It was 2007 and Alicia Keys was singing “Diary” at the Hollywood Bowl when inspiration struck writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) for her new movie Beyond the Lights, the tale of a perfectly packaged pop star, played by Belle‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who’s been groomed for stardom from a young age by her overbearing, opportunistic mother (Minnie Driver).
The movie spent years in development while Prince-Bythewood, who helmed 2008’s Secret Life of Bees, argued with Sony Pictures over her lead actress. “The studios wanted a big star, and I wanted the right person for the role,” says Prince-Bythewood, who hired her own casting agent to find Mbatha-Raw. “There is an innate vulnerability in Gugu. And you can sense her star power. That’s what we needed to believe–that she could be Rihanna or Beyonce.”
Once Sony put the project into turnaround, Prince-Bythewood produced her own eight-minute presentation of Mbatha-Raw as her lead and found her financiers in BET and Relativity Media.
“It was so nice to sit in a room and not hear that the lead is a black woman and she’s not going to sell,” she adds. “Rather they said, ‘We think she’s a star, who do you want for your male lead?'”
Prince-Bythewood chose Nate Parker (Non-Stop, Red Tails) for that role, and the cast and crew convened in Los Angeles and London last September to shoot.
For Mbatha-Raw, currently earning raves in the period piece Belle, it was a chance to explore the darker side of a glamorous industry. “When you are groomed into these shiny music-industry acts from a young age, there are a lot of identity issues,” she says. “It’s about the psychological implications of fame.”
Beyond the Lights will debut on Nov. 14.
For more on Beyond the Lights, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday.