'Beyond the Lights' Star Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Rihanna, Lauryn Hill and Judy Garland Inspiring Her Big-Screen Role

Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Frazer Harrison/BAFTA LA/Getty Images for BAFTA LA

Gugu Mbatha-Raw attends the BAFTA Los Angeles Jaguar Britannia Awards presented by BBC America and United Airlines at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 30, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.

The rise to pop stardom can be a rough business -- just ask Justin Bieber or Britney Spears. English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw captures that fraught journey convincingly in buzzed-about film Beyond the Lights (in theaters now through Relativity Media). The 31-year-old portrays Noni, a singer (based loosely on Rihanna and other stars) who attempts suicide after being forced into a highly sexual persona by a domineering mom-ager (Minnie Driver) and record executives. With guidance from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Mbatha-Raw immersed herself in music, recording songs written by The Dream for the film, acting alongside rapper Machine Gun Kelly and soaking up intense dance training from choreographer Laurieann Gibson (Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj).

Mbatha-Raw (center) in Beyond the Lights.

Who inspired you in building your character?

I developed Noni with Gina for two years -- she was always sending me music videos. She directed me to a biography of Judy Garland, who had a mother-manager dynamic that was similarly toxic to Noni’s. And singers like Beyoncé and Rihanna. One of the early inspirations for Gina was when Lauryn Hill was on a talent show when she was 11 and got booed. It's seeing how this young girl evolves into a superstar and what the cost is of that.

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Do you see any real-life parallels to Noni’s struggle?

We were fortunate to work with people in the industry like The Dream and Laurieann, who work with artists like Noni all of the time. The real message that Gina wanted to express is about how women are overly sexualized in the industry. You only have to look at the Internet or turn on the TV to see the contemporary resonance for Noni.

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You're nearly unrecognizable as pop star Noni.

It was part of the character's journey -- she has been packaged into this look to get attention. That’s really what brings her to feel so hollow inside that she wants to take her own life. I had a couple of instances where people would meet me without hair and makeup and they'd reintroduce themselves to me on the set. I'd be like, "No, we already met this morning." That was very revealing to me.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of Billboard.