*In exclusive interviews with the stars of “Beyond the Lights,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Noni) and Nate Parker (Kaz), both explain why the movie is a must see—and more!
It is always amazing to witness a performers totally transform themselves when they take on different roles—which is the litmus test of a great actress or actor. Mbathe-Raw, the “Belle” star, does exactly that in “Beyond the Lights” when she takes on the role of Noni. That transformation is so evident in the sizzling music video that gets the film off to a racy start and never relents.
So Gugu, where did you have to go mentally to prepare for such a charged music video?
What was important about that scene and as Gina (director Gina Prince-Bythewood) was very clear about, was that this is a girl in such a desperate place that she’s considering taking her. I think that for this video shoot and this persona that she’s created, there’s certain numbness. I think as a culture we have become numb to the sexualization of women in the music industry and for me it was just accessing that detachment that I think that the character also has of when doing the choreography.
Was there any trepidation going into this knowing you had to sing?
I’ve always sung and but never sang in this kind of style. I grew up with musical theater and a bit of jazz. I used to always listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone as a kid actually. I think Gina had auditioned singers but I think she definitely wanted an actress first, and I’m definitely an actress first.
There’s a lot going on in this film, so what were your initial thoughts when you received the script?
I read the script and thought, ‘Wow, this is like a really intimate portrayal of what it’s like to be a music star,’ and I thought ‘Whoa, Gina’s really tapping into something here and saying something about the underbelly of the music industry, the potential exploitation of young girls.’ What interested me most was the psychological affect of fame. You see this talented little girl, then suddenly jump to this very sexualized pop princess.
And the idea of identity was important as well. I thought it was a really powerful message that Noni gets to love her natural self. I think that’s important for young women to feel that it’s okay to be who you are. Yes, it’s fun to dress up but you don’t have to feel like you have to put a mask on every day. To be your authentic self is an empowering message for women.
What about the relationship aspect and working with the great Nate?
Yeah, Nate is so great. Gina wrote such a beautiful love story and I think what was really lovely and refreshing about the love story is that it’s sort of complicated. They’re both damaged and they have their own sort of life trajectories that they should be on and it’s not convenient for them to be together. They’re from such different worlds but it really is a soul connection. Noni has to learn to love herself before she can fully love Kaz and be in a relationship with anyone again. I just thought that was empowering and important.
Just finished a movie called ‘The Whole Truth’ with Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellwegger, and about to start another movie about concussions in the NFL with Will Smith.
Nate Parker (“The Great Debaters,” “Red Tails,” “Non-Stop”) is Gugu’s love interest and has a pivotal role in her life. He has much to say about the film and the role of Black men.
Nate, can you tell us your take on “Beyond the Lights” since so much is going on in the film?
Gina, she’s a savant. She’s a genius; I really believe that. She takes her time. She’s very specific. She doesn’t compromise on her vision and it makes it really easy to trust someone like that. You know that you’re protected by way of their work ethic. So all u have to do is you job. You don’t have to carry anyone else. You just have to trust in your leader.
My take, just the projection of black manhood and love in that context. It was just understanding that a man can love a woman wholeheartedly and unapologetically and be willing to risk everything for her; and the relationship between Kaz and his father (Danny Glover). The fact that it existed. It was productive. It was encouraging. It was inspiring, It was cohesive. Danny Glover, you know, is a hero of mine.
Are you surprised at people’s response to this film?
People have gone nuts for this film and it’s really inspiring to see. People are reintroduced to the idea of love and relationships and selflessness and giving unconditionally and service. You just don’t see relationships projected in this way. It’s a different way of getting there. It’s real love and they did so by finding their own voices. They use love as a conduit to identity, as a conduit to destiny and that’s inspiring to me.
Hollywood sometimes underestimates its audience. Love is not a black thing or a white thing. Love is a human thing and the more we embrace that, the more we evolve as a human race. People want to be moved. We screened it in Toronto, standing ovation. We screened at Urbanword, standing ovation. The difference is Toronto was probably 95% white. And here [New York City], probably 95% black. That should tell you something. And Relativity, I have to commend them because they are courageous in standing up to that stigma and breaking down that wall that says people might not want to see it because they may not want to see people from this demographic in these roles. That’s ridiculous. Give the people more credit.
Are you surprised by your success?
I’m an activist.
Still [Laughs]. I’m an independent actovist. The size of the movie doesn’t change my position in the community. The studio couldn’t take away my grassroots ambitions. So this is great and all but guess what? I’m for the people.
This is good to hear because some get a big head when they reach a certain stage in their careers?
I have enough people in my circle that would never let that happen and would pop that bubble the second it would start going up. Trust me. I have people in my family that know better. That’s the thing when you come from nothing; you live your whole life with a chip on your shoulder. And if you can identify why that chip is there, you can change the world. If not, you lash out. A lot of acting out, ‘criminal activity’ that happens in our community is just the invisible wanting to be seen, wanting to be counted. I’m a human being; I exist. My experience matters, it counts! You know, and I identified that chip on my shoulder at a very young age. I said, ‘ok, I made it out of that community.’ You can take that one or two ways, you can say I made it out, yes. Or, you can say I made it out. What am I going to do for all the people that didn’t? I’ll be for the people to the day I die!
It’s my mantra.
True to form, Parker’s next project is, “The Birth of a Nation,” the story of the slave Nat Turner.
“Beyond the Lights” opens this weekend in theaters throughout North America. For more info, click HERE.
Syndicated Entertainment journalist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]