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.