Following her breakthrough role in Belle, British rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers another stirring performance set in the world of music in writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s contemporary romantic drama Beyond the Lights. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a young award-winning artist struggling with the demands of sudden stardom until she meets Kaz (Nate Parker), a principled young man assigned to her security detail who genuinely sees her as a person not a persona. Their love inspires her to find the courage to become the artist she was always meant to be. Opening November 14th, the film also stars Minnie Driver and Danny Glover.
In an exclusive interview, Mbatha-Raw talked about how her character evolved once she was offered the role, the 8-minute presentation that helped secure the film’s financing, the two-year process of research and preparation, why she was intrigued by the film’s exploration of the emotional and psychological implications of fame, how she found the human being behind the fantasy interesting to play, the intensity and sophistication Driver brought to her performance, the real-life personal qualities that informed Parker’s character, and her upcoming projects The Whole Truth with Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger, the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, and the untitled NFL concussion drama with Will Smith. Check out our interview after the jump:
Can you talk about how this project first came together for you?
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: It was quite a lengthy process actually. I first read the script back in 2011 when I was getting ready for the premiere for Larry Crowne, which was my first film here. And then, a couple of weeks later, I auditioned for Gina. I hadn’t seen any of her other movies so I was going in cold. I went in and sang for her, and then I did a few scenes from the movie. Then, I got a recall and then a recall audition. Actually Nate read with me. I didn’t know that he was necessarily cast in the role I don’t think at that point. He came in to read the role of Kaz. Then I got offered the role, but there wasn’t a studio attached and it wasn’t fully financed at that point. Gina and I started conversing about the character. Initially, when I auditioned, she was American. Then, in getting to know me, Gina thought it might be interesting and might raise the stakes for the mother-daughter dynamic if they really were British and had traveled and put all their eggs in the Noni basket and had come from the U.K. to L.A. She felt that it would give it another layer of intensity and that whole ‘us against the world’ dynamic, especially if they were foreigners in America. There were elements like that of collaborating, and then we shot an 8-minute presentation of the movie to help garner financing. We actually shot it here at the Four Seasons about a year and a half ago. It’s very surreal to be here for the junket all this time later and we’ve made the movie. We manifested it from that 8-minute presentation.
What sort of research and preparation did you do for the role?
MBATHA-RAW: It was a process of Gina surrounding me with people who really were in the music industry like The Dream, the music producer that wrote Noni’s songs, and Laurieann Gibson, the choreographer. Actually, before that, we started going to concerts. We went to the Grammys together the year that Adele swept the board there and got to go backstage and just experience that energy. Also, we went to see the Katy Perry documentary (Kate Perry: Part of Me) together. Gina directed me towards a few books to read that explored some famous iconic stars like Judy Garland, for example, with her mother being very pushy and then that dynamic of a child star as a singer. And then, even Marilyn Monroe in terms of the sex symbol persona and what that can do to you psychologically. So, it was a very layered process over nearly two years of gathering research. Gina would send me a music video, and I’d send her some other music, and anything we felt would give the character some more texture.
MBATHA-RAW: It was really fascinating to me. I felt like I hadn’t really seen this point of view before in the music industry particularly, which is a very familiar world. But the fact that Gina very consciously was knocking the glass off the fantasy girl and showing the human being underneath, that was really intriguing to me. Also, it was the psychological implications of fame and what that can do to you if you really don’t have a strong sense of self or a sense of self-worth. I thought that was interesting on an emotional level – the idea of mental health, what might drive somebody to be sitting on a balcony ledge when they seemingly have it all, and jumping from that 12-year-old girl to the 26-year-old diva and the emotional and psychological cost. Those were things that as an actress I found interesting to play with.
How was it playing opposite Minnie Driver and Nate Parker who both deliver strong performances?
MBATHA-RAW: Minnie was just so wonderful to work with and it was great having a fellow Brit on the set. She’s so funny in real life and sort of the self-professed class clown, I guess. But, in the character, she brought this real subtle coolness and sophistication. I think potentially she could have been a two-dimensional villainous momager, but Minnie brought this sneaky, manipulative, very feminine, passive-aggressive version of it that I thought was very real, and you really understood the desperation and it was subtle. It was great working with her, especially in the break-up scene, as I call it. I remember one take she did, she yelled at me so hard, I literally was so shocked that I forgot my next line. The camera was on her and I was just like, “Oh my God!” I felt like literally I was about to burst into tears because she yelled at me so hard. It was just her intensity that she brought to it.
And Nate, of course, is so great in this movie. He really has such a grounded quality about him. He’s very principled, very decent and has a strong sense of integrity. And that really comes across in Kaz as well. He’s a real actor’s actor. He’s happy to leap in with the improvisation. He’s really detailed in his approach. So that was great.
Have you had a friends and family screening yet?
MBATHA-RAW: No. My parents are in the U.K. and they haven’t had any screenings in the U.K. yet. But a couple of my friends have seen it. So I’m waiting for my Mom and Dad to see it hopefully soon.
MBATHA-RAW: That’s the wonderful thing about working with a writer-director. There is this sense of one vision, and particularly with Gina. She had such a strong vision for this project, and it was four years in development. So, she had already done all of the editing. I mean, it would have been edited amazingly by Terilyn Shropshire, but Gina had really honed this story to what she wanted it to be. There really wasn’t a lot of difference. The final script that I read was Gina’s blueprint, and then what was shot and how it was edited was very much part of that same vision, which is very reassuring.
What did you learn while working on this project?
MBATHA-RAW: I learned so much. I feel like I learn in every project. What was really inspiring to me about this project was the message of being true to yourself and learning to love who you are before you can love someone else. I think that that’s really important.
Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming projects?
MBATHA-RAW: I just shot over the summer a film called The Whole Truth with another female director, Courtney Hunt, who I actually saw last night. She was here at the Elle’s Women in Hollywood event. It’s a legal drama, a courtroom drama, and I play a lawyer, a defense attorney on a murder trial alongside Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger. It’s really a morality tale about justice, and my character is definitely the moral center of the piece. It’s sort of like negotiating between doing her job as a lawyer, but she’s new to it, and she also wants to find out the truth in a world where it’s just about winning. That was a really great job and I loved being in New Orleans. That was such a wonderful cultural experience.
I also have Jupiter Ascending coming out early next year in which I have a small role, but a fun role, where I play a character that’s half-human and half-deer in the Wachowski’s cosmic adventure. It was really wonderful to work with them, albeit briefly, but on such an epic scale of production.
I’m about to start work on another project which has a working title of Concussion about brain injuries in the NFL. We’re shooting that in Pittsburgh with Will Smith for Sony. Peter Landesman has written it and is directing it. That will take me to the end of the year and beyond.
When did you first know that you wanted to act?
MBATHA-RAW: Probably when I was about 11 years old. I played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. That was my first role on stage. Before that I’d done lots of dancing – ballet, tap, jazz, whatever I could get my hands on. I just love performing so much and I threw myself into every musical theater production that was going in my home town and at school. And then, I went to the National Youth Music Theatre, which was really a galvanizing experience for me when I was 17. It was with all sorts of actors from all over the country. It was the first time after being a big fish in a small pond in my home town and then suddenly being thrown in with like-minded people from all over the place. It was very inspiring to me. That gave me the confidence to apply to drama school. I did the three-year acting course at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) which was real classical training and very theater based. I’m really thankful for it. I feel like it stood me in good stead so far.
How have your roots influenced you as an artist at this point in your career?
MBATHA-RAW: In terms of Beyond the Lights and Belle, they’re definitely stories about identity. They’re female empowerment stories. So I’m exploring that through my work. Time will tell. I don’t know if I’m necessarily consciously working that out.