The star of the classic rom-dram recalls the pop-star training Gina Prince-Bythewood put her through and hanging off that Sofitel balcony at 4 a.m.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Relativity Media
Nobody knows how to make a modern-day rom-dram better than Gina Prince-Bythewood. Love & Basketball taught early-aughts audiences about the powerful erotic energy of mesh shorts; its spiritual successor, 2014’s Beyond the Lights, is a heady, sexy, Bodyguard-esque look at fame’s sharp edges, and how the right person can help you gently sand them off. The film follows Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an up-and-coming pop star who’s simultaneously perched at the top of the charts and the top of her hotel balcony, utterly disillusioned with a career that’s come at the cost of her self-worth. Noni feels trapped, both physically — squeezed into chain-link dresses and buried underneath a long purple weave — and figuratively, having spent years under the thumb of her stage-momager (Minnie Driver) and the expectations of a record label who wants her “ass up” rather than singing lyrical poetry. Before she can engineer a permanent escape, she’s rescued by Kaz (Nate Parker), a cop and aspiring politician who yanks her to safety; the two spend the rest of the film slowly uncovering the real woman at the center of the hype.
At the time, Prince-Bythewood was being pressured by the studio to cast a “real” pop star in the role of Noni, which required heavy choreography and a serious set of vocal chords. But she was adamant about Gugu Mbatha-Raw, at the time a newcomer who’d mostly done theater and small film and TV roles. Watching the film years later, it’s hard to picture anyone else pulling off Noni’s combination of raw talent and soul-deep sadness. Mbatha-Raw makes Noni feel both believable as a luminous fledgling superstar and as a profoundly depressed person who can’t see any way out but down. Now, Mbatha-Raw is a superstar in her own right — she’s starred in Black Mirror’s smash-hit “San Junipero,” Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, beloved indie sci-fi Fast Color, and in the upcoming Misbehaviour, a film about the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World, out September 25. Mbatha-Raw FaceTimed us ahead of Misbehaviour’s release to reminisce about the pop-star training Prince-Bythewood put her through, hanging off that Sofitel balcony, and her own experiences with the dark side of fame.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Atlanta. I’m filming here, for work — Loki the Disney+ series. We just restarted a few weeks ago.
I love Beyond the Lights so much. What do you remember about where you were in your life around the time of filming?
Let me cast my mind back … I remember when I first read the script, it was probably 2011. It was around the time that I was doing the premiere for my first film, Larry Crowne, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts — the first film I did in America. And I remember reading the script about this pop star, and I was like, Ooh, wouldn’t that be cool, to play a pop star! I had a couple of auditions with Gina Prince-Bythewood; we did a really intense scene, the “breakup” scene with the mother, played by Minnie Driver. And I did another chemistry reading with Nate Parker, who wasn’t necessarily going to be in the film at that point. He just came in to read, just because he knew Gina. And then I found out I got the part.
But it was a journey, because the film wasn’t fully financed. At that time, one of the studios, I think it was Sony, wasn’t sure about me. I think they liked the idea of a Beyoncé or a Rihanna — a real pop star playing a pop star. And Gina was like, “That’s not the point! The film is about the transformation. It’s about an artist, and the misogyny in the music industry. A woman learning to find her voice. If we know an established pop star who’s already found their voice, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact. “
So Gina was incredible. She stuck by me when she could have gone with a big star. And so we went about making a teaser for the film, a short film, that sort of sold the whole thing — a sizzle reel with a few dance and singing scenes. We’d just done that and we were waiting to hear about financing, and I found out I was going to shoot Belle. So I was like, “Okay, Gina! I really want to do Blackbird — that’s what [Beyond the Lights] was called at the time — [but I want] to shoot this period drama. So I just have to pop to London. I’ll be back!” I went to shoot Belle around October 2012, and then a year later, we were shooting Beyond the Lights. It was a mad, mad time, and I remember filming the scene, hanging off the balcony at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills, and that weekend, I had to then go to the Toronto Film Festival for the world premiere of Belle. Then I came back and finished Beyond the Lights. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. [Laughs.] It was such a whirlwind.
What sort of prep did Gina have you do to become a convincingly massive pop star?
Before filming, Gina put me through my paces with this choreographer, Laurieann Gibson, who was Lady Gaga’s original creative director, and working with the Dream, the producer, who did so many songs for Beyoncé and Rihanna early on.
Did she ever tell you why she had this unshakeable faith that you’d be able to pull it all off?
You have to ask her! I don’t know! I know that when I originally auditioned for the part, the character was an American, and I auditioned in an American accent, which I thought was kind of cool. And as we spent more time hanging out and researching — we went backstage at the Grammys the year Adele won, I saw Nicki Minaj swooping down a corridor like Little Red Riding Hood, and seeing Adele getting her nose powdered in her dressing room. I think the more time Gina spent with me, she’s like, “Maybe it’d be more interesting if this character was British! We have so many American pop stars: Alicia Keys, Beyoncé. To have a pop star that is British, that’s not associated with imitating one of those American divas, would be more original.”
What was the most surprising or tough part about the pop-star training?
Gina would probably say tapping into the narcissism of working in front of a mirror all the time. I wasn’t used to dancing in front of a mirror in a hyper-sexualized way — when you’re in the dance studio and you have to look yourself in the eye. It’s a persona. It really is a persona. And I’d just start giggling, like, “I can’t take myself seriously!” And some of the choreography — Laurieann would be pushing me to make it more ratchet, or whatever. And I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” [Laughs.] I mean, I did know, but I guess it was just unlocking that energy, that fierce sexual energy in a room full of people in front of a mirror. I’d sung musical theater before, but singing in that style is so different. And working with a music producer — the hours they keep, a lot of late-night studio sessions, whereas when you’re filming, the discipline of those early calls are very different to music hours.
What was the initial chemistry read [between Noni and Kaz] like?
Nate is a great actor. He has that sort of grounded intensity. He’d already worked with Gina on Secret Life of Bees, so they had a shorthand. Gina set us up on all sorts of research things. We went on a date to Disneyland in character. I think she wanted to help us build [the relationship]. She also had us go on a lunch date in character, and she basically sprung these paparazzi on us, out of nowhere. It was a whole scene. We had to exit through the kitchen of the restaurant, and get in the car — it was very much something that Noni would have gone through, and how she would have dealt with it.
Gina is so smart. Enriching us with these unscripted experiences where you go, “My God, how would my character react in this moment?” To have that time together that isn’t just sitting around a table, looking at a script — it’s not cerebral. It puts you in the situation.
Was it awkward to sit at lunch with a total stranger in character like that?
It’s no more awkward than sitting with a complete stranger [out of character], I guess. At least you have the veneer of a character to hide behind. It forces you to build a backstory. So you’ve got that to hang onto. We deeply trusted Gina, and wanted to have a process. It’s so rare to have a process like that with a director. And Gina would always want to know what I needed to build the character. I was writing my own songs, my own poetry. She was like, “What are you writing? Can we put that in the movie? Can we put that in Noni’s shoebox of lyrics?”
Have you and Nate kept in touch? You’ve obviously had very different trajectories. [Editor’s Note: In 1999, Nate Parker was accused of rape and later acquitted. It had been a matter of public record for years, but the case entered the spotlight 2016, around the premiere of Parker’s film Birth of Nation.]
I haven’t really seen him for quite a long time. We had emailed about a project a few months ago, but beyond that, no. I haven’t really seen him.
What do you remember about filming that first scene hanging off the balcony, with Nate and Minnie?
In my mind it was always like the scene from Titanic. You know, where Rose is hanging off the edge of the boat, and Jack [saves her]? I always envisioned it as a transformational moment. God, it was like 4 o’clock in the morning. You’ve got all of these stunt rigs. But I really did it. There was a stunt double who did the actual fall, but I was hanging there with a wire.
So you were really at that hotel, hanging off that balcony? No green screen?
Yeah! No green screen. On a wire, with a harness under my miniskirt.
That’s a little terrifying!
I don’t know, maybe it is! I wasn’t scared at the time. It wasn’t as many floors up as it looked. But it was up there.
I read somewhere that Gina had you prepare by reading about other artists from the past. Who specifically did she have you research?
I think suicide and the idea of writing a story that was about someone who thought that was their only way out — that was very important to Gina. She had a family member who had been in that situation and she wanted to sort of turn it around. There was an amazing book about Judy Garland and her relationship with her mother, which was really interesting and dark and weird. To get the momager energy and how it can be a weird relationship — once the child becomes a breadwinner and the mom becomes a business partner, it can easily get toxic. And this great biography of Marilyn Monroe, and how she would be her. The idea of being her. Of knowing when to turn it on — that hyper-sexualized persona that you knew everyone came to see, and wanted from you, even though it wasn’t all there was to you.
I noticed that on a rewatch — in that first sex scene on the plane — you’re playing Noni as how she thinks Kaz wants to see her, this sort of hyper-sexualized performer. But the second scene is much more natural. How did you work out that difference in tone with Gina?
We talked a lot about armor. The purple hair. We talked a lot about Prince, and the color purple being this very particular energy. The idea of having the nails, and the clothes, and the chains — the literal chains. She’s wearing a dress made of chains! And how that armor actually is designed to sort of attract attention, but also designed to keep people away from the real you. And I think it was really that journey to stripping out the makeup, cutting out the weave, the nails going — this image that’s made her who she is, the construction that’s suffocating here. And finding the vulnerability of someone used to having this armor, not being totally comfortable in their own skin. There’s a fragility and a tenderness once they go to Mexico, and everything is stripped away.
Which of those outfits was the most uncomfortable?
The white latex! Just getting the latex on, the powdering. Not glamorous at all. The worst.
What kinds of conversations did you have with Minnie about her character? By the end of the film, they’re not speaking. Did you see her as a villain, or was it more complex than that?
No, and I think that was the great thing about Minnie. She really went for it. And seeing the context of Noni as a little girl, with this single mother, and the ferocity with which she’s put her daughter forward, living vicariously through her. It’s sad, but you see it all the time, where parents who have this amazingly talented child, and maybe their lives didn’t work out how they had hoped. I think Minnie played it so brilliantly. She was a young mother, and sometimes there was more of a sisterly vibe, but then she comes out with this serpent-like publicist vibe. It’s all from love. But it becomes toxic.
You weren’t as well-known then as you are now, but I’m curious if, these years later, you relate to that idea of having a public self and a private self, and keeping them separate.
Yeah. I think everybody does, to a degree. I certainly don’t have as dramatically different private and public images as Noni does. That’s what I was always relieved about as an actor. You can take the character off. The tricky thing with music artists is they are playing a role, but people don’t believe they are. People think Beyoncé is Beyoncé is Beyoncé. They don’t necessarily understand. It made me very relieved to be an actor.
Did you and Gina discuss how you both felt about fame more generally? It feels in a lot of ways like the film is suggesting fame can be quite toxic, or at least a certain type of fame.
I think the message is more uplifting than that. I think it’s about finding your voice, literally. Fighting for your authenticity. It’s hard, because a lot of these pop stars are shaped by a record label. Their image is very carefully controlled at a point when they’re just raw material, and don’t necessarily have the power to say, “Hey, no I don’t want to look like that. I don’t want the photo shoot to go in that direction.” I think it’s more about artistic ownership and artistic integrity than it is saying that all fame is bad.
The photo shoot scene, where she’s pressured to take her top off, is very sad and I think very representative of what happens in the industry, especially to young women. Early in your career did you ever find yourself in that sort of scenario, where you were being pushed in a direction you weren’t really comfortable with?
I have to say, thankfully, I’ve always had a very protective team, and I’ve never felt, you know, compromised in that way. I’ve always been quite clear about what I will and won’t wear on photo shoots, and I’m not afraid to express what I feel comfortable with.
The karaoke scene in Mexico is really beautiful. You’re crying and singing at the same time. How did you get into that headspace, where you’re able to sob but also give a really great vocal performance?
We were in this bar all day, wherever it was. I remember Gina saying, “In this scene, it’s no makeup.” And not TV/movie “no makeup,” where they put on a little concealer and mascara, and it looks like no makeup, and it’s “no makeup.” This was No Makeup. I was like, “Great! That’s fine!” That scene was so stripped back, to be symbolic of that raw energy, the rawness of her revealing this Nina Simone song and using that song to tap into something really deep.
It was an intense day, but a good day. I suppose I was thinking about the lyrics of “Blackbird.” “Why you wanna fly, blackbird? You ain’t never gonna fly.” I took it back to her mother-daughter relationship. The song for her was about going back to the mom who, in that way, wasn’t able to hold her.
There’s a central thread about Noni’s hair in the film: in the first scene, Noni’s mom brings her to a Black hair salon, sort of frantic, not knowing how to do her hair. Later her weave plays this big role in her character, like you said, as a sort of armor, and then she sheds it and wears her natural hair when she’s more comfortable with herself. I’m curious what your own experience has been like as a woman of color in a predominantly white industry — have you found yourself pressured to wear it a certain way, or in situations where white people don’t know how to properly style it?
Not in the stuff that I’ve done in the U.K. But when I first came to America, I think the glam of American television — the first show that I did was much more of a glossy aesthetic than anything I’d done in the U.K. The idea that you’d spend so long in hair and makeup was kind of a shock to the system. I think initially, people would try and straighten my hair, or straighten it and then curl it again, and I’d think, This doesn’t make any sense! My hair’s already curly. Why are we spending hours doing this, to put it into a more “manageable” — read, more Caucasian — texture, just so somebody can feel more comfortable re-curling it?
I was more puzzled than upset. I was like, I guess this is how they do things in America. I’d been here five minutes. I didn’t feel like I had the power to say anything. I was quite open to the experience, until my hair started getting damaged, and I was like, “Do we really need to do this?” After a couple more experiences where I was like, “Yeah, my hair doesn’t need to be straightened just because that’s what this hairdresser is comfortable with, or this producer finds aesthetically pleasing — I can have some say in what my character looks like, because it’s me playing her.” That took some confidence and experience. I think when you’re in a new culture, again, you want to try and find out the lie of the land before you fully assert yourself. You want to make sure — you don’t want to be seen as being difficult.
And I love transformation. I don’t want to get stuck looking the same in every role. So I’m open to things. But you have to draw a line if it comes to actually damaging your hair, or if it feels like those decisions are coming from ignorance. Nowadays I wear my hair natural all the time and I think people are much more aware of how to work with different hair types. And If they don’t know, they can do a YouTube tutorial. It’s not some great mystery.
How did this movie alter the course of your life?
For me and for a lot of people, it altered people’s perceptions of what I’m capable of. Because there’s such a range within the role, the glamorous and then the really raw emotional stuff. For me, that was kind of great, because it meant that I didn’t have to prove myself as much. People could just see that there was evidence of something I’d done in that sort of style, very different from Belle, which I’d just done. It gave me a bit more license to pursue being a chameleon. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to know what effect it’s had, but for me, a lot of people still talk to me about it. It’s a lot of people’s favorite romantic movie, and people watch it on Valentine’s Day, or are comforted by it. It’s really special that it’s continued to have an emotional pull for people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mbatha-Raw’s first lead film role, in a British period drama.