“Beyond The Lights” doesn’t hit theaters until November 14, but we got to see the film at the opening night of the Urban World Film Festival.
We spoke with the cast exclusively on the red carpet before the screening. You can read highlights from the post-screening Q&A here.
Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to do this film.
Gina: I wanted to do a love story again. I had such a great experience with “Love and Basketball,” that was 14 years ago, and while I love the movies I made in between, I love making love stories. I love writing it. I love directing it and so that was really the key; and then where was what I was gonna set it and I thought that the R&B / Hip-Hop world really hasn’t been explored on film and there’s some issues that we’re going through right now. It’s in a very dangerous place right now, for women especially, both in terms of the songs that men are singing about. You know, R&B used to be a safe place for women and now it just seems like the songs coming out are so angry but also what women have to come out with. You have to get noticed. You see, it’s like a script to follow. You come out hyper sexualized but what happens when you can’t pull back from that. That’s not authentic to yourself. So, that’s really where the character Noni is in this film.
Yes, and you worked with Gugu whose amazing, up-and-coming starlet and we hear that she’s just explosive on film. What was it like to work with her?
Gina: Yeah, Gugu, I mean when she came in to audition, I saw the movie. I knew it was her. She wasn’t a star. She hadn’t done “Belle” yet. So, it was a fight to have her and I got a lot of no’s because she wasn’t a star but, as a director, when you find your lead, you hang on to that and you fight for it and thankfully Relativity recognized that. She’s dope. She’s got such crazy chops and to see “Belle” and then seeing this. This character is 180 degrees from “Belle.” I mean it was hours in the studio with the-Dream.
I was going to say that, with the Source Magazine being the Hip Hop bible, I love that you collaborated with The-Dream. You have to tell us more about that.
Gina: When I set out and wrote this, he was on my vision board as that’s who I wanted to do the music. I mean he can do the raunch but he can also write beautiful love songs, like 1+1, you know, which I love that song. So, I didn’t think I could get him though because our budget was so low but he saw a presentation I did that showcased Gugu. He was like she’s dope and came on board and he wrote four songs for us. And then MGK wrote his raps for the songs and it’s just important for a music film that the music has to be dope.
Gina: I mean but that was Gugu – hours and hours in the studio but that was good for her as an actress to go through that, like, you’re not in charge. The Dream’s in charge and he’s gonna tell you exactly how to sing it and that’s what really where the character is at as well
That’s awesome. Now, you actually get a chance to collaborate with Nate Parker. again after, “Secret Life of Bees,” we love that guys collaborated there. What was it like to work with such a great talent like Nate again?
Gina: Nate, we have such a dearth with black leading men and I remember seeing “The Great Debaters” and I’m thinking, like “Who is that guy? Where did he come from?,” and it’s amazing to me that he hasn’t blown up yet and I think it’s just because it takes a certain kind of movie to do that. A love story. An action film. So here’s a love story, I’m hoping that it gives him that platform.
Why do you want people to go out and see this film? Why do you think it’s going touch the audiences?
Gina: I mean I’m really hoping that it just, one, changes the conversation of what’s going on not just in music but really, in life in terms of women and men. You just gotta be authentic. You just gotta be true to yourself and find your voice and, you know, be inspired by the love story.
What was it like working with Gina Prince-Bythewood?
Gugu: Gina is phenomenal. You know she’s written and directed this movie and we spent almost two years talking about this character which was really wonderful to build the layers of her backstory and to explore the music industry and to really spend time with Gina creating such a multi-faceted character and for me you know it’s been really inspiring working with her because she really cares and she’s a very soulful woman and she puts her soul into her work as I think you’ll see and so for me it was just really inspiring working with her you know as a woman and as an artist. As I say, she gives it her all.
You do your own singing in this movie, What was that like?
Gugu: YES! Oh my God! Well, I sing on every track that is a “Noni” track and, cause, you know we have an amazing soundtrack full of other existing artists out there which is really cool as well. For me, it was great. It was a real learning curve. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I never really sung in that style before and I had a lot of help from an amazing vocal coach, called Debra Byrd and worked in the studio with The-Dream, who wrote a lot of the original songs for the character. So, for me, it was really a great experience.
What was it like working with Nate Parker in the film? You guys are dynamic together onscreen and we cannot wait for people to see that. What was that connection like on camera?
Gugu: Well, you know what? Nate is such a terrific actor and he is so good in this movie. He’s so detailed and committed,. He’s like his character, you know, he‘s a principled guy. He’s got a real thread of decency running through him. It was just really fun to work with him. We got to do some improvising and Gina had written this beautiful relationship. So, the work was practically there on the page, the way she’d drawn these characters. It was so clear but, as I say, working with Nate was a real treat, because he’s so committed to his craft.
The world was introduced to you when we saw you earlier this year in “Belle.” This is going to be something completely different and out of the box for you. We get to see your range. So, tell us a little bit about the differences from “Belle” to now?
Gugu: Right well, “Belle” obviously set in the 1780s. It was great for me to be able to do something after that with all the corsets and the restraints of that period [to then] being able to do something so contemporary and with a character that has this much more expressive, sexual persona, you know, after the repressed nature of “Belle.” So for me, it was great to get into the dancing, the singing, the music obviously. Again another heart-warming love story, I hope, but it also has similar themes of identity actually and so for me as much as I first thought “oh these movies couldn’t be more different.” The more I’ve thought about it and now I’ve seen them both I think that the messaging and the themes for women are similar. They have some, they share some things about finding your voice, being comfortable – who you really are, and your authentic self, and not being afraid to stand up for yourself so both movies have that female empowerment core to them, which I’m really happy about.
Why would you tell people to go out and see the film?
Gugu: Well, I hope that it’s a really wonderful date movie. It’s a beautiful romantic story. There’s some amazing music. There’s some crazy, sexy costumes and I think there’s a really uplifting message and as I said a beautiful and entertaining love story.
The Source is a Hip-Hop Magazine and we’re all about music. Do you ever plan to do your own music and what music did you listen to get yourself in the mood for your character?
Gugu: Oh my God! So much music! I have to say that because this style of Noni was very much developed for this character. So, if I was to do any of my own music, I don’t think it would necessarily be in this style but, for me, gosh, I had such a diverse playlist. I mean, I could give you like all day. I remember for one particular scene, actually, Katy Perry’s “Roar” had just come out and it was the day I have a big scene where I have to stand up to my Mum in the movie and so I was listening to that a lot and I listened a lot to …. what else was out at that time “Holy Grail.” Because The-Dream had written the hook for that. That was like a big influence for me, for the movie as well as Nina Simone, the original “Blackbird” song and I listened to that over and over and over again. So that was kind of amazing. And then you know some more sort of unexpected songs like, gosh, it’s not Hip-Hop at all … a Fleetwood Mac song called, “Landslide” and Gina played it one time just during a scene – I had an emotional scene and the song just came on and there were no words and I was listening to that song during a scene which was kind of very powerful.
There are lot of young girls going through some of the same issues that your character deals with in the film. Your character’s mother put her under a lot of pressure to become a superstar. What kind of advice would you give to young girls who are going to see this film who may be experiencing some of the same things that happened to the character Noni?
Gugu: You know, it’s tricky when it comes to family and business. I always think that’s a tricky combination and, you know, as we explore through the characters in this film it can be a toxic combination but you know I think you’ve got to surround yourself with healthy people and stay true to yourself. You know and obviously it’s best to always best to keep the family together but also to make sure your not being exploited and to stay true to who you really are.
Tell us how you got involved in the project and what drew you to the film?
Nate: Well Gina Prince-Bythewood is one of my heroes! We worked together on “Secret Life of Bees.” She’s an incredible talent as a director, incredible talent as a writer and I always say would be on the green light with me. I told her to just call me and we’ll make it work. So she called, sent me the material, I loved it, and we got to work right away.
Now, that’s awesome and you’re getting a chance to work with Gugu who is fantastic but from what we’ve heard – you guys are explosive together onscreen. Tell us what it was like working with her.
Nate: Well she makes it easy. She’s such a talent. When you talk to her and speak to her, you realize she’s not even anything like the character, Noni Jean. She’s her own person. She’s very different but I think it speaks to her ability. She’s insanely talented and I told her not too long ago I’m so glad that you exist. I’m sure we’ll be working together soon.
Absolutely, and you’re working with a lot of veterans in the film as well. Talk about that a little bit.
Nate: Minnie and Danny. You can’t beat it, like, there’s no better cast. I remember when Gina told me that Danny was going to be her father on the project and we had our first rehearsal. It was just like next level. He’s one of my hero’s. He’s like a father figure already anyway. So, he called me, son. I called him Pop. And that was that.
Now, we know The Dream got a chance to work on the film. We’re with The Source Magazine, the Hip Hop Bible, tell us what the music was like for this and how the music inspired your performance?
Nate: Well, it’s hard because when you’re doing the film, when you’re filming, you don’t even hear the music. You don’t even know what’s gonna be on it but I tell you what The Dream did his thing. He definitely elevated the work. The music is crazy. They did such a good job, the composers too. They all did a really good job.
And lastly, for people who haven’t seen the film, why should people go out and see “Beyond the Lights”?
Nate: Because it’s a love story. You know what I mean, cause we don’t have enough. The language of love breaks down all barriers and I think that’s a good takeaway.