Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Gugu Mbatha-Raw explores the pop-music persona in 'Behind the Lights' -redeyechicago

Gugu Mbatha-Raw explores the pop-music persona in 'Behind the Lights'

Growing up in the south of England, “Beyond the Lights” star Gugu Mbatha-Raw never put posters of celebrities on her wall. Until RedEye sat down with her at the James Hotel, she had never heard of VH1’s musician docu-series “Behind the Music.”
The film, opening Friday, is governed by the exact opposite mentality—the fiendish adoration of and attention to celebrities, prevalent particularly in America, and how crafting a superficial, highly sexualized persona eats away at rising pop star Noni Jean (Mbatha-Raw). As part of her research for the part, the 31-year-old actress, who’s not much of a hip-hop fan, binged on music videos recommended by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) so Mbatha-Raw could become familiar with the raw, sexually aggressive material Noni would encounter.

“The more you listen to it, the more you become numb to it,” she says. “And I think that was shocking to me. I think when I first listened to it I was like, ‘Oh my God! I can’t absorb this.’ And the more you listen to it, you don’t notice it as much.”
You’ve said this part was out of your comfort zone. I’m sure with any role you can look in the mirror and say, “Whoa,” but was this any different—looking in the mirror and seeing a sexualized pop star?
It’s funny; looking in the mirror as me, I just see me. [Laughs.] It’s me with purple hair or me with fake nails. I still see me underneath. It was interesting seeing people’s reactions to me when I had all of the Noni get-up on.

Like you were treated differently?
Yeah. And some people just didn’t recognize me. A couple of times on the set I’d meet someone in the morning in the makeup trailer when I had no makeup on, and then met them later in the day when I was in character, and they reintroduced themselves to me. And I said, “Oh, no, we met this morning.”
“No, I met Nicki Minaj this morning.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. But there’s something quite fun about that. Transformation for me is something that’s really interesting as an actor. It’s not often that you get the opportunity in one role to do the glamour and the superficiality but also the rawness and the organic nakedness of Noni’s true self. And [to] have that full gamut where she sort of metamorphosizes from this artificial pop diva to her natural self was a real treat to be able to [do] that all in one role.
How much do you think fans think there is no manufactured image with stars--that this is who this person is and it’s not a package that has handlers?
Certainly I myself had no idea the scale of the team that goes into making an artist that makes hit records. In our times it’s become a little more formulaic I think. It’s definitely a producer’s medium for a lot of those records. We were really fortunate to work with the-Dream, who wrote all of the original music. Somebody like that can define a new artist’s sound entirely. The voice is the raw material, but then what gets done to it in the production—
Sometimes it almost doesn’t matter who the artist is.
In a way. And that was interesting for me to discover. And I think because of the media I think people want to believe the fantasy. There is an escapist element to a lot of music videos. We’re all aware that it’s not real, but I think part of what we’re exploring in this film is the idea of persona and the idea that in Noni’s case particularly, somebody that’s been groomed from a very early age into this world and hasn’t really had a chance to define herself in her own terms and the idea of when a persona takes over. Like you say, people really do believe it.
You did research about artists like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. How much have you thought about how people like that would be different if they lived now?
Wow, well, that’s the thing. Those ladies had it tough in the old, golden age of Hollywood [that] was sort of notoriously stifling. People being in these long contracts and their image was definitely controlled by the studios in those days. I think a huge difference nowadays is obviously the Internet and camera phones [laughs] and the media in general. Even though those stars had their troubles, I think there was still an air of mystique about them, whereas nowadays [with] social media we know a lot—or we think we know a lot—about our stars. [Laughs] But everything is put out there for public consumption. And that means that people don’t always have a chance to look after themselves psychologically. [Laughs]
It’s amazing when you mix the way it was with how it is now. It sounds sacrilegious, but if she were around now, “Judy Garland Nude Photos” would be a thing. It goes to show, uh, how far we’ve come.
And like Noni, she had quite an ambitious mother, shall we say, and starting from such a young age. In the film we explore that idea of parents not just with Noni but also with Kaz, played by Nate Parker--the parents that are trying to enforce their own ambitions onto their children. Hopefully one of the messages is to be yourself; be who you are and learn to find your authentic voice.
For all the people out there who want to be famous so badly, what would surprise them the most about this world?
I think being famous in itself is not really a healthy aspiration. I think if you do something that you’re passionate about and you have something important to say and something to express--for some things like acting, sometimes fame is a byproduct of a lot of people appreciating what you do, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend aspiring for fame for fame’s sake because it’s an old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.” You need to have something else; you need to have something substantial behind you I think.
How interested are you in being a pop star now, and when is your album coming out?
[Laughs.] I’m an actress, and this was great to play this role and it was great to explore this world and this character, but I have no aspirations to be a pop star. Noni was a wonderful character, and it helped us to explore many of these issues that women face today in terms of identity and perceptions of beauty and owning yourself, but I think the great thing about acting is that you can play a variety of roles, and I would hate to be in a position like Noni where I felt trapped in one pop persona.
So if someone approached you and said, “We love your voice and we want to cut a record,” you’d say, “Thanks but no thanks”?
I mean, who knows? Never say never. The music for this film was definitely all developed for this character, so if I felt like I had something to express in my own style I might explore that at some point, but there’s many many, many more talented musicians than myself, and I definitely think that I am an actress first.
You have “Jupiter Ascending” coming out next year, in which the Internet says you play a half-human, half-deer genetic splice. What kind of research can you do to play a half-human, half-deer genetic splice?
[Laughs] That movie was very much a space, supernatural movie so in terms of naturalistic research that wasn’t really the place for it. I did actually go to Richmond Park and check out some deer. We have a lot of deer in Richmond Park in London, which was fun. I think it was more about trusting the Wachowskis’ vision and the world that they were creating, which was very much not a naturalistic world. 
You weren’t that worried that the deer population would find it inauthentic in any way.
[Laughs] Um, no.
If she has any frame of reference for Chicago, which she’s visiting for the first time: “Not really. The instant thing that comes into my head is the musical because I grew up on that kind of thing. I’m about to explore it. hopefully tomorrow I’ll get to explore some of the architecture. I want to do that boat tour, I heard that’s interesting.”
On musicals: “I used to be [a big fan]! I haven’t really seen anything recently, but I definitely grew up with a lot of musical theater in my childhood.”
What she most often sang along with in the car: “Oh my God. Probably the most annoying one was ‘Starlight Express’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but then I was also a huge fan of ‘Miss Saigon.’ And then when I was 16 I did ‘Into the Woods,’ and that also has some very memorable but also haunting choruses. ‘Starlight Express’ was probably the one that got played in the car when I was 10. [There are roller-skates]. That and ‘Cats.’ There was a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber in my childhood. And ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and that kind of thing.”
Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at 11:30 a.m. on NBC.

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