Violent-Sexy Dance Moves: Behind the Scenes of “Turn Down for What”
An Interview with Sunita Mani
By Andre Novak
If you haven’t already seen the music video to DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” watch it right now. You will not be sorry. I promise. This video has everything you ever wanted. Insane partying. Weird sexiness. Violent Brazilian dance moves. A woman breaking a baseball bat on a dude’s boner. Yeah.
Needless to say, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with this video since I first saw it about a week ago. Even in today’s completely desensitizing world, it stands out as something uniquely raunchy, bizarre, and fun. I suspect it will go down in history as one of the all-time greatest music videos.
I recently had the honor of interviewing one of the video’s stars, Sunita Mani, who plays the beautiful baseball bat-wielding, grind-dancing character mentioned above. Her performance is nothing short of astounding. In the video, she and her co-star, Daniel Kwan, bring the unbridled insanity as they bump-and-thrash around in ways that would make any respectable Kingston dance-hall look like a bar mitzvah by comparison. Sunita was kind enough to share some behind-the-scenes insights regarding the making of the video.
What are your thoughts on the “Turn Down for What” music video?
I am blown away and reeling. I love it. So gross and so brilliant. I can’t believe it actually happened and I got to be a part of it—they pulled off this sick action-movie with epic humping and dancing, and it looks incredible! It’s too funny!
Do you have a favorite part or aspect of the ﬁnished product?
The build of each scene to the song is so fun and impressive. I couldn’t quite visualize the whole when it was described to me or when reading the treatment, so it’s a true gift to see the ﬁnished piece over and over. The visuals and narrative work so well with the music; you can’t stop watching because you have to see what happens next! I will love watching Dan Kwan dance forever and always, but my favorite part is when the mom-character’s boobs bounce. They’ve been wanting to do that trick for forever. It. is. so. funny. You’re watching her face, trying to grasp what is happening yourself, and ultimately you’re tickled by the surprise and absurdity instead of the upsetting actualities. And I got to puppeteer the movement of those babies! I was under her shirt with boxing gloves, essentially, made out of a bra. The actress, Aixa Maldonano, NAILED IT. She was an angel to work with and was so open to my hands resting on her chest for hours. She’s very special!
I didn’t know of it before the DANIELS (the video’s directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinhert) sent it to me. It struck me as an odd collaboration of a DJ and notorious hype man, but I felt indifferent until I got to bust a move to it. And I love it now because of the music video.
I suspect this music video will go down in history as one of the all-time greats, alongside Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” and The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Did you have any idea of how rad the ﬁnal product was going to be while shooting? Did the DANIELS describe their vision while you were putting it all together?
Wow! I hope you suspect correctly! Indeed, I had complete trust in the DANIELS making something rad. They can’t help themselves! They are creating for fun and they reach great heights with their sense of play. At ﬁrst, I was told the “vision” via text message. Kinda like this:
Daniel Scheinert: Hahahaha do you wanna come back to LA for a music vid?
(I’m based in NYC and was in LA the day of this text)
Me: Would love to
DS: Let’s ﬁgure out schedules
Me: I will make it work. What band?
DS: It’s “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake
DS: Feat. Lil Jon
Me: WOW. OH MY GOD. You don’t want a real booty ho? Will Lil Jon be there?
DS: No, but he’s obsessed with the idea. You have to do violent/sexy dance moves for 2 days straight. Probably a scene where you slam your butt in Kwan’s face so hard you smash him through the ﬂoor.
Me: DONE I’M IN
And now you see the video.
Yeah, some of the dancing between you and Daniel Kwan is pretty insane. Like, at one point you’re sort of twerk-bashing his face—earlier in the video, as you described, you epically drop your butt onto his face from a standing position. How much of that was real?
IT WAS ALL REAL. MY BUTTHOLE WAS ON HIS FACE. OFTEN LANDING IN SLOW MOTION. They say if you place a butthole on the tip of a man’s nose, he will fall in love with you eternally. Both Dan Kwan and I wanted to be respectful of each other’s fate, so we kept it professional.
For that “twerk-bash” move in particular, where my ankles are hooked behind his neck to whip his face into my butt, I cushioned my butt cheeks with foam. We’re referencing the Brazilian style of dancing Surra de Bunda, which is that exact move, but over and over by girls in bikinis performing to a speciﬁc Brazilian butt-smash song.
So, I assume you actually broke a wooden baseball bat over Daniel Kwan’s peen—what was that like?
Yes, I swung a real “Yankee standard” on his goods. It felt like murder, but he was a first class sport!
Was the shoot fun to do? It looks like it was probably either a blast or really taxing. It if it wasn’t a total nightmare, what was your favorite part of the shoot?
I have so many favorite parts. Watching everyone dance on the monitor, puppeteering those boobs, improvising dance moves with Dan Kwan, hanging out with people on set who are kind and funny and so good at their jobs, sitting on the roof witnessing that BEAUTIFUL CRANE SHOT at the beginning of the video. The shoot was terrifyingly fun! One or two takes only at times! Level 10 workout! Jump off of this ladder onto a padded mattress! Everyone was on board to do everything. And the DANIELS make it an environment where you want to be on board. Which is so amazing and essential to their directing style: Try it out. Have fun however you want! Here, throw this piece of dry wall in the air while you do it.
What kinds of responses to your performance have you seen so far from family, friends, and strangers?
Family? Don’t know if they’ve seen it…
Friends? Incredibly uplifting support and praise. My friends are those I consistently want to impress the most! So it’s super meaningful to make them proud!
Strangers? It’s kind of funny because I don’t have Facebook to receive a public response for a thing like this, so I’m getting congratulations very directly on my phone from folks coming out of the woodworks, emails from people in all parts of the country just wanting to say “cool faces and dance moves!” It makes me feel so loved and like I’m really famous. It’s super cool that some folks connected to various Indian communities are reaching out because they are excited to see an Indian lady in a viral rap video!
You seem to be involved in a variety of artistic and performance-based projects. On your Tumblr page I’m seeing all kinds of stuff like improv comedy (with none other than the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade!), commercials, writings, short ﬁlms—what are you working on right now? What can fans of your performance in the ‘Turn Down for What’ video look forward to?
Well, get a load of this: I’m part of the dance comedy outﬁt COCOON CENTRAL DANCE TEAM. We make up highly choreographed dances for fun and for laughs and it’s pure love. My cohorts, Tallie Medel and Eleanore Pienta, are two very funny, very precious gems with whom I collaborate on camera and on stage. We are working on releasing a web series called REHEARSAL, directed by our talented, collaborator-friend Alex Fischer. We have 3 episodes up on our youtube channel—Cocoon Central Dance Team—with more to come!
Cream City is a Baltimore-based site, so I have to ask: have you ever been to Baltimore? If so, what was your experience like? If not, what are your impressions of the city based on what you’ve seen or heard?
I’ve never been to Baltimore. And I hear it’s cool. I also haven’t watched The Wire yet. I’m sorry, everyone.
From now on if anyone asks, I will say Baltimore is a creamy dreamy city with creamy clouds and dreamy skies.
Awesome. That’s all very true, by the way. Thanks so much for your time! Please keep up the amazing work!
Thank you so much for reaching out! I loved being able to talk about the process!