Monday, 30 November 2015
2014: Digging Deep Into an Alter Ego - Gugu Discusses 'Beyond the Lights' - New York Times
To prepare for the role of Noni, a hip-hop vixen teetering on the divide between superstardom and destruction in the film “Beyond the Lights,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw researched Rihanna and Beyoncé, went backstage at theGrammys, recorded with the producer The-Dream and learned to grind at Greystone Manor, the Los Angeles nightclub. So when it came time to dance, sing and swagger for the big screen, that was all her alter ego. “I think in my mind I was Noni,” she said. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Secret Life of Bees”), the film traces Noni’s struggle — aided by a quietly debonair police officer (Nate Parker) — to escape the manipulations of her “momager” (Minnie Driver), snip out her weave and trade explicit lyrics for the aching melodies of Nina Simone.
The daughter of an English nurse and a South African doctor, Ms. Mbatha-Raw (pronounced em-BAH-tah raw), 31, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London before landing on Broadway as Ophelia opposite Jude Law in “Hamlet” in 2009. Instead of heading back to Britain, she flew to Los Angeles, acting alongside Tom Hanks in the film “Larry Crowne” and Kiefer Sutherland in the Fox series “Touch.” She recently won critical praise as the title character of the historical drama “Belle.”“I didn’t really grow up on hip-hop. Ella Fitzgerald and the old school jazz divas are more my comfort zone,” she said. “But I really responded to the message of the movie about finding your voice and the idea of being who you are.”
“I packed my bag for four days, because I didn’t want to be presumptuous or jinx it,” she said of her journey west in a phone interview with Kathryn Shattuck, “and then I ended up living out of my suitcase forever.” These are excerpts from their conversation.
Q. When we first meet you as Noni, you’re practically unrecognizable. How did you develop her character?
A. I first read the script in 2011, but it was not until 2013 that we got to shoot the film. And there was so much preparation — talking to Gina and understanding how passionate she was about this love story, and the idea of changing the conversation about how young women are sexualized in the hip-hop industry. The first thing she did was send me biographies of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. With Judy, her mother was very much part of her career in the early days. And with Marilyn, it was looking at the idea of persona and what becoming a sex symbol can do to you psychologically.
The intimacy between you and Nate Parker feels so natural. How did you establish that?
Nate is a good actor. [Laughs.] But ultimately, it was on the page. Gina had written beautiful scenes and beautiful dialogue and was trying to keep it intimate. And we got a small window to rehearse, so Nate and I hung out a bit, went to Disneyland, got to know each other. Gina set up an improvised date, as Noni and Kaz, and sent us off. Then she hijacked us with a group of paparazzi that we totally didn’t know about, so we had to respond in character.
What are the differences between preparing for a role like Noni and for a historical figure like Dido in“Belle”?
The projects couldn’t be more different yet, looking back, they did have similarities. They are both about young women trying to find their identity and place in the world. I approached them very differently on a physical level — the idea of Noni’s image being like a mask — but emotionally they both have deep arcs of learning to be comfortable in your own skin.
You star with Renée Zellweger in the film “The Whole Truth,” and you spoke out after the frenzy over her looks at Elle’s Women in Hollywood Awards.
I had a lovely time working with her. She’s such a wonderful actress and such a genuine person. And I kind of don’t want to give that whole story any more media coverage than it’s already gotten. I think it’s just a shame that we were there to be celebrating women, and people used the opportunity to pull a woman down.