Gugu Mbatha-Raw is on the move. After eight years of climbing the industry ladder, first with British TV guest spots and then roles in American series “Undercovers” and “Touch,” the 31-year-old actress is breaking out in 2014.
It all began with her most noteworthy role to date, the lead in Fox Searchlight's Spring art house hit “Belle.” The period drama which imagines the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race African woman who lived most of her adult life in English nobility, earned strong reviews and has earned Mbatha-Raw two British Independent Film Award nominations. This weekend she follows “Belle” up with something completely different, Gina Prince-Bythewood's impressive contemporary romance “Beyond the Lights.”
The film finds Mbatha-Raw portraying Noni, a pop-star on the verge of superstardom. Disturbingly and predictably, the sexualization of the music industry has transformed her into a manufactured product she never thought she'd be. Determined to end her life before things spiral even more out of her control, she's saved by an LAPD police officer (Nate Parker) who eventually gives her the strength to divert from the inevitable road ahead of her. It's an incredible performance that has already earned a Gotham Awards nomination for Best Actress, putting her alongside such notable names as Julianne Moore, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Wasikowska and Patricia Arquette.
Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room earlier this month, Mbatha-Raw seemed grateful for the one-two punch of both “Belle” and “Lights.”
“I mean these are projects I”m really proud of and my first two lead roles in movies, you know? To come out in the same year, it”s a lot,” Mbatha-Raw says. “But they”re movies that I”m excited to talk about because I think the messages that they hold within them are things that our culture should be discussing.”
It took Prince-Blythewood over four years to bring “Lights” to the screen and one reason was her insistence that the unheralded Mbatha-Raw play Noni. That caused one of the film's original backers, Sony Pictures, to bow out of the picture and, eventually, Prince-Blythewood and her producers found the financing with Relativity Media and BET Films. Judging by the director's reaction to her audition, Mbatha-Raw should have realized Prince-Blythewood would stand by her.
“I sang 'Blackbird' by Nina Simone and then I auditioned with three scenes,” Mbatha-Raw says of her first meeting. “And then I did a recall audition and I remember her saying, 'Oh, there”s the – I see the movie right there.' And I was like, 'Oh wow, cool.'”
As the search for funding dragged on, Mbatha-Raw and Prince-Blythewood found a lot of time to really flesh out Noni and make sure she wasn't just a stand-in for “insert contemporary female hip-hop/pop star here.” They shot an 8-minute presentation that helped the financing come on board and even went to the Grammys together.
“We saw the Katie Perry documentary,” Mbatha-Raw remembers. “We saw Rihanna in concert. We went to Greystone Manor with Laurieann Gibson, the choreographer, on the Hip Hop night where all those artists go and hang out after their shows. And so we became this whole sort of research collaborative and she”d email me videos and she”d send me new artists that she was just hearing that were breaking and might be at Noni”s level.”
There are elements of Noni's immaculately planned image and sound that might seem familiar, but Mbatha-Raw insists she wasn't based on any specific star.
“Artists like Rihanna and Alicia Keys have transcended [past] the level that Noni is at where we”re talking about in the movie because this is Noni just as an artist, just breaking out,” Mbatha-Raw notes. “She”s just winning her very first award, you know? Those artists have got shelf-loads of awards and are sort of iconic in their own right.”
She continues, “I think that this is really about a young woman who has had her identity shaped for her and hasn”t really had the opportunity to develop her own sense of self-worth. Gina was mentioning earlier that for some artists, that sexualized style is authentic to them, but what if it”s not? And what if, you know, with the help of an over-ambitiously loving but desperate and insecure mother, your whole sort of world sort of gets morphed into this sort of suffocating golden cage? So, you know, for me it was about the idea of persona and what happens when the persona takes over. And then what if everybody loves you for that persona and how do you have the courage to shed it?”
Noni's musical tastes are far from Mbatha-Raw's, but she was happy she got to put her theater school training to good use by singing a number of the tracks in the movie, including “Masterpiece,” “Private Property” and “The Blackbird.”
“My favorite song is the final song in the movie, 'The Blackbird' that Dream wrote,” Mbatha-Raw says. “And the others, you know, are very much in that misogynistic mold of hip-hop that is not really my personal taste but were necessary for the character. For me it”s really the final song that”s more expressive of the idea of the Phoenix rising from the ashes and I felt like the message and the uplifting sort of quality of that song resonated with me.”
What's next for Mbatha-Raw? She has a supporting role in “Jupiter Ascending,” which hits theaters in February, and is currently filming a new drama on the effects of NFL concussions opposite Will Smith. In the meantime, she's thankful for the opportunity to play such varied roles with “Belle” and “Lights.”
She notes, “I admire the chameleons of this world, the Meryl Streeps and the Cate Blanchetts, and so to be able to have two movies back to back that are in such completely different worlds? Although I do have to say I feel like they really share similar themes even though they”re in a completely different context. You know, the idea of identity, the idea of being comfortable in your own skin, the idea of not letting society define you. I mean Belle and Noni both face those dilemmas in such different circumstances. I hope they”re both romantic and uplifting.”
[For more of Mbatha-Raw's thoughts on “Beyond the Lights” watch a separate interview at the top of this post.]
“Beyond the Lights” opens nationwide tomorrow.