Gabourey Sidibe isn’t afraid of being afraid: The actress, 36, will appear alongside Janelle Monáe in Antebellum, a political-horror movie that finds Monáe’s character trapped in the pre–Civil War South. Here, Sidibe talks flipping the script on horror films, what’s keeping her up at night, and cat butts (yes, you read that right).
Marie Claire: The film has been kept top secret. What can you tell us about it?
Gabourey Sidibe: Yes, there’s a shroud of secrecy around this film for reasons that will be obvious once you see it. It's super dark. It’s a psychological thriller. There are parts of the film where it's like walking around in the dark with your hands out, just trying to find the wall. It keeps you not only on your toes, but on the edge of your seat. It’s really a fun and incredibly dark and scary ride.
What drew me to my character, Dawn, is that I feel like I know people like her. I based my performance on some of my friends that are sort of bougie and fancy. I enjoyed the chance to pretend to be them. Because I’m not that bougie.
MC: Socially charged horror movies like Get Out, Us, and now Antebellum are on the rise. Why does horror work as a parable of social and racial experiences?
GS: The people who are now making horror films were watching horror films when they were young. Then, it was Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Now that we're all grown up, no one’s afraid of monsters anymore; we’re afraid of who the next president will be. The political climate of the country scares me. Interactions with people who don’t believe that I deserve human rights—that’s more terrifying than any vampire or werewolf. If you want to scare people, talk about what we survive every day that we might not survive tomorrow.
MC: Besides our political climate, what keeps you up at night?
GS: I recently had dinner with my cousin, who reminded me of a terrible ex-boyfriend. I went to sleep that night and I was trapped right back in that relationship. Huge jerk! But you know what, mistakes were made. I was in my early 20s. You don’t know anything in your early 20s. Or late 20s. I won’t know anything until I’m 45.
MC: What do you hope viewers come away with after seeing Antebellum?
GS: What I took away was this idea that if we don’t pay attention to history, we can’t predict what the future will be. The future is a lot closer than we think, and so is the past. Time doesn’t mean anything unless you’re willing to change things.
MC: How has the role of black women in horror films changed?
GS: I remember growing up and seeing horror films, and black people were the first to be killed. We seem to be making it to the end a lot more! What’s important is that we’re not just making it to the end of the film; we’re writing our own stories, telling them, and acting them out. It’s really beautiful—not just as a black person, but especially as a black woman. I can’t quite separate being a woman and being black. I’m a black woman. But I think it’s changing. I can see that it’s changing. I would love for it to change faster.
MC: Where do you see your role in that change?
GS: What’s great is I’m a writer and a director now [of episodes of Empire and a short film]. There’s no longer just the option to be on one side of camera, but the option to be on both. That’s how I plan to help the change, by making my own stories and starring in them. The world’s sort of my oyster.
MC: Staying busy! What do you do for fun?
GS: This is going to sound super lame, but I spend a lot of quality time with my cat. He’s just the world’s most handsome cat ever. I do various sort of other lame/normal things: I try to travel whenever I can, I go on weekends to visit my parents, and I go to see my therapist once a week.
MC: Sounds like a pretty good lineup to me.
GS: Doesn’t it? I feel like this is exactly the opposite of what people think that actors and celebrities do, but God knows I hang out with the cat and see my therapist and complain.
MC: What’s something else that people don’t know about you?
GS: Here’s a really, really weird secret: I color a lot more than the average adult. I have a collection of coloring books, and I’m always buying color pencils, and sharpeners for those color pencils. I just got into glitter markers because I’m 3 years old. Someone got me a coloring book of cat butts. It’s a Christmas edition. So, it’s these cats hanging out near Christmas trees and there’s Santa Claus, but it's cat butts. Also, I’m Senegalese, and I really like African prints. My therapist actually got me a coloring book that’s all beautiful women in African prints.
MC: So, you oscillate back and forth between beautiful African women and cat butts.
GS: Exactly, in a nutshell. That’s me in 2020.
A version of this interview originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Marie Claire.
Clarification: An earlier version of this piece listed the release date of Antebellum as April 24. Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the movie's release has been delayed until further notice.