In Beyond the Lights, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) plays Noni, a young singer thrust into the music-industry pressure cooker—one that seems to transform female performers into hypersexualized commodities. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) came up with the idea after noticing that her favorite genre, hip-hop/R&B, had lost its edgy playfulness, becoming more of a dark force that, in her opinion, objectifies women. “It’s moving into an ugly, angry place,” she says.
Before she could comment on the genre, she had to first create her own pop star. And she did so with help from the pros, including Lady Gaga’s choreographer LaurieAnn Gibson and Beyonce’s hairdresser Kim Kimble. The goal was to meld Beyonce’s swagger with Rihanna’s edge and Rita Ora’s playfulness, making a star all her own.
The role required quite a transformation for Mbatha-Raw, who trained at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London and has a background in ballet. Initially, Mbatha-Raw resisted the change, asking choreographer Gibson to take the mirrors off the walls during their first dance rehearsal because she felt so uncomfortable. “I wasn’t used to starring at myself in the mirror,” she says. “We’d do a few steps, and I’d start cracking up. I found it really unnerving.”
But Prince-Bythewood insisted the mirrors stay—which, in the end, proved to be the right decision.
“In the early rehearsals it was hard. LaurieAnn would tell her to grab her chest and her hand was on her stomach,” says the director. “It’s strange to say that grabbing your breasts is a breakthrough, but what Gugu had to overcome was equivalent to what Natalie Portman did in Black Swan.”
See the metamorphosis for yourself this brief featurette, which highlights Mbatha-Raw’s transformation.
Beyond the Lights opens Nov. 14.