After supporting roles in interesting indies Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Red Hook Summer, and slick, successful thrillers Arbitrage and Non-Stop, Nate Parker, 34, steps into the spotlight as leading man in Beyond the Lights (opening nationwide November 14). Handsome, serious (but not too serious) and well-spoken, it’s no wonder his Secret Life of Bees director Gina Prince-Bythewood thought of him for the role—a stand-up cop and would-be-politician who begins to question what his future holds after an unexpected encounter with the latest pop sensation (on the brink of a breakdown), played by breakout Belle star (and current it-girl) Gugu Mbatha-Raw. We caught up with Parker at TIFF to chat about the perils of fame, acting opposite Mbatha-Raw and why he’s committed to being an “actorvist.”
Beyond the Lights is your second time working with director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Did she approach you with the role? Thanks to The Secret Life of Bees, we have a rock-solid relationship. I always told her if she ever had something in mind or if she wanted to chat to give me a call. She’s actually been working on this for the past four years, so to get it going in the way that she did, I’m so happy for her. Then reading the script I was that much happier to be involved.
Was there anything in particular that drew towards the character of Kaz? One of the main draws was Gina: I know her sensibility and I know that it will be something that will be strong and carefully examined. I knew that the detail would be taken care of. I could be in a position where I could just trust her in portraying Kaz Nicol as this young man of integrity. A lot of times when we see young men in films they are rebellious or they have qualities that make it so they have to find some way to redemption in the end. But here’s a guy who is a good guy and he is doing service for others, and he has political ambitions…
There’s a very real pressure to succeed in society today, to have a great career, make your family proud, and this is reflected in both Kaz and Noni’s story. What do you think audiences can take away from this? The first step to attaining any kind of success is identity, knowing who you are. Once you know who you are, you know who you are not. If you are aspiring to be someone else, even success can turn out wrong. I’m not sure who said it, but there’s a line that goes “fame is what someone gives you, success is what you give yourself.” I think that is the journey of Noni: she is famous but not happy. Once she finds out what makes her happy, that fame transforms into a success that she can accept and apply to her own happiness. Find your voice, know who you are and then pursue things so that the outcome will be what you want and more durable.
Noni becomes such a sudden celebrity in the film, and that reflects what a lot of young people go thorough in the movie and music industries today. What do you think could help young stars cope with that sudden burst of fame? It’s all about support. When you are surrounded by people who want something from you, you can find your self very much on an island, alone. Accept people in your life who want things for you that you want for yourself. The person who was closest to Noni, her mother, is the person most complicit in her downfall. Whereas when she finds Kaz, someone completely outside of her circle, he is the person who grounds her in what life could be like. It’s tough for young people now, especially because there are so many opportunities for you to climb without being grounded. The thing about social media is it takes up all the in-between the time of self-reflection. There are very few moments where you have to sit alone with yourself. The second you’re not being entertained, you can pick up your phone.
Looking at your social media accounts, it really comes across that you are a passionate activist. Has acting helped provide you with a platform for this activism? Absolutely. Jackie Robinson once said, “A life only matters in the effect it has on others,” so I have committed my life to service, and I feel that acting and being a filmmaker is one of the greatest platforms. I have more reach and impact with a film than some doctors do. I think that I would be almost complicit in the bad things that are happening in the world by not standing in the way and fighting the injustices we see on a daily basis. I consider myself an activist first, an “actorvist” if that’s even a word. I am an activist first in everything I do, even with this film. Portraying Kaz as a strong man who has integrity, who treats women with respect, honours his father, who chooses good. I think that you, even, as a journalist, there all kinds of things you can do in your time, publications that you can pursue where you could make more money or climb the ladder faster. But then you would have to ask yourself in you dying days, “What have I done with my life? How is humanity different because I existed?”
There were a lot of intimate scenes in this film, where it is just you and Gugu playing off one another. Did you rehearse like crazy, or just go with the flow? I did this film once and there was a cameraman who had a shirt that said “fix it in prep” and I found it so fascinating because so much that we do is a reflection of the work we put in before. Even in life, I am a reflection of all the things I’ve done up until this moment. Filmmaking is no different; Gina created such a safe and intimate environment based on the time we put in. The drills she put us through, the questions she asked, the rehearsals we had, so when were on set there was nothing else left to do but play. These relationships developed well before we stepped on set. Obviously Gugu being a beautiful and insanely intelligent person, she’s attractive in so many ways. Then you add the preparation to her attractiveness and the fact that we both take our craft so seriously, it created an environment for peace, investigation and honesty. I think those are the moments that I enjoy most about the film.
Can you share any of the drills you did to prep? Gina once called me and said that she wanted me and Gugu to go out to lunch in character. I arranged for a car and we met at the office and she had on this ridiculous outfit, seven-inch heels, crazy hair and huge glasses. We got to the restaurant and I couldn’t get her to put her phone down and I’m like “Look, I can take you home if you like, but I’d really like to have a real conversation with you and I’d like to see your face.” So she takes off her glasses and we’re just in it, I’m Kaz and she’s Noni and all of a sudden a barrage of paparazzi just show up [because they thought Mbatha-Raw actually was a pop star]. It’s crazy and the people in the restaurant don’t know what’s going on, they think she’s Rihanna or something. They’re like “Do you want us to call the cops?” and holding up jackets so they can’t see our faces and we retreat to the kitchen and out the back door because the paparazzi started coming inside. It was exhilarating and gave me a taste of what it might be like to be involved with someone who is in the public eye.
You’ve said a few quotes in this interview, and I noticed that quotes played a role throughout the film, like on the fridge in Kaz’s apartment. Was that your influence, and was there a quote that stuck with you? That detail was all Gina, she thought about it to the last punctuation mark. “Truth is the only safe ground to stand on” really stuck with me as it really said so much about Kaz. He’s the kind of cop you want around, especially in this time, the things that we are dealing with right now and the militarization of the police force. When you can just assume that a police officer at his or her very core stands on truth, you are in a safe place. I think that safety is ultimately what allows Noni to go to him and have that relationship.