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For whatever reason, Mary J. Blige is one of those artists that we think we know on a personal level. Maybe it’s her 20-year music career, her painfully honest voice or her quiet strength.

The Grammy-winning R&B icon graces the November cover of ESSENCE and opens up about her new role in Netflix’s Mudbound, which is set in the Mississippi Delta during the Jim Crow South. In the film, directed by Dee Rees (Pariah), Blige plays Florence Jackson, a mother of four who’s navigating her family through the dangers of being Black while living on a flood-drenched farm in the south.

“Shedding Mary J. Blige for Florence gave Mary J. Blige some confidence… like a lot of it,” Blige told ESSENCE writer Taiia Smart Young. “[On set] I could hear people whispering, ‘She’s so beautiful.’ And I was like, ‘Who the hell are they talking about?'”

Dennis Leupold

The 46-year-old admits that she was asked to transform into a completely different person in the midst of dealing with a huge personal loss —the end of her 14-year marriage

“I had just come back from performing on the Bad Boy Family Reunion tour with all the nails and the wigs, and I wasn’t trying to depart from that,” she admitted. “So when it came time to get into character, I was like, ‘Can I wear a lace-front wig? Can I get some lashes?'”

Ultimately, she pushed through and owned the role, which will hit Netflix on Nov 17.

“If I didn’t let go and give into the character, the movie probably wouldn’t be what it is right now. It was the one thing that needed to be done, and I couldn’t let Dee down.”

Read the full interview in the November issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands this week.