In “Belle,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw played a daughter of a slave raised to be a woman in polite society in 18th century Britain. She had to carry herself like a lady, in modest clothing Jane Austen would have recognized.
But in “Beyond the Lights,” she plays a hip hop starlet in the Beyonce/Miley/J. Lo mold, oozing sexuality. Mbatha-Raw dons short-shorts and high boots, halter tops and in one dress, all that covers her bosom is a carefully arranged gold chain. Was she ever embarrassed?
“It’s for THE CHARACTER,” she giggles. “I don’t know that I would care to own any of those clothes, or wear them in public. EVER.”
In shooting music videos that might put her character, Noni, in competition with Nicki Minaj for hip hop’s most risque, Mbatha-Raw had to get flirty-down-and-dirty, seizing attention the way many singers since Madonna have managed it — with a bump and a grind and outfits that are barely there. All in a day’s work, right?
“Well, it was a closed set,” Mbatha-Raw says. “And I decided that the clothes were a sort of armor, creating this character Noni plays. I don’t know if pop stars feel that way, but it’s kind of liberating, to wear something that you know is not you.”
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood says that her star, whom she cast long before “Belle” raised her profile, “knew exactly why” she was in those provocative costumes. “The less Noni wears, the less you see of her. That’s the idea here.”
Noni is a young British singer raised on the soul singing of Nina Simone. But the demands of the music business and her manager mother (Minnie Driver) are that she bump and grind and wear hair extensions and tons of makeup, fake fingernails and almost no clothes. Prince-Bythewood (“The Secret Life of Bees,” “Love & Basketball”) says Noni is not meant to feel comfortable in this world. “So I tried to make Gugu a little uncomfortable in the rehearsal process. We put together a list of songs she was allowed to dance to during dance rehearsals — the most ignorant, sexist, n-word shouting hip hop.”
Hip Hop guru The Dream would write and produce the music. Mbatha-Raw would work with choreographer Laurieann Gibson, who worked with Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry.
But none of this would have worked if their star, whose most prominent prior credit was a cute community college student role in “Larry Crown,” didn’t have some chops. The British Mbatha-Raw showed up with an American accent for her audition.
“I could see the finished movie, just in her audition,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her — so vulnerable.”
She’d let her be British in the part. But the whole fantasy would fall apart if the actress couldn’t sing.
“We had her sing Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird,’ and I was just crossing my fingers, legs, everything, ‘PLEASE let her be able to hold a note.’ But she came from musical theater…
“We got her a vocal coach and changed that vibrato and that musical theater tone into R & B. She had to be edgier and rougher, so they beat the niceness out of her voice.”
The director, 45, didn’t know her star grew up on Nina Simone records, singing along with mom to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” since she was six. She’d done a dance piece at drama school set to Simone’s version of the classic anti-lynching ballad, “Strange Fruit.”
With Simone’s music playing a pivotal role in the film, this bit of casting was meant to be. Prince-Bythewood says she was inspired by Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe to create this “Bodyguard” romance between a rising pop star who attempts suicide and the cop (Nate Parker) who saves her. But it’s hard not to see more modern incarnations of female pop fame in the script — Beyonce (“OK, I LOVE her and have all of her albums.”) to Whitney, Britney, Rihanna and the late Aaliyah.
“There are cameras everywhere,” Prince-Bythewood says. “So once Noni is inside this pop star persona she’s pushing, a persona that isn’t authentic to her, she can NEVER turn it off…It’s got to be exhausting and that pushes some people over the edge.”
Mbatha-Raw is earning glowing reviews for her performance in “Beyond the Lights,” with Variety’s Andrew Barker echoing many in calling her “fierce…believably crafting a thoroughly modern, synthetic pop star without losing track of the organic human beneath.”
But the star is relieved that this is only a film. Having a good singing voice isn’t enough to send Mbatha-Raw in search of a record contract.
“That image — it takes so much WORK and so many people, a team to do hair and makeup and clothes and all that,” she says, laughing. “I had no idea. And everybody is always watching you waiting for some mistake. I think I’ll stick to acting, pursue all sorts of roles, and just try to stay out of the tabloids. This ‘pop celebrity’ thing. I don’t know. Not for me.”
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