, you get to have so much dynamic throughout that song.

You performed several songs on this that were written by Bret McKenzie, and you acted alongside Jermaine Clement. I’m a big Flight of the Conchords fan. So what did you like most about what Bret wrote for the film?

Yeah, I really love Bret’s songs because they’re so real to me. I love “Only Unicorn.” I just feel like there are times in our lives when we feel like we’re all alone and no one understands our position in life. I feel like we can all relate to that, and it was just super easy to get along with Bret. I, too, was actually a huge fan of Flight of the Conchords in high school, so it was kind of surreal getting to work with him.

There’s something just special about animation. What was your reaction when you first got to see your voice coming out of this adorable character throughout Thelma the Unicorn?

The first thing I noticed about Thelma was the hair in the design of the character. That’s my favorite part of her. Seeing my voice come out of such a little pony was hilarious to me. Again, another surreal feeling. I just never imagined potentially millions of people seeing my voice coming out of a unicorn.

You slightly touched on this, but what really impressed me about the film was how great the themes are. What did you like most about this story that’s really about embracing who you are? It’s such a good message for not just kids but as a reminder for adults watching as well.

I think we’re really caught up in this world of social media and saying the right things, and projecting all of the right things society wants us to be. Especially if you’re a person in the spotlight and you wanna be successful. It’s like there’s all these things we think we have to be, and I guess we expect that if we fulfill that contract, that we’re supposed to love ourselves more, feel better about ourselves, but in the end it’s just lonely.

This movie showcases that you were worthy of love to begin with. It’s just that whole journey of coming to realize that. It’s like a journey of friendship. It’s also a journey about being authentic, and I just feel like that kind of reflects the world that we’re living in now, and it’s a reflection of the music industry now. I think there are a lot of jokes that adults are going to get that kids might miss.

You’re obviously very well versed in the recording studio, but was there anything different when you’re doing a voiceover recording session compared to recording a song? Did you have to approach it differently?

Well, there are a lot of similarities to doing voice acting work and singing. Obviously, I know how to use my instrument to emote, and so I could take that information that I’ve had and apply it to acting. But I think one of the challenges that I didn’t expect was that you’re changing these emotions quickly from page to page. Usually, when you go to the studio, you know you’re working on this song today, you know what mindset you need to be in, you got the lyrical content, and you kind of just stick with that. Going in and reading a script is pretty different, but I feel like I rose to the challenge.

One of my favorite songs in Thelma the Unicorn is “Just As You Are.” I saw you had a writing credit on that as well. What was the creative process of that song?

Yeah, the creative process was really, really cool. There’s a lot of great songwriters on this soundtrack and I’m really grateful that I got to work with them. I also got to work with a legendary producer, Mike Elizondo, and I learned so much from him during that process of coming up with lyrics right on the spot and writing right on the spot. As a songwriter, my technique is usually I take as much time as I need. Some songs come to you immediately, and some take a while, but I usually like to work alone, and I have all the time in the world to make mistakes.

But when you’re in front of other people, you have to get used to being uncomfortable, or at least my sake, being uncomfortable, worried about what someone might think about my ideas. But I just learned to get over that pretty quickly. Working with Mike, we just kind of put our heads together and said, “I think this makes the most sense. I really like the way this is said.” It kind of came through naturally, and I’m actually like, really? I’m really grateful that I got to learn how to do that through this process.

Did Thelma the Unicorn give you the acting bug now? Do you want to do more acting in the future?

I’m curious about acting. I’ve always really admired actors because it’s just such a wild concept to kind of flip through your emotions, like a remote control, or to get into this character where you almost become this character. It’s fascinating. I think I’m curious about it. I think I’ll just see what comes across my path and if I can put my heart into it, like I did Thelma, I think I would be interested in doing this again.

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