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Interview: Gugu Mbatha-Raw Tells S&A About Becoming a Pop Star in ‘Beyond The Lights’

Interview: Gugu Mbatha-Raw Tells S&A About Becoming a Pop Star in 'Beyond The Lights'

In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest,
“Beyond The Lights,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Noni Jean, a rising pop
star struggling with the demands of show business and fame. When she falls for
a police officer primed for a career in politics (Nate Parker), both their
families object.

Mbatha-Raw, who will next be seen in the
Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending” and Will Smith’s upcoming NFL
concussion drama, was just nominated for a Gotham Award for her performance in the
contemporary love story.

She made time to talk to Shadow And Act about
the process of becoming Noni Jean.

Preparing for the role

I met Gina for the project almost two years
before we actually got to shoot it, so there was a long journey in developing
the character. And even though the film wasn’t fully greenlit at the time, she
was very determined and we just began working on the character before the reality
of it sort of started. That was very empowering, because then it felt like we
were almost manifesting this thing into being by just starting rehearsals and

We actually shot an eight-minute presentation,
which was sort of like a short film version of it, like a mission statement. It’s
kind of crazy to be here now at the junket for the movie in its completion
because a year and a half ago we were shooting a sort of blueprint for the film
trying to get financing.

Working with the rest of the cast

It was great fun to work with Nate. He’s very
committed and serious. He has a lot of integrity, a very principled guy, very
much like his character in a sense. Very much grounded in the real world.

And Minnie Driver was so terrific to work
with, very funny and very intelligent. We really bonded over being British, that
helped a lot. And for that mother-daughter dynamic, she really brought a
layered sophistication to that role. When it could’ve been a two-dimensional villanous
sort of “momager,” you really understood the desperation that fueled
her fight.

On the toxic “momager” relationship
explored in the film

I thought that was really fascinating, myself
growing up with a single mom and being an only child. I was lucky to have a very
healthy relationship with my mom, not like Noni and Macy, but thinking, well if
the tables had been turned and my mom had had me under different circumstances.
I was fascinated to explore the idea of having a parent that puts everything
into you, and that intensity of the female bond and if it turns sour once it
becomes a business relationship.

Dancing with choreographer Laurieann Gibson

She really put me through my paces. I’ve
danced growing up but certainly not in that style, and Laurieann is so
experienced – she’s worked with Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj and countless other
artists. She is tough, she’s a hard task master and she certainly put me through
it, but it was great because it was also a character exercise. She called me Noni
in rehearsals and it was really about building the character psychologically as

It was thinking, well Noni would have been
through all of this – this drilling, these routines, sweating it out, staring
at yourself in the mirror, which was kind of scary to begin with to be able to
look myself in the eye and do these dance routines. But also channeling that
sexually aggressive energy that was required for Noni’s persona in the music
videos, and accessing that attitude and swagger, was really my biggest
challenge. So I learned a lot from that.

Singing for the part

I had vocal coaching from a great coach, Debra
Byrd, and started working in the studio with The Dream who wrote the original
songs. I was in the studio while he was writing Blackbird, the final song in the movie, and that was a very special
experience – him just standing there scatting the sounds, and then a lyric
would come out and it was literally like seeing a song being born. It was just
fascinating to be a part of witnessing the songwriting process.

On the one song she wrote that’s included in
the movie

I don’t consider myself a songwriter, but I
wrote some lyrics that are in the movie, that she reads to Kaz. I just did it
as a character exercise really, and Gina put it in the film so that was kind of
cool. I think it was necessary to go there because this is the world that the
character inhabits. But I’m an actress first.

Understanding her character Noni Jean

I’m pretty different from Noni, but I
certainly relate to where she ends up at the end of the film in terms of
finding her voice and being able to be authentic to her true self, not having
to conform to these cultural ideas of beauty and glamour. Really she’s hiding
behind this very synthetic construction that’s been created for her.

And for me, I try and be authentic in my
choices and follow my instincts and I think it’s a valuable message for women
in today’s society to learn to love yourself. And I don’t mean that in a
narcissistic way, I just mean literally to be able to love yourself before
really loving anybody else. You have to be able to appreciate who you are.

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

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