British Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives the performance of a lifetime in writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond The Lights” out this Friday.
Mbatha-Raw plays a Rihanna-like diva named Noni Jean who is on the verge of superstardom, but fame is not all it’s cracked up to be and Noni is so depressed, she attemps to commit suicide, but is saved by an ambitious police officer name Kaz (Nate Parker). They have instant connection. We sat down with Gugu to discuss bringing this character to life. It took a tremendous amount of training and preparation. She worked with Laurieann Gibson to perfect her dancing, Debra Byrd on her vocal training, recorded the music with The-Dream and of course had Gina Prince-Bythewood’s phenomenal script to work with. She was nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for her work in the film.
I read you have a musical theater background. Can you speak about your music roots?
I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald in my mom’s car on a cassette tape. I listened to it so much that the cassette just got chewed up and all the tape got caught up in the car. That was sort of my inspiration and I loved Nina Simone. It’s featured in the movie. I used to dance around the kitchen to “My Baby Just Cares For Me” by Nina Simone with my mum when I was about 6. So that was what I grew up listening to at home. My first role on stage was playing Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” when I was 11 and then I grew up in the UK, big musical theatre fan. Obsessed with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim musicals like “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” that vibe. I was always begging my mom to take me to London so we could catch “Starlight Express“ or something. So, that was really how I got into music. I played the saxophone growing up, I learned the saxophone from age 11 and I also played in the steel band at school and the big band and the school choir. It was always just a part of my life but mainly musical theatre. That was my favorite thing.
Tell me about tackling the world of hip-hop, R&B and immersing yourself in that world.
Yeah, it was certainly a challenge. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I had never sung in that style before and Gina put me in touch with an amazing an vocal coach called Debra Byrd. I got to work in the music studio, which I had never done before with The-Dream who had written all of Noni’s songs and working with him and his team, getting to see the process and how technical it is and how he creates hit songs, that’s what he does and there’s actually a formula to that but there’s also magic to it as well. And also just immersing myself in that music, listening to a lot of contemporary pop and hip-hop. Myself and Gina went to see Rihanna in concert, Beyonce in concert, we went to the Grammys when Adele won all the awards a couple of years ago. She was constantly sending me music videos for inspiration. And also listening a lot to Nina Simone for the soulful quality of “Blackbird.” It was a lot of different influences.
What was it like working with The-Dream?
He is truly gifted and he is so creative. For me, he definitely works on his own schedule. He’s a night owl for sure, so that was a challenge, but a learning curve working and singing in the studio at 2 or 3 am and working with his amazing sound engineer Bart Schoudel who is also very talented as well. It was great. I was in the studio while he was writing the final song “BlackBird” and he’d written the hook and I was in the studio while he was writing one of verses and watching him create this song, he’d be just sort of scatting to the beat and then a word would come out and then he’d be scatting some sounds and another two words would come out and then suddenly, a whole line would come out. You really just watch it happen before your eyes.
People don’t get to see those moments.
It was so amazing. I was lying on the floor in the studio cause I think it was about 4 in the morning and I then I just got the chills when I heard him come up with this lyric about the phoenix rising which I thought was such a great emblem for Noni and also the fact that he does all his own demos, he’s got such a terrific voice himself, an amazing falsetto. Notoriously amazing falsetto, he sings all of the nuances, the phrasing so he definitely has a style and a signature sound that he likes so it was all really interesting stuff.
What attracted you to play this character? She is very different than who you are.
I like to be out of my comfort zone. I think if you do things that are different to you, that’s how you grow and stretch yourself. I also really responded to the fact that after “Belle,” this was a very contemporary world and I love the fact that Gina had written the script where you really got to see behind the scenes and take away a bit of the gloss of our perceptions of what it is to be a music star and actually see the human beneath. And I really thought that it was a beautiful love story and inspiring and uplifting and you know, great message for young women today about embracing your authenticity and learning to love yourself. If you don’t have a strong sense of self worth or develop a strong sense of self worth, then your place is very fragile in the world and I think the fact that Noni kind of goes on this massive journey, but she triumphs, is just a beautiful story to put out there.
Speak about working with Colson “MGK” Baker.
I love MGK. He’s so talented and incredibly charismatic and we did a lot of dance rehearsals together. We had a big dance scene, which is actually quite physical, and there’s a big conflict there and he was also an incredible gentlemen and very professional. For me, it was so great working with him because he really is in the music industry and so he was such a great, authentic resource. He knew exactly the world we were creating. For me, he brings a realness to the movie and his raw talent as an actor really shines through, so he was fun.
Tell us about working with Nate Park to bring Noni and Kaz’s beautiful relationship to life.
Nate is so good in this film. He is a really exciting actor and for me, it was great working with him because he is so committed and he really cares about the craft of acting and he has a deep sense of integrity. Like his character, he’s principaled. He is a gentlemen and he’s also extremely committed. We got to rehearse a little bit with Gina and Gina had already worked with Nate so they had sort of a go to short hand, which was great. We got to do some improvisation before the movie. Gina set us up and got our characters to go on a date in costume which was really really fun and I think helped sort of build a short hand with us. He was just really really good to work with and I hope I get to work with him again.
Minnie Driver plays your mother in the film. Tell us about developing that relationship. You have some great scenes together.
I adore Minnie and she was so terrific to work with. In a role that could potentially be a two-dimensional villainess momager, she really brought subtlety and this sort of very female, sneaky, manipulative quality that you really understood where this woman was coming from. She wasn’t a monster. She was actually probably insecure herself, didn’t have a strong sense of self worth herself and hadn’t really been able to express her own dreams and then poured them all into this child. So for me working with Minnie, one of my favorite scenes of the whole movie is with Mini. Not to spoil it too much, but we have a big conflict scene in the movie … But for me, she really committed to that scene and it literally made the hair stand up on my head because she was so intense and committed. And yet as a person, she is so grounded and funny and so it was great to have that dynamic with her and a fellow Brit on the set is always comforting.
Another British actor we spotted was Aml Ameen who plays Trey the record label owner.
I love Aml. Aml and I had worked together and I said to Gina, “you must meet Aml” cause she hadn’t met him. We worked on a film together on a film called “Fallout” which I think you can see online now. One of my favorite roles of British TV film and he played my boyfriend in that film and you know we both sort of had our first jobs in L.A. at the same time. We both had TV series at the same time. We both got pilots at the same time, both our shows got cancelled at the same time, so we’ve gone through a lot together in terms of coming from doing this very urban TV drama in southeast London like eight years ago to him being in this movie and playing his role, but he’s one to watch. He’s very talented.
You also worked with legendary choreographer Laurieann Gibson to bring Noni to life. She has worked with Diddy, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. Tell us what that was like?
Laurieann Gibson is a force of nature and she really put me through my paces on the dance floor. She’s got such a dynamic personality. Anybody that has seen her on any of her shows knows. She doesn’t take any prisoners. She doesn’t give you an easy time, but I was really thankful for that because she challenged me and she tried to break me, but we worked through it. She’s just fabulous and she really gave so much of her time. We spent hours in the dance studio working on moves and really tailoring the choreography to my body – to how I moved. She has a really artistic eye when it comes to that. Getting me to work in the mirror, I had a big difficulty looking myself in the eye in the mirror and she said “you’ve got to look at yourself” and of course, as an actress you always pretend the camera is not there. You don’t want to be vein about that. And she’s like “no, no, no” get into the narcissism of it. Cause when you’re doing music videos, you have to look straight at the lens. I’ve never done that before. Normally you pretend the camera is not there. So for me, the biggest challenge was doing these sexy dance moves in front of the mirror, looking myself in the eye and not cracking up laughing.
Tell us about working with writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood and the physical and emotional transformation makes throughout the film.
Gina Prince Bythewood – a writer and director. Such a soulful woman, incredibly determined. Had to go through a lot to get this film made to begin with and also really had to fight for me to play the role, so I really am very grateful to her for trusting me and standing by me as her leading lady. She is very very detailed about the script. She really cares about her words and she spent a long time crafting these relationships. It’s very personal to her. And she was so generous from the moment she started working together she was sending me music videos like “check this out, check out this web site, check out this movie, I want you to read this, let’s go and see the Katy Perry documentary together, let’s go to the Grammy’s together, let’s go to this concert together, let’s go and listen to so and so in the studio.” She was constantly immersing me with all of this material to work on and she really is a very calm, centered woman. You never see her raise her voice or lose her temper. She is focused and she has a vision. It was really great to work with her and she provided me with this character that really has this journey to go on. Noni really has this metamorphosis from not just the young girl, but then this very very shiny pop star.
On all levels!
Yes! And really questioning her very low self-esteem that is being masked by all the glamour. And for me, it’s not very often you get to play the glamorous role and the raw, no make up role all in one character. And Gina insisted as much as she wanted the fabulousness of the hair and clothes, once we got to Mexico, she’s like “no makeup.” And not just no makeup, make up, no make up. Having a female director, she knows if you’ve snuck in a bit of concealer or are covering up a spot. So, I have to say she really encouraged me to be brave and courageous with that and as I say, really if you’re going for authenticity, you’ve got to do that in a 360 way. So I am really grateful to have this character that has all these different sides to her.
What upcoming projects can you share?
“Jupiter Ascending” I just have a small role in that, it’s a really exciting movie. I’m looking forward to seeing it, I haven’t seen it yet. It’s an epic space adventure and I play a character who is half human half dear. So I’m really looking forward to seeing that.
I also shot a movie in the summer called “The Whole Truth” with another female director Courtney Hunt and I’m just starting work on another project called “Concussion” with Will Smith, which is about brain injuries in the NFL.