A Minute With: Gugu Mbatha-Raw on women in music, facade of fame

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[November 13, 2014]  By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After playing a mixed-race slave in this year's period film "Belle," British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw found herself stepping outside of her comfort zone entering the glitz and glamour of the contemporary pop music industry.

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 explore?

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 collaborators.

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 Dalgleish)

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