Macy Gray has dabbled with acting before — playing herself in Spider-Man as well as small parts in Domino and Lee Daniels’s directorial debut, Shadowboxer, among others — but she has her first major role in The Paperboy. The singer, whose next album, a remake of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, drops later this month, plays a maid named Anita who’s more than just the help; she’s raised Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron ever since their mother left, and she’s an eyewitness to the progress they make in an investigation of a convicted killer whose release they seek, prompted by his groupie/fiancée (Nicole Kidman). Gray’s the narrator of the film and tries to make sense of it all, even when the people around her refuse to be rational and flirt with danger. She was game to chat with Vulture about some of the more controversial aspects of The Paperboy, including Kidman’s notorious golden shower.
You’ve worked with Lee Daniels before, and you’re friends …
Lee really took off when he did Precious, and I was pissed, because he didn’t cast me in that! [Laughs.] So he promised me a role in his next movie. Precious was perfectly cast, and so is this. You have Matthew [McConaughey] playing the crazy writer, the gay dude in the closet; Zac [Efron] is stepping out; and Nicole [Kidman] can do anything. Lee has everybody in places that they wouldn’t normally go. He’s a very sick guy! [Laughs.]
When you’re narrating the film at the top, your character is being interviewed, but later on, your narration seems to acknowledge that we’re watching a movie, when you say that we don’t need to see a particular sex scene. Why?
I stepped out of it for a bit. [Laughs.] The narration was all Lee’s idea, and that was a moment to be funny for a second. But I don’t think it was anything about those sex scenes.
I mean, if it’s a choice between watching Nicole pee on Zac or have sex with Zac, some people would rather see the sex!
Oh, yeah! That was wild. I was kind of embarrassed watching it. They kept saying we were going to do some crazy things on set and go all out. It was pretty intense on set. People would stay in character the whole time, which was pretty insane, but they were really going for their part. And anything Lee wanted you to do, you did.
So, if Lee had asked you, instead of Nicole, to urinate on a co-star, would you?
Would I pee on somebody? Sure. I could pee on everyone. I’d rather be the person who’s peeing than the person who’s being peed on! Lee’s real specific about stuff like that, and he doesn’t simulate it. And if that’s Lee’s direction, definitely.
Your first scene with Zac, you walk into his room to clean up, and he admonishes you that he could have been in there masturbating, so you two role play, and you pretend to be him, masturbating on the floor. What was shooting that like?
I had just gotten there the night before for my fitting, and this was my first scene to shoot. And then when we shot it, Lee explained the total relationship he wanted these two to have, and he whispered something in Zac’s ear about what he wanted him to do. And then he did the same to me, telling me what he wanted me to do, and we just ran with it. What you see in the film, I think that was the second take. We did it a few times, and it was kind of magical, because it’s really establishing who we are and how close we are, that I know him like a book.
Zac’s running around in his underwear a lot …
It was totally distracting. I just wanted him to put some clothes on! I was asking, “Why is he naked in every scene?” But Lee said it had a purpose. But it was every day, all day. I don’t know what he was thinking. But Zac did it very well, and he had no problem with it. I guess, if you have a nice body, you know … So he didn’t complain.
If Lee had told you there was a purpose for your character to be in her underwear, would you have been willing to do the same?
Walk around in my underwear? Yeah, I would do it. I walk around naked all the time. It gets hot up here, so I just chill. I don’t do it just anywhere! There are places where you might go in your robe, just run to the store or go get gas, when you’re not going to see anybody. But you don’t get to go to the bank naked.
There’s an undercurrent of racism, but it’s subtle how it keeps popping up. Anita seems less like a maid, more like a mother to them, but then Zac’s character uses the N-word. Or the lawyer refers to Yardley as “boy.”
It would have been weird, in the late sixties and in the South, to not have that there. And it really changes you, when you hear those things. Even when you’re talking to your friends, someone will slip and say something. Everybody has a little bit of racism in them, and everybody has a slip of the tongue, and that’s just one of the first things we grab at, especially if we’re upset. People try to be polite, and they know there are things that they’re not supposed to say, but if you do, it doesn’t make you a racist; it makes you human. We’re all just mushed together in this big world, and it’s natural to slip — as long as you don’t get violent and crazy. That’s the difference.
Do you want to continue acting, or is this just a detour for you?
I definitely want to do more films, but I talk kind of funny, and I’m kind of tall. I’m offbeat. I’m 5’11”. Nicole is tall, too, but she’s like the actress actress of the actresses. [Laughs.] So they would find a guy to fit around her, not a guy to fit around me. Actors are really tiny, like toothpicks. I mean, Hugh Jackman is a tall, gorgeous thing, but a lot of actors are short. It’s crazy! I think someone’s going to be tall, and then I’m disappointed, like, Fuck! You know? And I feel really awkward around short guys, if I’m dating them. If a short guy asked me out, I might have to pass.
Have you heard Ken Marino’s version of “I Try”?
It’s hilarious. It’s pretty awesome. But I don’t think he sounds like me. It’s entertaining, but it’s a stretch!