Nate Parker has no time for funny business. The 34-year-old actor has already stacked his IMDb profile with serious projects like Red Hook Summer and Red Tails, and is directing a Nat Turner biopic called The Birth Of A Nation. Near the top of his credit list lies Beyond The Lights, the romantic drama created by Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
The Norfolk, Virginia, native plays hero in the film as Officer Kaz Nichols, who saves superstar Noni Jean (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) from a suicide attempt and eventually falls for her. Clichés aside, the two are brilliant on the big screen and prove black love is alive and well. Here, Parker dishes on working with Hollywood’s new bae, tackling a music career and why his work serves a higher purpose.—Camille Augustin
VIBE: Gugu is gorgeous. Did it make your job as her leading man harder or easier?
Nate Parker: I don’t think it made it harder at all. Her beauty is eclipsed by her talent. She’s so good, so it not only made it easy but it made it engaging and effortless with respect to being present. It’s a lot of beautiful women that exist but to have one that has a talent that’s so intense is very much a blessing.
Who is your Hollywood crush?
You know what’s funny? You’re the second person to ask me that. I don’t have a crush. I think I grew out of crushes and, having a family, that’s a trap question but I’ll just say Gugu is definitely my movie crush.
Whose brilliant idea was it for you to sing karaoke to New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain”?
It was all Gina. I remember when it came up, she said, “Can you sing?” I was like, “I can sing a little bit.” The plan was to sound as terrible as I possibly could and that was easy and fun. Gina wrote an incredible script. She developed it and took so much time to explore and investigate all the details that make these characters who they are.
Will you be taking on a music career?
(Laughs) I will let my performance in the film as a singer tell you that, but the answer is probably not. I have no desire to be a singer, but I did in that scene and it was fun.
In the movie, your character has never been on a plane. Is there anything you haven’t done in your lifetime?
There are places I haven’t been, but I can’t think of too many things I haven’t done. I’ve never skydived. I try not to do things that if something went wrong, my mom would look at me and shake her head so I stay away from things that are too risky or risky for no reason. Like I said, I have a family, I don’t really do the thrill stuf.
Last year, there were reports that you were up for the role of Django in Django Unchained and that you found the script upsetting. Is there any truth to that?
My only issue is that as people of African descent, we have so many stories of real heroes that lived and died in the name of freedom and justice. I don’t want to criticize [the film], I just felt like it wasn’t for me and I felt like it wasn’t productive to what we’re trying to do as a community.
Going back to Beyond The Lights, how was working with rapper Machine Gun Kelly?
He was great. He had such a desire to be honest, truthful and believable that he took off his ego. He asked questions and I felt like he delivered a brilliant performance. He had the burden being the guy that had the beautiful girl and him being a rapper that is not African-American. There was a bad version of it that did not get played, which I’m very happy for. He didn’t push it, but it’s really a testament to his commitment to the role.
Are you into hip-hop and rap?
Not so much anymore. I’m 34 about to be 35 and there’s some good stuff out there but I’m the type of guy [where] my best ideas come in the car when there’s silence. I don’t really turn on the radio much but every once in a while, when a really good song comes on, I’ll listen. In the movie, Gina was able to secure “Drunk In Love.” That’s a song I really liked before and after. I don’t really listen to hip-hop and R&B as much as I used to. One of my favorite artists still is Nas. I’m a big fan of Common, Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Mos Def and A Tribe Called Quest.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood also directed the famed film Love & Basketball. What do you remember of that movie and were you and Gugu looking to capture the same magic?
Love & Basketball‘s one of my favorite films of all time. Gina is one of my favorite people of all time and she’s probably one of the top directors in my life from a work and relationship standpoint. I call her savant. She takes her time. There’s a reason why she only puts out a film every four years because she refuses to compromise the story. She understands that she owes something to her vision. It’s so funny because but Gugu and I get a lot of questions about that but we invested in each other and we investigated each other, and we were there for each other. We knew whatever would come out would be honest.
Do you have any future projects lined up?
I’m actually directing a film on Nat Turner called The Birth Of A Nation which starts filming in December so I’m literally in prep for that right now.
Your character Kaz was big on quotes, what’s a saying that you live by?
There’s a quote by Dante (Alighieri) that says, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral conflict.” That one inspires my career. My whole career is about being intentional about the roles I select because I feel like I have to be intentional. I can’t remain neutral in a community where so many things need help and work. The image of the black man, the over-sexualization of the black woman. These are things that we deal with in this film, playing Kaz Nichols who has integrity, and stands for justice in the criminal justice system, but is not of the system. In the film, one of his quotes is “Truth is the only solid ground to stand on.” It’s like, ‘That’s okay, you can be that as a black man, you can be that now.’ I wanted to create an image of a black man who really loved his woman, put her first and pursued the love of her, and saw her humanity and wanted to inspire her in that.