Actor Nate Parker has reunited with director Gina Prince-Bythewood for her latest film “Beyond The Lights” out this Friday, November 14. He plays Kaz, a police officer with political ambitions, but a chance encounter with pop star Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), may alter his path entirely.
Read our exclusive interview with Nate Parker below:
What did you love about the script?
I love that Gina wrote it. The first question you ask when you get a project or script is, “who’s the film maker?” because you can have a great script and if the filmmaker has a vision that is not in line with your vision or your projection of yourself then it can make for a recipe for disaster but Gina I trust her so blindly that the script being so good and knowing she was in control of it made it a really easy yes.
You’ve been aware of this project for a while. Gina called you in, you auditioned and worked on scenes with Gugu years ago. Can you speak about that?
Well, I knew who he was and I knew putting on his skin what I wanted to do with him. I think it’s very important that we deal with the image of a black man in the media. To do a film or be involved with a film where the black man is strong, has integrity and he is not afraid to love this woman unconditionally is very attractive to me. It was on the back burner in a way but at the same time I knew this was someone I could call up when I was ready. So she called me and she said we’re ready, it came together, do you want to do the film and I said absolutely. I said for you I will always.
Gugu is incredible in the film and goes through such a transformation. Tell me about your initial meetings with her and bonding for the film.
I remember when I first met her. I remember her beauty being so obvious and overt. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my goodness, I get it. She definitely fits the script, but it wasn’t until we started to work together that I realized the talent that she brought along with the movie. I said to myself, “She’s going to be around forever,” because she’s insanely talented. She has a work ethic that few actors of any kind of actors, man or woman. I’ve worked with a lot of people and a lot of people that take business very seriously and she’s one that holds herself accountable when it comes to work ethic and discipline.
You also had to bulk up a bit for the role.
I worked out a lot for the film. Gina told me, she put me in touch with a lot of cops, we talked about what they do every day and working out is a massive part of being a police officer – staying in shape and being ready and so she called me and said, “I want you to be in the shape of your life, if you don’t mind.” I said no problem I’ve been an athlete my whole life so I can do a couple of push ups.
In regards to preparing to play a cop, did you shadow any cops or do a ride along?
Yes, I shadowed one cop that was a very close friend of hers. He taught me how to look in a car, he taught me how when you’re putting some one in the back make sure there’s nothing that can hurt you or them. He taught me how to pat someone down, how to speak to suspects, questioning protocol. We went over it all, so by the time I was done, I felt like I was trained. My goal was to be able to perform in a way where police officers can see the film and be like, “I get it this guy knows what he’s doing.”
You’ve been in the entertainment industry a long time, the film felt very authentic.
Yeah I feel like it felt authentic but I think that’s a testament to Gina’s relentless pursuit of truth. It’s hard to explain to someone that isn’t an artist but you live for a director that knows what she wants. A director says, “this is what I want,” then you say, “Okay, I can give you that.” There’s nothing worse than a director that’s on the fence because then your performance becomes on the fence because you’re trying to play something that you hope the director is looking for. She was so specific about what she wanted that it made it easier to go there. It cut through a lot of the red tape. We were able to hit those moments and create truth instantly.
Tell me about working with the legendary Danny Glover. He plays your father.
He’s like my father in real life and me, myself, my father died when I was very young. So having a father figure around is something that is very sensitive. He came in and he was so prepared, he had such perspective on how he saw the relationship in our rehearsal that it stuck I called him pop and he called me son and it felt like a father-son relationship.
One of the things your character has to grapple with is what path he should take. Did you have a similar thing where your family was like “don’t get into entertainment”?
It wasn’t with that, but as always as a youth I would guess that all youth have the issue or struggle with identity. You know like, “Who am I in this space? Who am I with respect to my parents? What is my path in contrast to their path?” It’s something that we deal with all the time – identity. And this film really hits that. Journalists ask me, “Do you feel like you saved her in the film?” I feel like we saved each other. We saved each other from our parents. From what their projections were for our lives, we chose our own lives. And in learning to choose our own lives and in learning to choose our own destinies and love ourselves we were able to love each other.
The beginning scene is very stark. She’s hanging off the ledge and you’re trying to save her. Can you tell me about shooting those moments?
They were very complicated to shoot. At one point there was a stunt double because she was hanging over the side and you don’t want to risk Gugu being on the side of a building. So I did some where they only shot me and I was holding someone else. It took a whole entire night to shoot that scene, so it wasn’t very romantic. It was very technical and very difficult, but then when you see the film and it sells.
Tell me about working with Minnie Driver.
She was so fierce. She was so connected to her character. If you know her, she’s nothing like that. She’s such a kind woman, she’s so kind, and she’s so expressive and engaging and fun to be around, she’s a comedian. But to see her in that role it let’s you know she’s a real artist, a real performer. She took it there.
There were some really fun scenes where you’re at the BET awards and the Billboard awards. The BET awards scene looked real.
Gina’s vision I’m trying to tell you. She shot it in a way and because BET was involved they gave her a lot of latitude to show up and shoot the actual show. Then we built sets that accommodated what was happening in the show. So we did our performances and then the BET awards were on different days, but the way it was shot, it looked like it was the exact same moment. The production value was next level. Gina asked for it and begged for it, and worked hard for it and it worked.
This is a big debut for Machine Gun Kelly. You have a real intense moment with him. Tell me about working with him.
MGK is humble, he is motivated, he is talented, he listens, and asks questions. There’s so many ways he could’ve approached this project. He could’ve come in like, “Oh, I’m a rapper, this is easy” and not respected the craft. That’s not the approach. He came in and the first thing he said was, “Can you help me? If there is anything that I’m doing wrong, please let me know and I’ll make an adjustment.” Here’s this guy that could come in with all the ego he wants but he’s coming in humble and wanting to do a good job and serving the project. It meant a lot of to me. I really enjoyed working with him. I really enjoy him as a person.
Can you speak about the challenges of bringing this character to life?
The only challenge for me is the challenge I always have. That is doing so much work that I could be sure that what I’m doing is honest. That it’s not me being Nate and phoning it in or playing at what the idea of what a cop would be but doing enough research and being invested enough in the script that I am the character and that it is my life and I’m speaking to a truth that people can identify with on a personal level.
Can you share some of your favorite artists?
I’m a big fan of NAS, Ryan Leslie, Talib Kweli, and Common. I’m a big fan of “Drunk in Love”. That song made the movie.
That scene with “Drunk In Love” is amazing.
It’s crazy right? The character was flying for sure. We were in a real plane, so it wasn’t a set and working on that scene, we rehearsed that scene which was awesome. A lot of rehearsal, we worked the kinks out. You see the film and then the soundtrack stays with you for days. And Gugu sang them all. She really did an incredible job.
What’s next for you?
I’m directing a film, I start directing December 1. It’s called “Birth of a Nation.” It’s about Nat Turner who led the most successful slave in American history, it’s a project I’ve been developing for 7 years and it’s finally come into fruition so I am very excited about it.