Gugu Mbatha-Raw Talks Going Pop, Joining The Mile High Club For ‘Beyond The Lights’ And Huddling With Will Smith
VIBE: In Beyond The Lights, you turn into a pop star. Which singers did you look to for inspirationt?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Gina Prince-Bythewood gave me so many reference points, from contemporary artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna to artists that you might not necessarily think of, like a young Lauryn Hill for Noni’s childhood persona and also artists as diverse as Adele. Prince and India.Arie and of course, Nina Simone.
RIhanna and Beyonce, huh. Are you team Navy of Beyhive?
No I’m not [laughs]. Probably my favorite Rihanna song is “Stay” and what would be my favorite Beyoncé song? She’s got so many great ones. I’m really enjoying “Pretty Hurts” from her latest album. I think it also correlates with some of the themes of Beyond The Lights as well.
In the movie, your character Noni puts up a front and has to conform to industry expectations in order to sell records. Can you recall a time in your career where you had to play a role you didn’t feel comfortable taking on?
I’ve luckily never been in a situation where I’ve had to take on something that I didn’t feel comfortable with. Unlike my character, Noni, I didn’t get into acting as a child in the same way and in the movie, she is very much manipulated in some ways by her mother, [played by] Minnie Driver, so I’m very thankful that I have a great team around me. I’ve been fortunate enough to choose the projects that I’ve been proud to be a part of.
You also worked with Machine Gun Kelly. Did you know of his music before you met him? How was he as an actor?
No, I actually didn’t and he was so great to work with. In fact, we got to do that fake VIBE cover shoot in the movie, which was really fun. He is very charismatic and very talented, and it was his first acting role so I was really impressed with his commitment. It was great also because he really is in the music industry so he brought an authenticity to the role. For me, as an actress learning about the music world, he was very generous and great to work with from that point of view. Unfortunately, his character is a bit of a bad boy [laughs], but actually in person he’s a complete gentleman.
…because I had to listen to a lot of hip-hop music in preparation for the role, I’ve learned to appreciate it. This film introduced me to that style of music.
Are you a fan of rap and hip hop?
No, not really [laughs]. I wasn’t before I started this movie but I have to say that because I had to listen to a lot of hip-hop music in preparation for the role, I’ve learned to appreciate it. This film introduced me to that style of music. I listened to quite a bit of Jay Z. One of the songs that was just coming out when we were in pre-production was “Holy Grail,” which was also produced by The-Dream who wrote some of Noni’s songs so I listened to that quite a lot. I’m a big fan of Eminem as well.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood also directed Love & Basketball. What do you remember of that movie and were you and Nate Parker looking to capture the same magic?
I haven’t seen that movie so I can’t really comment. Gina is very passionate to tell another love story but obviously, set in the music world. She did a beautiful job in creating the characters’ relationship and trying to make it believable and real.
One moment that many women of color can appreciate was you taking off your weave and letting your natural, curly hair come out. What products do you use or salons do you visit to maintain the curls?
I can’t remember the last time I went to the hair salon. I was fortunate to get my hair cut in a hotel room yesterday by Ted Gibson, who has been doing a wonderful job of doing my hair for the press tour. It’s been tricky, the schedule has been so hectic. I haven’t had a chance so Ted was able to cut my hair yesterday which was great.
In real life, do you feel like you’d date Nate Parker’s character or Machine Gun Kelly’s?
I don’t know. I think the characters really work together in the movie because they both have something to offer each other. From Noni’s perspective, Kaz is very solid and she’s lived this somewhat artificial life surrounded by people that are kind of maintaining a false reality, so I don’t know if Kaz would be somebody I would date in real life. He seems like a decent guy.
There’s a scene where you and Kaz join the Mile High Club because he’s never been on a plane. Was it awkward or uncomfortable in any way?
It really wasn’t too terrible [laughs]. We’ve spent time talking about the scene and Gina was careful to make sure that we didn’t feel uncomfortable or awkward so it was actually a fun scene to shoot in the end.
What’s the craziest or wildest thing you have done for a significant other?
Oh my God I don’t know [laughs]. I don’t really know.
How fun was it watching Nate sing New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain”?
He was so hilarious. That was a really fun day. To try and make my character look bashful, he had to dumb down his singing skills [but] Nate can really sing, that was the crazy thing. He really pulled off having to act like he wasn’t as good a singer as he actually is.
Can we expect an album from you anytime soon?
I don’t think so. I really loved working on the movie for this character, but the music in the film is something very expressive of Noni, not necessarily expressive of Gugu, [laugh]) which is great. That’s the thing I love about acting, you get to put on a role and I got to do all this research all about the music industry. But for me, I’m definitely an actress first so it was a great experience and great to be able to transform into that world but I think I’m going to focus on the acting for now.
Do you have any future projects lined up?
Yes, I just finished a movie called The Whole Truth, which is directed by Courtney Hunt and shot in New Orleans. It’s a courtroom drama [where] I play a defense attorney, very different from Beyond The Lights. It’s also starring Keanu Reeves and Renée Zellweger. In a few weeks, I’m about to start work on an untitled movie with Will Smith, which has a working title of Concussion, which is about brain injuries in the NFL.