Mbatha-Raw plays Noni Jean in the film "Beyond the Lights," a
glammed-up R&B rising star who bears close resemblance to many
real-life ladies in the pop industry with her sex-filled,
glamorous public image.
But privately, Noni is isolated while at the top of her game and
battles suicidal urges until a young police officer, played by
Nate Parker, rescues her and offers her comfort from the
glaring, invasive lights of fame.
Ahead of "Beyond the Lights" opening in U.S. theaters on Friday,
Mbatha-Raw, 31, spoke to Reuters about the sexualization of
women in the music industry, racial identity and the challenges
of bringing Noni to life.
Q: "Beyond the Lights" resonates closely with the
struggles of many real-life pop stars. What does it aim to
A: A big part of Gina's (Prince-Bythewood, the director)
inspiration to write the piece was the idea of changing the
conversation in the music industry in terms of how women are
groomed into these packaged pop princesses. We've seen numerous,
very public meltdowns in the media of how that sometimes
backfires, and especially when parents become their business
I was just fascinated about that mother-daughter dynamic, myself
(from) a single parent, only child (background), not at all from
that toxic dynamic, but what if? And what's the cost of fame?
Q: Mental health has been in the spotlight due to some
high-profile breakdowns and deaths. Does the movie warn people
to pay more attention to what's behind the facade of fame?
A: There was definitely an underlying element of a
cautionary tale, be careful what you wish for in terms of fame
and glamour, and the vacuity of it all.
What was so refreshing was the fact that (the director) shows
the underbelly of the music industry. So often we see these
glamorous divas in movies, but you don't often always get to see
the human being beneath it all. For me as an actress, it was
great to have all of those layers in one role - to be able to do
the hair, the makeup, the glamour, but then to be able to strip
it all down.
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Q: How did you feel having to wear some of those provocative
outfits and performing raunchy dance moves?
A: I felt supported by the choreography. We built the
character. We built her physicality as well as her dance moves, and
the music. It was all a process of layering all of those elements
together to build Noni.
It was definitely out of my comfort zone. I'm not going to lie to
you, but I definitely felt like that was the commitment needed for
this character. Those dance moves, those videos are nothing that you
wouldn't see if you just went on to YouTube.
It's about point of view, and we've become numb to the sexualization
of women in hip hop.
Q: You played a mixed-race slave in the period drama "Belle"
earlier this year, and there are racial tensions in this film
between Noni and her mother, who is white, in this film. As a
mixed-race actress, what do you find yourself being able to explore
when you play out those racial tensions?
A: "Beyond the Lights" really is not about race. I think people
endow their own cultural experience, but to me it's not a story
about race, it's a love story and it's universal. What is more
interesting, what I do think those projects share, is the issue of
identity. I think that in many ways is a broader term not just for a
racial identity, but also your relationship with yourself and your
acceptance of yourself.
I think both Dido Belle in "Belle" and Noni Jean in "Beyond the
Lights" both struggle with who they really are in the society
they're really in.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Patricia Reaney and James
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