Things are going well for Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Previously known for television stints on shows like Doctor Who and Undercovers, the actress made an impressive play for leading-lady status with the highly lauded period drama Belle earlier this year.
Now, Mbatha-Raw is set to star in writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new romantic drama Beyond the Lights, (out November 14). In it, she plays Noni Jean, an R&B pop princess who falls in love with a handsome young policeman named Kaz (Nate Parker) who saves her from taking her own life. The actress spoke with ESSENCE.com about the challenges of the gritty role, the pressures of fame, and the power of self-love.
The character you play in Beyond the Lights is almost the antithesis of the character you played in Belle. What drew you to this particular role?
That was what was really attractive to me about Beyond the Lights, after doing a period drama, something very repressed and restrained – to do something that was much more contemporary. I thought that they were complete opposites, but there are some themes that the movies share even though they're in completely different worlds. There’s the idea of not letting other people define you, the messages of learning to love your authentic self, and female empowerment.
There’s almost an instantaneous onscreen chemistry between you and Nate Parker. Did you have to build towards that chemistry?
It was really in the script. Gina had spent a long time developing these characters and their relationships, and the different worlds that they inhabit. Everybody sees the gloss and the glamour and the sexuality [of Noni], but in that life and death moment of despair, he sees through all that, and actually gets a glimpse into her soul. And I think there's no going back from that, for the characters. That’s what makes it a really epic romance - there's a soul-to-soul connection.
Another key relationship in the film is the one between Noni and her mother, played by Minnie Driver.
Oh my goodness, she's a goddess. I absolutely loved working with her. She's so good in this movie. It’s a really difficult role, because in a lesser actress’s hands the character could become this villainous mom-ager. But I think what Minnie really brings is a subtlety and a nuance. You understand that this woman is just at her wits end. She doesn't know any better, she doesn't know what to do, she just wants the best for her daughter, but she's also sort of desperate and hasn't really fulfilled her own dreams. The mother-daughter dynamic was one of the biggest things that drew me to the movie.
Noni Jean is reminiscent of a lot of current contemporary pop stars, like Rihanna. Who were your inspirations for the character?
We were inspired by many different artists. Obviously artists like Rihanna or Beyoncé that are very contemporary, but also, more unexpected artists like Adele, and a young Lauryn Hill. Gina directed me to biographies of iconic artists like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, to Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, and Bette Midler in The Rose, even Walk the Line.