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

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

Beyond The LightsIn 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.

Beyond The Lights

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.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

© 2023 Shadow & Act. All rights reserved.