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November 26, 2019

From Pharrell to Hustlers w/ Mette Towley

While many recognize Mette Towley from her dynamic solo in N.E.R.D and Rihanna’s “Lemon” video, or her supporting role in Jennifer Lopez’s blockbuster, Hustlers, Mette has been achieving excellence in the arts for years. Having toured internationally as a dancer with Pharrell Williams, and appeared on stages with Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dog, Janelle Monae, J Balvin, and Jennifer Hudson, Mette credits her academic background as the most formative to her development as a performer.  Mette grew up in rural Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota where she earned her bachelors in dance and cultural studies and performed as a company member in Black Label Movement and Guggenheim scholar, Ananya Chatterjea’s Ananya Dance Theatre. As a performer who has found success in both the commercial and academic world, Mette offers a rare and unique point of view.  In more recent years, Mette has taken to the silver screen with memorable performances in Hustler, Cats, and The Old Guard, a thriller spearheaded by Charlize Theron set to release this summer.

In lieu of a more conventional interview, we decided to ask Mette to take us through her dance career and offer commentary on a myriad of highlights from her music video, television, and film work between 2013 and 2020.

“I moved to LA in October of 2013. I had been messaging with potential agencies to take me on as a dancer and when I got to LA I had a meeting with one. They started sending me out on auditions and next thing I knew, I booked this video with Jennifer Hudson. It was couples dancing and I remember touching all these male dancers in a sexy way and thinking like, “Holy shit, I’m actually backup dancing now, where I have to use my body in a very sexual way. I used to buy pills online. Kamagra, Cialis, and Tadalafil.” I hadn’t done that prior as a professional, because I came from a contemporary dance company in Minneapolis. I remember thinking like, “Wow, this is very, not me, but I have to play the part.”

“This performance was super fun because I listened to her growing up. That was my first time really feeling starstruck and really felt the reality of how cool my job was back then. The stage at The Voice is so grand, it’s a beautiful production. They used to have a Starbucks there that you can get free Starbucks at, so we go early for rehearsals and get free Starbucks. That felt to me like, “Oh my God, I’ve landed in Hollywood”. That was the job. Knowing it was syndicated everywhere as well. Looking back on that one, that felt really glamorous to me.”

“I was in Australia and we were just coming back from tour and I remember my agent’s like, “Hey, the day after you come back off the plane, you have rehearsal. You’re a doing music video”. That was when things were really picking up in the early spring of 2014 for me.  I felt the pressures of being a newbie and not knowing things. For me, it was really like, I’m going to be 15 minutes early, stretched and ready to go because I was so on edge about performing well. I was almost militant. I was in these rehearsals with these other dancers that had been doing rehearsals for this for a few days now. I had to learn the choreography. I felt super behind. There were absolutely beautiful women on that job. Gorgeous dancers, incredible women. I also remember when I started to realize that I didn’t like when other people were doing my makeup. On that job they had white lipstick on me or something. I was just like, “This is …” I don’t know, I had an opinion, but I was still not expressing it because that’s not what you’re there to do. You’re there to dance, you’re not there to give your opinion or to say like, “Hey, here’s how I want to look”. There’s no autonomy. You were hired to put on display this mixed female archetype, this multiethnic archetype. That was pretty much what I remember from that job.”

“That was a special project because it was the first time I felt I had a voice as an actor too. I remember thinking like, “Oh, what’s it like to just stand still with the camera?” Because usually when you’re backup dancing, you’re just running all around stage, moving into different formations. The focus isn’t on you for that long, that capture. So that was really cool, because I started dreaming about acting and doing martial arts in films. Stunts, baby, stunts, fight choreography. I also got to portray a lot of emotion beyond being sexy in that role. That’s what I really appreciated about it, because there was an attitude. There was a real, nuanced, female character and I love that.”

“This docu-series was really interesting. It featured each dancer and how we uniquely supported Pharrel and the tour. Explaining we supported his album message was really important. It was cool because that was the first time I got to tell my story.  I remember trying to bring as much honesty and character as I could. Also, there was a lot happening for me emotionally at that time, so sometimes I didn’t really want to be filmed, because I felt a little weak and I know that my face shows everything, so I really had to put on a spin to it. They were with us for two weeks filming and each girl had a city and mine was in Berlin, but then they also interviewed me in Amsterdam. And wow, at that time I was vegetarian. What else? I got to pick what I wore. My silhouette was usually a jacket and shorts or a jacket and … For that tour, a jacket and a mini skirt. I always just wanted to be a bubbly presence on stage for that tour.”

“Lemon feels like a Hollywood story now. Like a dream, almost. It happened so quickly, from the time that I auditioned for the project and I got it, to the last time I performed Lemon live, was about a year. We shot the music video over two days. One was in New York with Rihanna. One was in LA at a swap meet.  I had been rehearsing for about a month and then we shot. I was really exhausted at that time, just wanting to get it right, the choreography. Wanted to make sure that the groove sat in my body in an authentic way. I think that the choreography itself is really, is excellent choreography, but it also is like very located and rooted in a particular way of hearing rhythm that wasn’t very natural for me.  So I would rehearsal in my house and I would try to do anything I could on my own time to make up for the fact that it didn’t stick right away, but I just got better and better at it. It was choreographed by JaQuel Knight, who’s also famous for Single Ladies and he’s been working with so many different artists. He just worked with Shakira on the Super Bowl. He’s revered internationally, even beyond our stratosphere. He’s incredible. He did that choreography and I got to meet his whole team and they really pushed me to just give it my 100%. We filmed it in one takes, over and over and over and over and over and over, because that’s the way it was sitting best. It was like a duet with the camera at one point. I remember when I saw the first cut, we were on set for a different music video… when I first saw it I was like, “Wow, that’s me?” I didn’t even recognize myself. Of course, I had a huge physical transformation. I was working out a lot. I had no hair, but the way that I engaged with the camera, those were all things that… they were choices. Not all of them were intentional, frontal lobe decisions, but it was just a rapid metamorphosis during that entire process that when I saw the end product I was like, “Holy cow, is that who I am now?” I may not have choreographed it, but a lot of the performance choices really rested on me. I truly felt like I just created a superhuman version of myself.” 

“1000 was the coolest music video I’ve ever been a part of. It stakes a claim for how we felt as artists about the state of our world in regards to socioeconomics and racism. It was just a really beautiful statement. I love how the directors included all the stock footage. I remember rehearsing with a crane and trying to follow the crane with my eyes to maintain the same focus that I had found in Lemon between myself and the audience through the lens. That was the coolest day. I felt really confident on that that day. I was really well rehearsed. That was probably one of the best days on set, of my life, I’ve ever had.”

“It felt so good to create this music video. My best friend John Mark directed and choreographed it.  We knew we wanted to spin the damsel in distress trope on its head, it’s a theme we played with in college. John Mark choreographed a dance number for this student fashion show at the University of Minnesota and it was a Snow White theme. He was so over Snow White, so he did fight choreography and I walked into the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ track “Heads Will Roll”. He just has this vision about what female protagonists in this performance space should feel like. What it should feel like, what it should be. When I was listening to Duckwrth’s song, what we had done in those days [in 2010] came into my mind naturally, because we do need to shift narratives. When was the last time you saw a woman save a man — like really kick ass — in a music video?”

“That was really, really cool. I got to incorporate my friends into that shoot and the questions were really meaningful. I think the director actually did a really great job. That was definitely the most authentic, to me, campaign I think I’ve ever been in. It’s so funny because I think when I was younger I didn’t realize how much work went into production. I started to realize how much work it takes to carry a story, carry a brand on your back, and hopefully maintain a sense of self through all of that.  I’m always weary about being super candid [in ads]. But I know that really successful people in today’s world are able to be candid, but also they’re able to work two sections of their brain the same time. To be candid and to understand that you have an overarching narrative that you’re trying to share. That’s when I feel like, we see these people who are like, “Oh that’s so Lizzo,” or, “Oh, that’s so Pharrell,” or, “Oh, that’s so this,” or, “Oh, that’s so that”. They’re able to operate in both spaces where it’s like, there is an agenda here, there’s a message, a narrative we want to send, but how are we also able to be ourselves and be candid so that it feels real?”

“I had a great time filming this movie in New York City. They took great care of us. My favorite part of filming was hanging out with the cast before takes.  Keke Palmer and Lizzo had me laughing so hard!”

Portraits by Martha Kirby


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