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Interview: Nate Parker Talks “Beyond The Lights,” Nat Turner Biopic, and Integrity in Hollywood

Interview: Nate Parker Talks "Beyond The Lights," Nat Turner Biopic, and Integrity in Hollywood

In “Beyond The Lights,” Nate Parker
stars opposite Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Kaz Nicol, a police officer whose plans for
public office fall into jeopardy when he falls for troubled pop star Noni Jean
(Mbatha-Raw).

At the recent junket for the film, we spoke
with Parker about working on the project with director Gina Prince-Bythewood, his
outlook on the industry and directing plans, including his long-in-development
biopic on Nat Turner.

JAI TIGGETT: You’ve had romantic roles in “The Great
Debaters” and “The Secret Life of Bees,” but you’re the leading
man in “Beyond The Lights.” Is this a role you were looking to play?

NATE PARKER: For me, it was Gina. If she called
and said, “I have a film about a hang glider from Belize,” I would
probably say yes. I have a rigorous process by which I choose my films and at
the forefront is, “Who is the filmmaker?” Filmmakers I trust can put
me in a position to say yes more so than people that I don’t know. If it’s a
director I don’t trust, it could be the same film, the same script, and I
probably would say no.

Now that you’ve stepped into the role, are you ready for the wave
of new fans that are excited about you as a romantic lead?

I’m more concerned with young men who tweet
things like, “I want to be a better man” or young women after the screening
who say, “I’m glad that you’re unapologetic about your love for her.”

Right now music is in a tough place because
it has kind of leaned towards commerce rather than authenticity. So we’re in a
position where we are perpetuating negativity from a number of angles. It’s
destructive and unhealthy, and it’s unacceptable. Someone has to stand in the
gap and create some kind of balancing act when it comes to material that is
misleading young people into thinking that things are not what they really are.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen this kind of heartfelt love
story with black characters in it.

I think that lot of times you see “black
films” made that exploit the stereotypes and experiences of the black
community without leaving the community better off. Whereas a film like this, I
feel, just happens to have black people in it but speaks to an experience that
all human beings can identify with. You never have to think, “So this is
how black people act” or “This is how a black cop acts.”
Integrity is integrity, all by itself. Manhood is manhood, all by itself.

It’s an intimate story, especially in the scenes you share with
Gugu Mbatha-Raw. How much time were you able to spend together before filming?

About two years ago before this film had a
studio or distributor, I got a call from Gina and she said, “I’m trying to
get this movie off the ground, I have my lead, her name is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She
is insanely talented and I want the studios to realize who she is. Will you
show up and work with her?” I said, “For you, anything.”

This is without any knowledge that it was
going to be a project that I’m attached to. For me it was about, Gina needs
something, I’m going to show up because of my respect for her. So I showed up
and did the scenes with her and then we walked away. Fast-forward maybe six
months, she calls and says, “Okay, the movie’s alive and I want you to be
a part of it.” And that was that.  

I bring this up because from that early
performance seven or eight months before we ever had to actually rehearse, there
was a spark. And then the rest was just stoking that flame. Even the first time
I met her the chemistry was off the charts because I was attracted to her work
as an artist. For me it was like she’s talented, she’s trained, and she’s
sensitive. All those things were exciting to me, so then when Gina put us in
the position to have rehearsals, we went out to dinner, we went to Disneyland
and did all these things together – it just built on a foundation that was
established months before.

Tell me about the relationship with Danny Glover, who plays your
father in the movie.

It was incredible. How often do we get to see
a healthy father-son relationship with two black men, and in a single parent
household? I think of “Boyz n the Hood” and I can’t think of anything
else. So that was an element that I’m so happy Gina explored. She could have
made Kaz pop out of nowhere, not really show his home life, but he had his own
obstacles as well.

And working with Danny was a revelation. It
was everything I wanted it to be and none of what I didn’t. Any time you work
with a veteran you’re at the mercy of their sensibility. If they say, “This
is how it’s going to be or I’m leaving,” then you just play ball. But if
they walk in as a servant and say, “I want to make this better and I’m
going to do whatever I have to do,” that means something, and that’s what
it was. After our first rehearsal he left calling me son and me calling him pop,
and we still do that.

You’re directing now as well. You did a short recently dealing
with police violence against black males.

We never could have imagined it turning out
as great as it did. We only had a week to put it together. I wrote it on the
plane on my way to Ferguson. James Lopez at Sony called and said, “I have
this idea about a cop,” and he just kind of went into it. I said, “I’m
about to get on a plane, let me hit you back in about two hours.” I landed
in that two hours and sent him the script and it became a shooting draft.

I say it was etched on my soul because I was
in such an emotional place because of what had just happened. We pulled a crew
together and shot within a week, and within two weeks we had the whole thing
done. Sony helped, Charles King at WME helped, there are so many black men that
stepped up. J. Cole gave us the rights to “Be Free,” which is the
song that he wrote and performed after Ferguson.

And so it’s called #AmeriCAN, and it’s a
different take on motivating Americans to care. I think the only thing that
hurts worse than black men being executed is the rest of the world not caring.
And so I think that this film will enable people to empathize and hopefully
change their perspective on the dehumanization of black men, of an entire
people really.

You’ve also been working on a biopic about Nat Turner. How’s that going?

It’s great, we’re funded. We just hired a
casting director, Mary Verniu, and we’re in the casting process.

The movie has been a long time coming.

I started writing it seven years ago but I’ve
just been focused on getting it done the last two years. “Beyond The
Lights” got done filming in December and I told my team the next project I
do will be the Nat Turner biopic or I won’t do another job, because what’s the
point? This is my gift to my people and to young men and women coming up that
don’t really have a sense of identity and need something to attach to, that
reminds them of who they are and the people that came before them. So for me,
there’s nothing more important.

Has it always been your intention to write and direct?

Not really, because I didn’t have context.
When I became an actor I didn’t really know what it was outside of saying lines
and maybe having an effect on people. I didn’t understand that this is a
director’s medium. Unlike the stage where you can walk out and do a cartwheel
if you want and no one can really stop you, when you’re a film actor you’re at
the mercy of the director – which isn’t an entirely a bad thing, especially
when you have directors that you trust. Gina, I trust with my life. I trust her
vision, so with her I’m more likely to take a note that I may not agree with
right away because I know that it’s well thought out and she will protect me
when it comes time to put it together.

However, I’ve learned that the director’s
vision is literally your interpretation [as an actor]. So it’s like if you say,
“I had the strangest dream last night,” being an actor is like
telling someone what the dream was. Being a director is like creating the exact
image from my brain with people that are designed by my motivation, so you can
see exactly what I saw when I was asleep. That is power.

There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Is it ever a
challenge for you to find and choose projects with integrity?

I think it would be more challenging to compromise.
I don’t even see it as hard. I’m an activist first, so anything that stands
against my line in the sand is not for me. And I think it’s really easy to
discern because I know what I want for my legacy. I have children, so for me,
if I have to stand in front of my family and give excuses about making a
decision then chances are it’s something that I shouldn’t do.

That said, they say that “fame is what
they give you and success is what you give yourself.” So I try to choose
films that will enable me to quantify my success based on my perception of this
business. I’m older. A lot of times I’m acting with co-stars and I’ve got 15
years on them. So I feel blessed that God saw fit to put me into this business
after already knowing who I was as a man and having an identity.

**

“Beyond The Lights” comes to theaters on November 14. 

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