Gugu Mbatha-Raw on challenging the status quo
David Hawkins/Frank Agency
‘I wish I could take the credit for the emotion-provoking performances, but to be honest, that’s what draws me to them in the writing and the storytelling. If a project or a script can enthrall me in any way – if it makes me laugh, gives me goosebumps or moves me to tears – then I’m gripped, and I know that it’s going to be worth doing it,’ humbly smiles Gugu Mbatha-Raw, when we meet again, this time virtually on a Zoom call. It’s the beginning of June with hot weather unabashedly filling the streets of North London, with the wi-fi connection having a literal meltdown and cutting off, which from time to time interrupts our light-hearted conversation.
She joins the line from a hotel room in Belfast, having returned from Italy, where she was shooting the anticipated Netflix heist action movie Lift, sharing the screen with comedian Kevin Hart. ‘We just got three weeks left to finish the movie. I’m not going to lie that it’s a bit of back to planet earth here, in Belfast. It was wonderful to be in Italy with the weather, food, and culture and bring that with us to the final three weeks in our imaginations,’ wholeheartedly says the actress.
Gugu’s breakthrough came with the British period drama Belle back in 2013, for which she won the BIFA Award for Best Actress. As a versatile performer, carrying so much gravitas in all her projects, no surprise that numerous roles have followed throughout her successful career on both TV (Black Mirror, The Morning Show, Loki, The Girl Before) and the silver screens (Beyond the Lights, Miss Sloane, Beauty and the Beast, Irreplaceable You, Motherless Brooklyn, Misbehavior, Summerland). Now she’s leading the charge on the highly anticipated eight-episode Apple TV+ thriller Surface, which marks her second time working with the streamer, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine. Set in San Francisco, Surface follows Gugu’s character Sophie, a woman who has suffered a traumatic head injury which resulted in a memory loss, believed to be a result of a suicide attempt.
Contrary to her character, Gugu is as open-hearted and joyous as the first time I met her back in May. A travel-worthy Watford Heath, where the cover shoot took place, was also graced by a visit from the likes of Erdem, CHANEL, Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton and Roksanda in a wardrobe of dreams. Cups of tea were flowing on set, and classics such as I Wanna Dance with Somebody were blasting through the speakers, with our cover story star embracing different alter egos in front of the camera as the force of nature that she is.
It’s not usually the way I start any conversation, but it’s great to meet a person whose powerful performances made me cry more than once.
I’m saying this as a compliment. Irreplaceable You – I was sobbing, Black Mirror’s San Junipero – you’re right, weeping again. And The Morning Show – where do I even start here? I think you have a superpower if you can make a lasting impact on the audience’s emotions, whether that’d be tears, laughter or even a tingling sense of anxiety.
Those projects that you’ve mentioned that’s just not me. I chose them because they’ve moved me. I remember reading Irreplaceable You and crying on my iPad. I thought I was going to break it. I literally had to stop as I was tearing up. The same happened with San Junipero, and I remember that I got chills when I was first pitched The Morning Show. I wish I could take the credit for the emotion-provoking performances, but to be honest, that’s what draws me to them in the writing and the storytelling. If a project or a script can enthrall me in any way – if it makes me laugh, gives me goosebumps or moves me to tears – then I’m gripped, and I know that it’s going to be worth doing it.
Do you often become easily attached to characters and the script whilst reading it, or does the sense of attachment come in time?
I mean if it’s good… (laughing) If it’s good, the feeling is pretty instant. There’s something there. And it’s usually pretty obvious. It’s like the soul of the piece. And if the soul isn’t there, you can do rewrites and use costumes, accents, and fancy camera angles, but it’s not going to give it its essential heartbeat. Ninety percent of the things aren’t that good. The reality is that the good stuff stands out.
“I wish I could take the credit for the emotion-provoking performances, but to be honest, that’s what draws me to them in the writing and the storytelling. If a project or a script can enthrall me in any way – if it makes me laugh, gives me goosebumps or moves me to tears – then I’m gripped, and I know that it’s going to be worth doing it.”
When you’re building a character, I imagine that you spend so much time not only with yourself but also with that person you’re creating on-screen. In the end, is it easy to let go of your characters and their stories?
I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I know how to detach myself. In the end, you always know that the job will end. Some of those are longer than others. Surface, which we shot for six months, is an example. I had such a great time on it. I almost didn’t want it to end because I worked with a great group of people, and we had such a juicy story to tell. And just being the executive producer for the first time and being stimulated in such different ways was a thrilling experience. I think it’s probably harder to let go of your characters the longer you play them. They’re getting under your skin, but hopefully, I have a good grip on reality. (laughing) If I’m giving it my all, there are no regrets.
Speaking of characters, and if my research is on the right path here, your process of building them involves scents. How does that work?
Oh yes, that’s right! We all have the way we talk, the way we walk. To me, the scent is like an extension of your aura. It’s also sort of a garment that people wear, and it has energy that they carry with them. This process started when I was playing two small parts on two things at the same time. I was going from different sets, and I wanted to be able to differentiate in my head which character I was. And scents can transport you. You can smell some freshly cut grass, a home-baked meal, or an ex-partner, and it immediately takes you to that place. For me, it was the idea of having something that was more chemical and less cerebral in a way. Then it became a part of my process, which helped me to get away from myself. It gave me a way to transition in my mind that I’m this person now.
Do you have your favorite scent?
I love scented candles, and I burn incense. I travel with Nag Champa incense which I burn wherever I go. I love a Diptyque scented candle. They always fill the room when you’re in a hotel, having a bath at the end of a long day, or you’re in some strange apartment somewhere. It all depends on the time of the day and the mood, whether you want to feel relaxed, stimulated or comforted by a familiar smell in an unfamiliar place. (laughing)
“I just loved it. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. I loved performing. I found joy in being on stage, creating a world with my theatre friends, who were always fun and playful. The stage was just a fun place to be. I think the theatre was where I followed the love and the joy that I found in performing. And I love actors and being in the company of them. They’re witty, mischievous, smart, articulate and playful.”
Now I love this question as it gives an insight into where your artistic journey has started. What was your very first performance on stage?
When I was six, I played a candle in a ballet performance which was celebrating the anniversary of my local dance school. I remember wearing a tutu that my mum had made. All of us also had little candles on our heads. But that wasn’t a role. That was more like a dance performance. I don’t know if you meant that or a professional performance. (laughing)
I meant the very first performance. (laughing)
There you go, I was a candle!
I’ve talked to a few colleagues of yours, and when asked why they chose this craft, most of them replied that it was either a way to find a voice, a form of self-expression or even embrace playfulness. Why did you choose acting, and did the meaning of this choice change throughout the years?
I just loved it. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. I loved performing. I found joy in being on stage, creating a world with my theater friends, who were always fun and playful. The stage was just a fun place to be. I think the theater was where I followed the love and the joy that I found in performing. And I love actors and being in the company of them. They’re witty, mischievous, smart, articulate and playful. Even though sometimes you have really long days, the actual essence of acting, when you’re in a scene with another person, is all about the energy. There’s just nothing more exhilarating.
The storytelling and your performance in the period drama Belle struck such a chord with me. Your character had to follow specific social norms and accommodate her family’s position in society at her own cost. It slightly reminded me of something that happened to me in the past when I was advised to sort of bury some pieces of my identity by changing my name. Have you ever been in a similar situation and asked to change some parts of your identity to accommodate others?
Not that I listened. (laughing) I remember that in one of my first auditions at RADA, somebody from the tutors told me not to smile as much. But I think that was more because I was supposed to be in a scene playing Elizabeth Proctor (editor’s note – convicted in the 1692 Salem witch trial). Still, I’m a very smiley person, and I didn’t take that to heart. And one senior actor who was part of the buddy system of a friend of mine at the drama school gently suggested that I should change my name once. I didn’t take any notice. My name means our pride, so changing such a name feels like the most ridiculous thing. I was pretty secure in the fact that you have to be proud of your heritage, and people will adapt to you. I don’t think you have to make yourself smaller or more accommodating to culture which you’re in. I don’t think it ultimately serves you in the long run. That wasn’t right for me at the time. And I’m glad. (smiling)
I couldn’t agree more with what you just said.
I think they also were from a different generation. The only way that things change is if you challenge the status quo. And if everybody sort of polishes the edges of their individuality, what about the people that come after you? What kind of signal are you sending to them? I remember looking at actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor when I was at drama school and thinking – if he can have that name and be as successful as he is… That inspired me at the time to know that that’s possible.
“My name means our pride, so changing such a name feels like the most ridiculous thing. I was pretty secure in the fact that you have to be proud of your heritage, and people will adapt to you. I don’t think you have to make yourself smaller or more accommodating to culture which you’re in. I don’t think it ultimately serves you in the long run. That wasn’t right for me at the time. And I’m glad.”
Now we’re also here to talk about your new project – the Apple TV+ series, psychological thriller Surface. I’ve watched the first two episodes, and I must say that I was disappointed that I got to see only the two of them. They were such a great taster of what the series will entail. How did the script land in your hands, and what did attract you to this story the most?
I first read the pilot script back in September of 2020. I was in Atlanta, where I returned to film Loki after a big break in the pandemic. The pilot came to me from one of my agent’s who initially sent me the script for The Morning Show. I saw that the series was also being produced by Hello Sunshine, and I knew it was going to be interesting, knowing the ethos of Reese Witherspoon’s company. They focus on centering women in the middle of the narrative, so it had immediately caught my attention. I read the pilot script, and it was so compelling and atmospheric. The idea of a psychological thriller, which I’d never done before, but also told from this women’s perspective. She’s coming from this memory loss and suicide attempt, which I thought was very intriguing. And all those questions that get asked… What if you can’t trust yourself? What if you don’t even know your secrets? How do you figure out who in your life, as you’re rebuilding it, to trust?
To me, the mystery was so compelling. Seeing that the series was set in San Francisco, it had my imagination running about this contemporary noir, foggy, moody, sexy thriller. I was drawn to it, and the writing was so cool. Veronica West, who’s the showrunner, had written an intriguing pilot. I loved the set-up of the love triangle with James, Sophie’s husband, and Baden, this cop who my character was having an affair with that she doesn’t even remember. There’s so much in the pilot that made me think about what would I do, if I was in that situation, in Sophie’s place. I loved the mystery of the character and the fact that she’s the mystery too. (laughing)
I think you often see that sort of story with maletagonists like in The Bourne Identity, where the man finds out that he’s done bad or questionable things. I’ve never seen a woman at the center of that kind of narrative, so that was refreshing. And then also the fact that it was early days and it was only the pilot, no studio or streamer attached. The idea to come on board in an early stage and be a part of the executive producing process and part of the pitch to Apple… There was so much that were firsts for me, such as learning from incredible producers like Lauren Neustadter, who runs Hello Sunshine, as well as being part of bringing on board the director and cinematographers. It was an amazing opportunity to get involved in the creative DNA of the project.
I can not wait to see the rest of the episodes, and I have this lingering feeling that there will be this huge twist awaiting for us, the audience…
Oh my god, there’s not just one huge twist. I mean, that’s the thing, there are so many twists and turns, and I think this kept me going throughout the eight episodes. You’re constantly trying to figure out who to trust and even start questioning if you can trust Sophie. There are just a lot of layers to peel away, and I’m excited for you to watch it too. (laughing)
What was it like building the on-set dynamics with your co-stars? You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you didn’t want the Surface experience to end.
That was one of the great gifts of this process. The actors… I mean, this ensemble is phenomenal. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays my husband James, is a gifted, generous actor, and Stephan James, who plays Baden, has such a soulful energy and brings such a gravitas to the role. I was also thrilled to work with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a fellow RADA graduate, who I’ve looked up to for many, many years, and Ari Graynor and François Arnaud, who are just amazing. We also had the brilliant Sam Miller directing, who also worked on Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.
The characters that Veronica had written enabled us to create interesting dynamics. Just putting this into the context of the year that we filmed it in, we were coming out of lockdown three of whatever, and as we were filming in Vancouver, most of us had to quarantine for two weeks. Once we were all set loose, we were so thrilled to be around other actors. We bonded. It was a joyful, creative experience.
Your character Sophie is such an interesting persona to inhabit. In your words – she’s a mystery herself. Sophie also goes through an underlying trauma of her suicide attempt and memory loss, and it’s not the first time that you’re exploring a multi-layered character as such. Did this role require any particular preparation?
Yes, it did. We talked with experts on memory loss and different brain injuries. I mean, not to spoil where we’re going with the show, but we explored alternative therapies and read articles about psychedelics which was so so interesting. The preparation was also about some practical research like horse riding lessons. I also had to work with a free diving expert to execute the underwater sequences by training myself to hold my breath for certain periods as we weren’t using diving equipment. And there was also the running. Sophie’s a keen runner. I’m not. (laughing)
“There’s so much in the pilot that made me think about what would I do, if I was in that situation, in Sophie’s place. I loved the mystery of the character and the fact that she’s the mystery too. I think you often see that sort of story with maletagonists like in The Bourne Identity, where the man finds out that he’s done bad or questionable things. I’ve never seen a woman at the centre of that kind of narrative, so that was refreshing.”
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Public Eye Communications
I’m a true believer in affirmations – things which you’re sending into the universe tend to get back to you. You’ve worked with some brilliant directors and fellow actors – who you’d like to work with next?
I don’t have a list at the top of my head, I’m afraid. There are so many people out there that I don’t even know about. That’s why I try not to limit myself with a wish list. My career has never worked out like that. I always had amazing experiences by just going with the flow. Gosh, there are too many people to count, really. (laughing)
Are there any details that you can reveal about your up-and-coming projects? When we met, you jetted in from Belfast and were going off to Italy to shoot Netflix’s Lift next. How’s the shoot coming along? I do love a good heist story, I must say.
Yes, there’s Lift which is a heist action thriller. As you know, I’ve been in Belfast and Italy filming for the last few months. This project couldn’t be more opposite of Surface. It’s light-hearted, buoyant, sort of witty and spirited. I think it’s nice to have a contrast and do something different, including working with Kevin Hart, who’s so renowned for his comedy.
I’m playing Abby Gladwell. She works for Interpol and is initially trying to track down Kevin’s character, Cyrus Whitaker, who’s an art thief. Abby is very much an expert in the art field and cultural heritage, so she’s trying to track him down in a big auction in Venice. There are all sorts of twists and turns, and I think it’s a real keeper. As I say, it has a very vibrant, international feel to it. And a very international cast, including Billy Magnussen, Vincent D’Onofrio, Úrsula Corberó, Yunjee Kim. I don’t know when it’s coming out, probably next year so there may be a bit of a wait on this one. (laughing)
Catch Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Surface, now streaming on Apple TV+. Watch the trailer below: