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Gugu Mbatha-Raw builds a pop star

The 'Beyond the Lights' star looked to lots of artists for inspiration

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw put an awful lot of thought into creating Noni, the pop star on the verge of collapse in director Gina Prince-Bythewood's "Beyond the Lights," looking at a slew of influences from Rihanna to Prince to Britney Spears to Judy Garland.

You've played American before, but how important was it that your character be British in this? How did that play into the story for you?
When I first read it, she was American, and I auditioned in an American accent with Gina, and I didn't take [the change] as any sort of slight on my American accent. She said it was perfect, but she also thought it would be more interesting if the character was British because in some ways it would raise the stakes for the mother-daughter dynamic if they really had put all their eggs in one basket. That whole "us against the world" idea sort of heightened the desperation that there was no going back, you know?

And also we do know that you can do an American accent.
(laughs) Well, thank you. But I think it was a sense of the exotic as well. When you look at artists like Rihanna, even though she's very much considered an "American" artist, she is from Barbados and she has that "other" quality about her. Even at the time when we were developing the character, we went to see Adele at the Grammys. That was around that time when she was exploding and winning everything, and I think it just caught Gina's imagination, the idea of her being British.

How much was Rihanna a focus when you were developing this character? Or were you looking at other pop figures?
There were so many. As I said, we looked at Adele. We went and saw Beyonce live in concert, we went and saw the Katy Perry documentary together, we talked a lot about Britney Spears' trajectory. It really was a combination of artists, old and new. We were looking at "Purple Rain" and Prince as an iconic artist as well as Diana Ross in "Lady Sings the Blues." Gina also had me read the biographies of Judy Garland for that mother-daughter dynamic and that child actress transition. And even Marilyn Monroe for the sex symbol identity and what the cost of that is psychologically.

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That does seem to be a very complex thing to play.
I think that people forget that artists are human beings. The idea of persona, that was really fascinating to me — the idea that as an artist in the music industry, so often to get noticed you have to generate this larger-than-life persona — more often than not for women, with an overly sexualized swagger. (laughs) Particularly in the hip-hop world, that's become the norm. We've sort of become numb to that as a society, that's become the culture. I think that Gina was keen to change the conversation for where she felt the hip-hop industry has gotten to right now because I feel like she felt there really wasn't anywhere else to go. (laughs) You know, in terms of the potentially misogynistic tone of a lot of hip-hop music and the way that women are portrayed in these videos. So I think that she just wanted to challenge that as a social norm.

And do you have something similar to Mexico that's your own personal escape?
If I do, I'm not going to tell Metro! (laughs) You know, I do. I like to travel, I like to go home, I like to go back to see my family, see my mum and dad, go to Oxfordshire, see my old friends. I do yoga, I like to get out in nature — you know, just very, very calm, quiet, boring, peaceful things. But I think perspective is key in this industry, so it's always good to take time out.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick

 
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