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‘Beyond The Lights’ with Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Beyond The Lights, opening in theaters on November 14, unravels the story of Noni Jean, a raunchy pop artist with accolades of success before her first album even drops.

Her life appears glamorous to the outsiders but internally, she’s suffering. That is, until she meets Kaz Nicol, a cop going the politician route, as influenced by his father, played by Danny Glover.

Some may view the film, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, as a story revealing a wide-spread perception and infrastructure of the music industry–raunchy, lyrically vivid and testing of one’s loyalty to a falsified and created image.

There is also a psychological element presented that explores the message of losing fear and presenting the voice that you’ve always been inside you to the world.

“I think there’s a very inspiring thing for women today because in our culture working at you look, how you dress, your sense of identity, [it’s important] to have that confidence to be who you are,” the movie’s star Gugu Mbatha-Raw tells JET.

Her portrayal of Noni Jean battles that inner-confidence and self-expressed freedom.

“Noni finds her voice,” Mbatha-Raw explains, “but it’s having the confidence to feel like her voice is valid.”

Below, she talks Noni Jean fame, artistic compromise and embracing your true voice.

JET: What attracted you to this film?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw: When I read the script, I thought that Gina had done a really beautiful job at presenting the underbelly of the music industry and showing a side of fame behind the glamour.

I also really loved the mother-daughter relationship with Minnie Driver’s character, Macy, and the idea of exploring that somewhat toxic momager relationship. I thought it was an interesting combination and then also that psychological aspect and the effect that can have on young artists.

JET: As you mentioned, the role of Noni has a psychological aspect as well dealing with perception and image. How did you mentally prepare for it?

GMR: Even though Noni had all this success in her career and having all of these accolades, she tries to commit suicide. To me, the idea that on the surface someone can seemingly have it all together and be so glamorous and popular and on the inside be at such a low point of self-worth to the point of despair, I thought that was something really worth exploring. Me and Gina talked a lot about the psychological elements of fame and what might drive someone to suicide and a certain numbness to reality.

We also talked a lot about growing up in the industry and you are working, professionally, from a very young age and in the case of my character, having your identity defined for you by the industry. You don’t really have the chance to really explore yourself and develop your own sense of self-worth. That was really the starting point and even though Noni has this sexy image, it’s all a facade. Underneath, it’s not who she is inside.

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JET: The film’s sense of self understanding and Noni discovering her voice really stood out to me. What were those moments like for you? 

GMR: I think there’s a very inspiring thing for young women today. Having the confidence to be who you are and Noni really does find her voice through the context of the story and she always has a voice, but … it’s having the confidence to feel like her voice is valid. I thought that was a really great journey to go on and through that process of learning about herself, she also finds love. But she can only love Kaz fully once she really learns to love herself.

JET: That stripping of being, did it teach you anything about yourself relative to being a woman in the entertainment industry?

GMR: I think it’s just about remembering to hold on to your authenticity. Particularly in the movie, it’s almost like Noni is going back to that inner-child that we started off with at the beginning of the film and accessing that.

I think for me, as an actress, I’m very fortunate that I get to play different roles and play one character then be me and then play another – in the music industry that isn’t always the case, I think sometimes you have to be wary if an artificial persona starts to take over. For me, I try to follow my instincts when I can in work and in life. It’s really about accessible authenticity.

JET: Switching gears a bit, was there a favorite moment or scene in the film that connected with you either emotionally or just something fun?

GMR: One of my favorite emotional scenes was the scene with Minnie Driver. We have a big conflict scene in the movie and I thought it was such a pivotal moment for Noni. It was her first time Noni really stands up for herself and speaks her truth to the woman who is the most closest to her but also the woman who in many ways has done a lot of damage to her. I thought that scene was an explosive finale to the dynamic of that relationship.

Minnie brought so much sophistication to that character. On the page, she could have been a two-dimensional evil mom, but she really brought a complexity and nuance and it really felt like this woman was desperate but trying to do the right thing. She didn’t really have a strong sense of her own identity and so she put all of this energy into her child.

In terms of fun stuff, I love the scenes that we shot on the beach just because that was just fun, running around on the beach and also getting to shed all of the hair and makeup. That was really refreshing. Kind of empowering.

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JET: When working on this film, was there further realization of the extremes people go to for fame and artistic compromises being made?

GMR: Absolutely. I have to mention holding on to that artistic side when everything is being branded and marketed, packaged into a soundbite and sexual identity that Noni has. I think it was very brave of Gina to expose that element of the industry. I’m really excited to be a part of that.

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Beyond the Lights is in theaters November 14.