Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are about to blow up. With Parker garnering tons of critical acclaim in films like The Great Debaters, Arbitrage, and Ain't Them Bodies Saints, he's taken on his biggest role yet in Beyond the Lights, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new romantic drama set against a music industry backdrop that's poised to be this generation's Love & Basketball. Parker plays Kaz Nicol, an average-Joe cop who finds himself entangled with Mbatha-Raw's Noni Jean, a Rita Ora-type pop star surrounded by fakes who of course, falls for Kaz because he keeps it real.
Meanwhile, you may have seen Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the short-lived J.J. Abrams series Undercovers, but you've never seen her like this. As the troubled Noni Jean, the British actress bares it all emotionally against not just Parker but Noni's calculating mother (played by Minnie Driver), and all with a little help from the everlasting tunes of Nina Simone.
Complex caught up with Parker and Mbatha-Raw to get the lowdown on what went into making the movie, how it's poised to change their careers, and their thoughts on the music industry IRL.
First up, Nate Parker.
A major theme in Beyond the Lights is parents controlling their kid’s careers and their lifestyles. When you were coming up as an actor, did you ever encounter somebody in your life, whether family or friends, who aggressively tried to influence your path like Noni's mom and Kaz's dad in the film?
Nate Parker: I think everyone does what they do for their reasons. I can speak to when it comes to parenting and being a father. You approach it with the best intentions, but sometimes it can get out of hand. You want so desperately for your child to have a life better than yours that you micro-manage. It’s like they say, if you want something done right, do it yourself. Well, sometimes the parent lives the life for the child. Because I’ve been through so much, I can live their lives for them and make decisions for them that maybe they don’t know how to make. It’s a tough thing. You talk about stage moms and all this. But I really think it’s important to realize, Minnie’s [Driver] character Macy is not a villain. She just wants her child to succeed. And her desperation to give her a life different from her own leads her to cognitive dissonance. She starts to forget. It starts to become ends-oriented, so the means stop mattering.
In my life, my father passed away when I was very young, and I had a lot of people active in my life to fill in the gap. My uncles, my mother, aunts. And everyone at one point or another tried to live for me, tried to protect me. When you grow up in an inner city specifically, in poverty, in housing projects, people that love you will take on that role. You find yourself in situations where you’re not given as much latitude because the streets have such a pull on a young person’s trajectory. So their whole thing is, if this kid shows promise, you have to make sure we do everything we can to protect him. Sometimes that protection can become stifling and suffocating. In those rebellious years, 14, 15, 16, 17, regardless of who's in your life, you start making decisions about what you believe, what you want, who you are. Or you just embrace the projections someone has created for you. But the danger in that is it’s only a matter of time before you realize you’re living the lie.
And with Noni, it was her on the balcony. For some people it doesn’t happen until they’re in their 50s and then they have a crisis, mid-life crisis. What am I doing? Why am I here? They always say you see the balding 55, 60 year-old man in the drop-top convertible Porsche because at some point he was like, "Wait a minute, I want a fast car. I’ve spent all my life doing this and these are decisions I didn’t make for me." In my life specifically, I’ve always felt the need to make my own decisions. I think my father passing away gave me license because I was the head of the household for a long time.
The movie's backdrop is contemporary hip-hop and R&B. Is that your go-to genre in real life?
You know what, I’m an old man. I feel like I find myself saying that phrase "kids nowadays” more often. Music has become so powerful, yet in many ways so destructive.
Well, in its irresponsibility.
Which is also kind of a theme in the film.
Right. Exactly. That’s what I mean. It’s hard. I came from the programming world, and I remember my professor saying a computer won’t do anything you didn’t program it to do. So having children, I don’t play the radio. We either use Pandora or we have to be very very specific about what we allow our children to hear. And we have to be specific about what we allow ourselves to hear. Whether you know it or not, those words that are being chanted over and over and over start to affect you. How many times have you had a song come on and it was so sexually explicit, that it took you to the place where you wanted to be with someone at that moment? All of a sudden you’re getting turned on just driving for no reason because of a song. It’s powerful. Music is powerful, man. It’s biblical, and the Bible talks about how all the angels just sing all day.
However, with great power comes great responsibility. These artists, some of them, they miss the point. They allow capitalism to drive their content. And when that happens they lose their voices. I think some of these artists say things that they know are destructive in the community. Sometimes you interview them and they’re just as intelligent as can be. They’re sitting there talking about college and all this stuff, but when they rap they don’t even articulate their words properly. They chant “these hoes ain't nothin’, you’re stupid if you love hoes.” What are they saying? And you almost want to ask them—you know what’s going on in the streets, you know the task in front of us with respect to instilling self-esteem in our women and masculinity in our men. And healthy masculinity, not like hyper bravado, but just security and being who you are all by yourself. Music is a tool, and in the right hands it can change the world; in the wrong hands, it can destroy it.
That leads me into my next question. Nina Simone's music is a very central theme in Beyond the Lights. Did you have a relationship with her music before this film?
She’s my fave. Absolutely. I’m a huge, huge Nina Simone fan.
The film was actually almost called Blackbird, correct?
Yeah, and then they had an issue with the name. It’s a huge influence in [writer-director] Gina's [Prince-Bythewood] life and my life. There’s a song “Strange Fruit," I can’t even bring it up, I get emotional. It drives my activism. When I hear her music, I feel her soul, and I feel her power, but I also feel her helplessness. Her songs to me are like a mirror to society. This is us and what are we doing to get better? This is what we’re doing, what are we doing to get better? It’s like Alice Walker. She wrote a poem dealing with some of the things that are happening socially. And you read and review this art, and you say to yourself, "Man, I need to do something." It motivates you to act; it motivates you to be responsive in some way to promote the kind of change you want to affect your children and your children’s children. Generational change. Because apathy is death, man.
Since we talked about contemporary music earlier, I don’t know if you know but Kanye West sampled “Strange Fruit” for one of his recent songs.
Were you into it? He samples "Strange Fruit," which obviously has that context you spoke of, and morphs it into more of a club song where he’s contrasting Nina's content with his own relationship woes. It received polarizing reactions.
The reality is, art is art. It’s like Andy Warhol. It’s like taking a picture and painting on the picture. Is it art? Of course. Art can be anything. And Kanye has made his career by changing his angle on his perspective of different music. He thinks outside of the box. So is it okay for him to sample Nina Simone’s song and turn it into something that he believes is viable now? Of course. It’s his art. He can do whatever he wants. He paid for the rights. It’s no different than TV shows that are redone or a film that’s redone. When you see a remake of something from years before, sometimes it can be polarizing, yes, but art is art. I can’t indict that man for thinking outside of the box.
So I have to ask, because the movie features a very instantly memorable sex scene in the plane: are you part of the mile high club in real life too?
Whoa! Danger, danger, danger. No comment.
Fair enough. Another thing I can't walk away without asking: Complex makes a cameo in the movie. Are you a reader in real life?
Oh, a huge fan of Complex. In fact, I’m a huge fan of the Complex staff. Everyone I meet that works with you guys are just fantastic individuals on different levels. It’s so different.
Present company included?
Absolutely. You can see identity written all over them, they know who they are. It’s nothing carbon-copy. There’s nothing stale or boring about that people that work for your company. I’ve probably interviewed with Complex three times. The style and the questions are always fresh. See, it's I’m like lobbying for you guys. But I’m a fan.
I heard there's a hilarious anecdote about Gina preparing you and Gugu for the role and she kind of sent you guys out on a trap.
She set us up. She calls me and she says, "What’s up, Nate? I want you to take Gugu out to lunch, but I want you guys to be in character." [I'm like], "Okay. I’m cool, I’m down. I trust you. Whatever you want me to do, I’m gonna do this."
At what point in production was this?
This was before we were shooting. This was in pre-production, in the rehearsal stage. So it was one of the first things we had to do. I said, "Alright, let’s do that." She said, "When you show up, I want you to be in character. Here’s everything you need." I showed up, [Gugu's] in character. She had on these 7-inch heels, these long fingernails, these huge star-blocking glasses. I remember thinking, this is going to be so hilarious. I thought it was just an exercise in us being in character and getting to know each other. So we were at the lunch and we were ordering food. And she’s looking around, and I’m trying to get her to take her glasses off. You don’t have lunch with someone when the sun’s not in your eyes with your glasses on. Like, what are you doing? And it was fun.
I thought that would be the exercise until, like, a motorcade of paparazzi showed up and they were ruthless. They were not only taking pictures, they were saying some of the most disrespectful things you could ever imagine. And I was like, can they do that? In my mind, I know Gina didn’t tell them to say these things, but then it just made me realize that this is what a lot of these people go through everyday. The restaurant didn’t know what was happening, so they let us go in the kitchen. They were trying to hide us. They were calling the police, the real police. We snuck out of the back door, but then they saw us and ran over, then they wouldn’t let us leave. It was just so hard to navigate the space. Where do you find the time to build a relationship when you’re running all the time?
Is that something you deal with in real life with your wife, because she’s not in the industry?
No, not at all. We’re simple people. I think, being an actor, especially one that has a strong cord of activism, typecasts you in the right way. I don’t really do the big, big movies that take you around the globe. My audience is different. I feel like the people that know me and know my work, there’s such a respect that happens. Even with the paparazzi, I haven’t had that many negative experiences. And I try to keep my life clean. I try to stay away from the bad things so there’s no scandal. There’s no reason that people would feel the need to intrude into my life. With artists it’s different because that's your life. Your life is living in front of thousands of people live. It seems like art imitates life, so the audience follows you. People watch me in the theater and their house, so I don’t really have to deal with them much on the street.
What’s up next for you?
I’m actually directing a film that starts in December.
This will be your first time directing?
Yeah, first time directing a feature. It’s called The Birth of a Nation and it’s a biopic on Nat Turner who led the most successful slave revolt in American history in 1831.
Is that title intentionally flipping D.W. Griffith's film of the same name?
Yes, that’s right. It will be the 100th anniversary next year, when our film comes out. 1915. The whole point is to right that wrong. That was a propaganda film so we’re gonna bring some truth to it.
Click through to the next page for our interview with Gugu Mbatha Raw.
A major theme in the movie is parents controlling their children’s lifestyles and career trajectories. Did you have anybody in your life growing up as you broke into the industry? Someone who wasnt so much as intense as your character's mother, but a driving force that pressed the issue?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I was really fortunate in that I had a lot of support, but I never had anybody pushing me. I was always the one that led; I led the charge in terms of what I wanted to do artistically and acting and going to drama school and everything. Even though my parents aren’t in the business, obviously they worry because it’s not an easy life and there’s a lot of instability. But I think they knew I was so passionate about it that no one could really stop me. So, luckily, yeah, unlike Noni, I didn’t have a "momager."
Beyond the Lights takes place against a backdrop of contemporary hip-hop and R&B. Are you listening to that kind of music in real life?
You know what? No. I wasn’t really into it at all. Gina really had to introduce me to a lot of the music. She’s a big fan. Although she does say she has a sort of love/hate relationship with hip-hop in some ways. So for me, yeah, it wasn’t my go-to music. Nina Simone on the other hand...
That was my next question.
Nina Simone is who I grew up listening to. Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. So that I’ve had in my psyche since a very small child. I used to dance around the kitchen to “My Baby Just Cares For Me” with my mum. Hip-hop, on the other hand, I listened to it for the movie. I do think I have a newfound appreciation for it, but I’m not so into a lot of the misogynistic messaging.
Yeah, totally. Who did she use as your primer?
My primer, do you mean in terms of inspiration?
Inspiration for the role and introduction to the culture.
Gina would always be sending me music videos. She’d be like, "Check out this video!" We went to see some concerts. We went to see Rihanna live. We went to see Beyoncé live. We went to the Grammys the year Adele won. We got to go backstage. [Choreographer] Laurieann Gibson and I went to a club in Los Angeles that was a haunt for a lot of the stars of that world. We went to one of their club nights, to their hip-hop night, which was really interesting. Also, I hung out and spent time with Laurieann Gibson in the dance world and saw who really works with those artists and who has firsthand experience of working with artists like Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. Having great resources like that to work with and talk to was really helpful.
I heard part of your audition involved singing a Rihanna song?
I didn’t sing it. Because it was a very low-budget, short presentation, I lip-synced to “Skin” for the video. At that point none of Noni’s songs had been written yet. So it was more for the music video look really. Sort of as a template, which was really fun.
Speaking of Noni’s music, you worked with The-Dream closely to create those songs, right?
Yeah. That’s Right. He wrote all the Noni songs.
What was that like?
The-Dream, he’s so gifted and a very creative guy. He’s definitely a night owl so it was a different schedule for me, starting work at 2 a.m. But it was really interesting because he is very instinctive and multi-talented. He sings and has this beautiful falsetto voice. He sings the demos of the songs, in such a nuanced way. All the intonations and everything is his. That’s his imprint. So I learned a lot from watching him work. I also worked with a great vocal coach called Debra Bird who helped me a lot with the singing.
So I hear that Gina sent you guys on a rehearsal date during pre-production that turned out to be a set-up. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. It was a character improvisation. She had us in character, dressed in character, talking as our characters would, no script, but in the moment to go on a lunch date.
Were you in a crazy pop star outfit?
Yeah. Unbeknownst to us, she sent in a load of paparazzi to take pictures. We didn’t realize, but she’d set them up. But it was really interesting. Spending three hours in character—getting there in the car, spending the date there, driving back again. Just getting to know Nate as Noni, and getting to have a small glimpse into what it might be like to lose your anonymity like that.
Does that ever happen to you in your day to day, just as Gugu?
No, my life is very different than Noni’s life, in some ways. For me, the great thing about acting is that I get to play different roles. This role definitely explores the idea of fame and the consequences of fame, not just from the outside, but also psychologically, and what that does to you on an emotional level. I thought that that was really interesting, but I’m thankful I can get around and no one really takes any notice of me.
What was it like working with Machine Gun Kelly in his first starring role? He has a few good one-liners.
Yeah, he’s so great and I loved working with him. He’s very charismatic. He’s a natural performer. It was really great because he really is from the music industry, so he has an authenticity.
Did he give you any perspective into the music industry to help your role?
Yeah, just his presence. He was just so supportive. And we had a lot of dance rehearsals together because we had that big performance scene and a couple of music videos. So we spent a lot of time together. There was a lot of physical dance work that was quite intimate, but he was an absolute professional gentlemen. I really loved working with him.
Beyond the Lights is a straight-up romance, but you’ve done different roles in the past, like the J.J. Abrams show [Undercovers] where you were a badass. You also have a role in next year's big sci-fi movie Jupiter Ascending. What’s your career track? Are you just trying everything?
I’d love to say there was a master plan, but sometimes you have to go with the flow. And I’ve been really fortunate the last few years. I’ve been working as an actress for ten years, so I think every role I’ve done I’ve learned something from, and every person I’ve worked with I’ve learned something from. I try and be instinctive about telling stories that mean something to me.
More and more, especially in the last year, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities. And I think the bigger opportunities you get, the more you feel a sense of responsibility to say something worth saying. Now I’m looking for projects that I feel are important. [Beyond the Lights] raises the conversation about our culture, as well as being a beautiful love story. There are some messages in it about how we view women in the music industry and how we treat them and mental health in terms of the entertainment industry. Even though you’re not hitting anybody over the head with that, it’s important that it's there.
My next movie is about examining brain injuries in the NFL which is also very contemporary debate. For me, as I say, movie is a very powerful medium, potentially. So I do feel that I have a responsibility to tell stories that provoke a conversation.
And that's opposite Will Smith?
Awesome. So I have to ask, you have a Complex cover in the movie...
Yeah, which I smash—no offense, you guys. [Laughs.]
Do you actually read us?
But I will now. Now that I’ve met you, I will. [Laughs.]