Within a year, Gugu Mbatha-Raw went from possessing Georgian decorum in Belle to slaying present-day glitz in Beyond The Lights, her directors remember the journey. 

Gugu’s a doll. She’s got this inherent grace that was so right for the era we set Belle in. Gugu understood that journey we were going to have to send Dido on from girl to woman. She wasn’t asking for more, she was asking to be equal, and that’s a completely different thing, and it’s a fine line. Gugu read various drafts of the script, and we kept talking throughout the process and there came a point when it was so clear she was going to be Dido. It made sense. The financiers knew it, the pro- ducer knew it, I knew it, and it was about offering it to her agent, making sure she said yes. She said, “I’m around; I’m not going anywhere. I’m doing this part. I’m taking this role.” Then it was about matching everybody to her and putting together a cast that could fit around her.

Belle director Amma Asante, as told to Cori Murray

For Beyond the Lights, my casting director, Aisha Coley, suggested a couple of people for Noni, and one of those peo- ple was Gugu. There was nothing I had seen of her that made me say, “That’s her,” but Aisha just said, “I think you should see her.” She came in for an audition and it was pretty immediate. It rarely happens that quickly, but there was something so magnetic about her, and she was so connected to the charac- ter. As the audition continued, every single scene, it was magic. I just wanted to watch her. She had this innate vulnerability where you just cared about her. That honestly is what, I think, is going to make her a star.

Beyond the Lights writer and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood

This feature was originally published in the March 2015 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now!