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Brittany Howard makes acting debut as a pony with big dreams in 'Thelma the Unicorn'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Thelma is a pony who wants to be a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

BRITTANY HOWARD: (As Thelma, singing) We've got to hug and rub-a-dub. We've got to dance and be in love.

DETROW: But when she finally gets the chance to audition for a show, she is told...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Look, babe. You just don't have it.

HOWARD: (As Thelma) It? What do you mean?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We just want people with a certain look.

DETROW: Well, in an only-in-the-movies turn of events, Thelma is then transformed into a pink, sparkly unicorn with a carrot for a horn. Don't worry about it. It'll make perfect sense when you see it. Suddenly, the music industry is interested, and Thelma has to reckon with the price of stardom. Thelma is played by Brittany Howard. You may know her for her many Grammys as part of the Alabama Shakes and as a solo artist. This is her acting debut.

Brittany Howard, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HOWARD: Hey. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here today.

DETROW: So this was your first time doing voice acting. Can you tell us how you got involved?

HOWARD: Sure. So one of the directors, Jared Hess - you might know him from "Napoleon Dynamite." He came to my show, and he told me he and his wife, Jerusha, had wrote the screenplay based on this book, and that they had me in mind the whole time to voice this character. You know, I've never voice acted before in my life. I was nervous. And I wasn't so sure about saying yes. But he handed me the book, and I read the little children's book, you know. And I found myself getting kind of emotional about it.

DETROW: Yeah.

HOWARD: Yeah. And then I decided, you know what? Why not? Let's try it. Let's see what happens.

DETROW: Well, obviously, you know your way around a studio. What was the biggest difference doing acting? Was there any particular scene that you thought was not what you expected or maybe had to readjust doing?

HOWARD: You know, I had a lot of fun doing the comedy scenes and doing the angry scenes. And I think where I found the most challenge was being so vulnerable, which is kind of funny because, like, in my own music, it's easy being vulnerable.

DETROW: Was there a particular scene that was at the top of mind?

HOWARD: There's a scene where Nikki Narwhal's assistant corners Thelma, discovers her identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Time for the world to see you as the pathetic creature you are.

HOWARD: And Thelma kind of gives in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

HOWARD: (As Thelma) Wait. Stop. Don't. Just let me disappear. You'll never see or hear from me ever again. It'll be like I never existed.

That is so opposite to my personality in that situation that it was kind of hard to access. I had to imagine what that would be like to be so afraid that I would just disappear and give it all up.

DETROW: Do you think it's easier to be vulnerable on your own terms when it's your song?

HOWARD: Yeah, for sure. And it's also like I'm allowing what I allow when it's my own music, right? And that's kind of where I realized, like, oh, I'm a little different from this character. But most of Thelma is basically my personality except with more energy, you know.

DETROW: Yeah. Is it funny to have a character that you feel like has so much of yourself in it but it also a pink, sparkly unicorn pony?

HOWARD: Yeah. It was hard to get over at first seeing my voice come out of, like, a mini pony, especially when I sing because the voice is so large and the pony's so small. But my friends, it's crazy how much of me they see in that little pony.

DETROW: Did you see yourself right away in that not-full-sized pony or did it take time?

HOWARD: I mean, I saw it. It was the hair for me.

DETROW: Yeah.

HOWARD: It's, like, probably my favorite design of the character is the hair. And, you know, pony's got a lot of attitude. I grew up with a pony, so I've done my research.

DETROW: Oh, I didn't realize that.

HOWARD: Yeah. I had a little pony.

DETROW: Did your pony ever become a unicorn?

HOWARD: No. They're different species, for sure. Like, this pony would bite me. It was just - it did not like me.

DETROW: Let's talk about some of the themes of the movie, though. Because Thelma is a pony. She's a great singer and songwriter. But she feels like no one wanted to pay attention to her music until she became a unicorn. Did that feel relatable to you?

HOWARD: In a way. You know, I grew up in a small town. Thelma grows up in a small town. And the thing I can relate the most with Thelma is that we had this dream of being seen and being heard and being appreciated as a songwriter. We just didn't know how to achieve this dream. It seemed so far away. I feel like that is the most relatable thing, actually - just having these impossible dreams.

DETROW: From afar, it seems to me like you made a lot of really good creative decisions, and Thelma maybe doesn't make as many good decisions because it's not just her looks that she has to change. It's her singing style as well. The music executive she ends up with tosses aside her songwriting book and cooks up this algorithm-generated song called "Here Comes The Cud," which I would just like to for my own enjoyment listen to for a moment before we talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

HOWARD: (As Thelma, rapping) Some people think that my baby gets crass the way he belches and builds up his gas. Yeah, my baby's table manners are rude, but no one can say he doesn't chew his food.

DETROW: Did you enjoy recording that? What was that like? I mean, it's so different from your style.

HOWARD: Because it's so different, that was actually my favorite one to do.

DETROW: Yeah.

HOWARD: With the auto tune and the rap, I had the best time doing that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

HOWARD: (As Thelma, singing) Here comes the cud.

DETROW: You have such a unique style. Have you ever felt that pressure to change your singing style, to change your sound, to satisfy a perceived market or a broader audience?

HOWARD: You know, actually, kind of the opposite. I feel like I've had more pressure to stay the same. Usually, the advice is when you're in this industry is to keep a good thing going, you know. But I'm just one of those people, like, I just follow my curiosity, you know. And if I got this one life to live, I'm going to try those things I'm interested in.

DETROW: You've had a lot of changes in the last years. You struck out solo. Did this make you think about that all in those choices?

HOWARD: Well, I was just following my authentic self. And I think with Thelma, she did the opposite. She was like, I'm going to be whoever I need to be to keep this opportunity going. My journey was different. My journey was I need to keep this creativity in me alive, and how do I do that?

DETROW: What advice do you give to up-and-coming singers on that core tension that's in this movie between making your own music or being famous, which can be two very different things for a lot of people?

HOWARD: Well, you know, I think everything works in cycles. And I feel like right now, the algorithm is interesting to a lot of music executives. They want to find a way to make money, of course. And as artists, it can be really confusing because you're trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work. But at the end of the day, I feel like what people really want is to connect to something authentic and maybe to see themselves in it and maybe that allows them to feel their emotions. I think it's important that we find a way as musicians to create a healthy environment for us to stay creative.

DETROW: How much do you think about that when you're deciding what project to do next or what you want the sound of your album to be?

HOWARD: You know, that's interesting. I don't think about those things. I find the idea of having to worry so much about the music business versus worrying more about staying creatively alive and keeping my soul alive for music and for creativity much more important. That's why I'm here. That's why I do what I do. It should be fun. And it should ignite my curiosity. And it should keep me growing and evolving.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA THE UNICORN")

HOWARD: (As Thelma, singing) It's time to shine. Baby girl, you ought to know...

DETROW: All right. Well, Brittany Howard stars in "Thelma The Unicorn," which is out now on Netflix. Thank you so much for chatting with us.

HOWARD: Hey. Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.