‘Beyond the Lights’ Premiere: Interviews with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gina Prince-Bythewood

[caption id="attachment_16569" align="aligncenter" width="219"]New+York+Premiere+Relativity+Media+Beyond+JSRkDgZtCe6l Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left, and Gina Prince-Bythewood[/caption]

This is a guest post by Paula Schwartz.

Read ahead for interviews with Beyond the Lights star, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so good earlier this year in Amma Asante’s Belle as a biracial woman raised in aristocracy in slave-era England, is just as impressive in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights as Noni, a pop singer who yearns for her identity and authenticity even as she’s pushed to perform sexy numbers in skimpy costumes. Mbatha-Raw’s fiery performance, which showcases her talent as a singer and dancer, just earned her a Gotham nomination for best actress to include her in the company of Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson.

As for the talented director, Prince-Bythewood, it’s been way too long between movies; her last feature film was The Secret Life of Bees in 2008, and before that, the critically acclaimed Love & Basketball, back in 2000.

I chatted with Mbatha-Raw and Prince-Bythewood on the red carpet at the New York premiere of Beyond the Lights last week.

Co-stars Nate Parker, who plays the security guard who becomes her love interest after he saves her from a suicide attempt, and rapper Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker,  who told me he writes lyrics that respect women, joined Mbatha-Raw on the red carpet, along with writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her producer husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood. (Minnie Driver, who gives a powerhouse performance as Noni’s manipulative “momager,” and in one of the best scenes in the movie has a blow-out argument with Noni over the direction of her career, was sadly not at the premiere.)

First I got to speak to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who went from the film’s pop diva vixen in the film to an elegant 1940s-style Hollywood glamour queen on the red carpet.
Bitch Flicks: How did the musical scenes come together?

Mbatha-Raw: It’s been such a gift of a role. I grew up singing and dancing as a child, but more sort of musical theater style and classical dancing, so for me to be able to embrace this hip-hop style, you know I had a lot of help. Gina surrounded me with some wonderful people in the industry, not just herself, who’s had a background researching a lot of the hip-hop world, but also Laurieann Gibson, the choreographer (Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry), The Dream (Kanye West, Beyonce, Jay-Z), who wrote all the original music (Rihanna, Kanye West, Beyoncé) and also Machine Gun Kelly, who’s here, who really is a rapper in the industry and brings so much charisma and authenticity cause he really is from that world, so really I sort of had a lot of things to draw upon and felt very well-supported by the research cause we knew about the movie, or I knew about the movie, for almost two years before we got to shoot it.

BF: Were you uncomfortable performing the sexually suggestive numbers?

Mbatha-Raw: I felt very supported by the choreography. We rehearsed it; Laurieann Gibson as I mentioned, created that whole routine and that was something we rehearsed in the studio in front of a mirror for many hours, you know, and adding the elements of the hair, the makeup, the wigs, the amazing hair designs by Kim Kimble (Beyoncé), and the costumes of course, so we really were building this character on so many levels and then it was just really down to kind of doing it and singing the song and projecting that energy into the lens, which was a new experience for me, because usually as an actress you’re pretending the camera isn’t there but obviously for a music video in that style you have to look directly into the camera. And that was scary initially, but I had to get over it.

BF: Talk about your upcoming projects, including Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowski siblings sci-fi film. (It co-stars Eddie Redmayne, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum.)

Mbatha-Raw: I just have a small role in that, but it’s a really exciting movie. I’m looking forward to seeing it because I haven’t seen it yet. It’s sort of an epic space adventure and I play a character’s who’s half human, half deer.

I also shot a movie in the summer called The Whole Truth with another female director called Courtney Hunt. I don’t know when that’s coming out yet (Renee Zellweger, Keanu Reeves), and I’ve just started work on another project that’s called Compassion with Will Smith about brain injuries in the NFL.
BF: (To director Gina Prince-Bythewood about her search for an actress to play Noni.)

Prince-Bythewood: I thought I wanted a real musical artist in the lead when I first wrote it (2007) and then realized for this character I needed an actor because this character goes into some pretty deep depths. And I found Gugu two years ago and it was an amazing thing to find a woman who had incredible chops, could sing, and was brave enough to go there. And she really is brave.

BF: How did Gugu prepare for the musical numbers?

Prince-Bythewood: She put in so much work. She has a background in musical theater, which I didn’t know originally. But she worked with Debra Byrd, a vocal coach, one of the most renowned, and then the Dream; he did all the original music, and for her it was hours in the studio singing to his demos the way that Noni would, where they tell you exactly how to sing a word, how to breathe, how to sing a note. There’s no control and that’s what I wanted for Gugu the actress to have to experience, because that’s what Noni would experience.

BF: Your movie besides being entertainment has a message. How important was that to you as a filmmaker?

Prince-Bythewood: It’s a love story first, but for me as a filmmaker, I never just want to make a movie that entertains. It should entertain first, but I think it should say something and this was an issue that was important to me, the way woman are objectified. The way that women don’t have a voice. As an artist I was able to put that into the film as well as someone who has something to say and sometimes it’s a struggle to get the chance, to just inspire women, also men, to have their own voice.

BF: You talk about how women are sexually objectified in pop culture, but how do you avoid that trap in your portrayal of Noni doing those sexy moves?

Prince-Bythewood: It starts with the message of the film and Gugu and I talked a lot about why we were doing this film and it was really to talk to young girls who are only emulating what they see right now. Can we give them something else to aspire to? So going in we knew for the character of Noni, the less she wears the less you see of her, that was the mantra, so we had to make a big jump from her as little girl and that sweetness and innocence about her, to the jump to what she is 15 years later. It has to be dramatic so that you wonder what damage happened in between. Trust me, I’m a female filmmaker, it’s a little tough sometimes to shoot things like that, but we had to compete with what the videos are out today and honestly, we could have gone further. If you see what’s out now, so we had to be authentic so that we could take the character on a journey and bring her back to an authentic place and the place that she wants to be.

BF: What’s your next movie?

Prince-Bythewood: It will take me about a year to write. It focuses more on female friendship and the way it changes through the years.


Paula Schwartz is a veteran journalist who worked at the New York Times for three decades. For five years she was the Baguette for the New York Times movie awards blog Carpetbaggers. Before that she worked on the New York Times night life column, Boldface, where she covered the celebrity beat. She endured a poke in the ribs by Elijah Wood’s publicist, was ejected from a party by Michael Douglas’s flak after he didn’t appreciate what she wrote, and endured numerous other indignities to get a story. More happily she interviewed major actors and directors–all of whom were good company and extremely kind–including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman and the hammy pooch “Uggie” from The Artist. Her idea of heaven is watching at least three movies in a row with an appreciative audience that’s not texting. Her work has appeared in Moviemaker, more.com, showbiz411 and reelifewithjane.com.


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