From an LGBTQ+ romance in Black Mirror to the first woman of colour to win Miss World, the star is breaking down cultural barriers with her roles

The hotel drawing room where Gugu Mbatha-Raw sits is stately but casual. We are on a plump sofa and behind us a man fills the space with a loud video call, unaware that earphones have been invented. He is, obviously, irritating, but Mbatha-Raws only concern is that he will drown out the Dictaphone. She is somewhat stately and casual herself, laughing whenever she says something that she thinks might sound pretentious. Earnestness is spiked with self-awareness. Id never want to assume that I have some greater wisdom, she says with a grin.

There is an alertness about Mbatha-Raw, just as there is on screen: almost all of her characters are on some sort of mission. As the real-life biracial girl born into slavery but raised by the aristocracy in 2013s Belle the actors big-screen breakthrough her combination of innocence and steeliness charmed many. Oprah Winfrey was a huge supporter of the film, while Prince actual Prince performed at an afterparty he arranged for the premiere.

Since Belle, she has done the lot. On stage, she was a bawdy bundle of fun as the titular flower-seller-turned-royal sweetheart Nell Gwynn at Shakespeares Globe in London. On screen, she has done genre drama (The Cloverfield Paradox, Fast Color) and with Joe Swanbergs excellent improvised Netflix series Easy she was understated and heartbreaking as a woman indecisively returning to a broken relationship. Then there is the fantastical tomfoolery: Ava DuVernays A Wrinkle in Time (with Oprah), Beauty and the Beast (she was the feather duster), and the Wachowskis bewildering space opera Jupiter Ascending, in which she played a half-human, half-deer creature called Famulus (its worth Googling for her ears).

She is perhaps best known for San Junipero, widely regarded as the best and most beloved episode of Charlie Brookers Black Mirror. She played Kelly, fighting mortality in the real world while partying it up in a virtual, artificially created alternate reality. Her character was desperately in love with life, and Mbatha-Raws performance too was joy personified. The episode was acclaimed for treating the same-sex relationship at its centre with an optimism and lightness of touch, and Kelly and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) swiftly became queer icons. I didnt think about it culturally, says Mbatha-Raw of her initial response to the script. I just thought: Wow, I love this story. I have to do it.

She is, though, thrilled at the impact it has had and loves working on material that breaks down cultural barriers as San Junipero did, as Belle did, as the recent black skinhead drama Farming did. There is also next years Misbehaviour, set around 1970s Miss World competition, in which she plays Jennifer Hosten, the first woman of colour to win the event. That year, womens liberation movement activists stormed the stage on live television. They swung football rattles as the host Bob Hope did his shtick, before hurling rotten fruit, flour and smoke bombs all over the shop.

Its intersectional, says Mbatha-Raw, playfully affecting a faux-American accent. I love it. Miss World in 1970 was ridiculously misogynistic. Its amazing to reflect on how far weve come. But also, with Jennifer Hosten, it challenged perceptions of who is allowed to be a beauty queen. Perceptions of beauty [itself].

Mbatha-Raw
Royal mistress … Mbatha-Raw in Nell Gwynn. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Much of Mbatha-Raws work speaks to a worldview formed early on: she was born in Oxford in 1983 to a black South African doctor and a white British nurse. My parents are from different countries, completely different cultures, she says. As a student activist in South Africa, her father campaigned against apartheid. He was part of the ANC, she says, fighting for their rights. At risk of being sent to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for almost two decades, he left South Africa, helped to resettle by the UNs Refugee Agency UNHCR.

Being biracial, she says, is an interesting perspective, because you can see every side of that conversation. I definitely relate to the idea of bringing people together. My first trip to South Africa [in December 2013] to see my family there, they jokingly called me The Unifier; thats what they called Nelson Mandela at one point. But I feel like its my responsibility to unite the different parts of my life. And I think that its my responsibility to do that in my work.

Belle is another case in point. Dido Belle, raised by the Earl of Mansfield in Kenwood House, north London, goes on to further the progress of abolitionists (on screen in any case; there was some dramatic licence). Mbatha-Raw had chased the role because she was excited to get the chance to play a black woman in a period costume drama who wasnt a servant. I think its really, really important to bring to light these untold stories, she says. They deserve to have an audience.

Although fictional, Mbatha-Raws character in her new film, the Edward Norton-directed, 1950s-set Motherless Brooklyn, had a similar pull. She plays Laura Rose, a lawyer and community activist campaigning against racial discrimination. Nortons detective Lionel Essrog begins following her, and as a bond begins to grow, she guides him through a corrupt political landscape. It is a tender relationship but Laura Rose, battling the citys big business behemoths, is more than the love interest or spider-woman often found in such genre work.

With movies from the 50s, says Mbatha-Raw, were so used to seeing the archetypal housewife. Even in the noir genre youre the femme fatale or the jazz singer. I love the fact that even though Laura grew up in the Harlem jazz scene, she has a law degree. She traverses the worlds: the jazz club, and her activism. She has all of these layers that you dont often get to see in cinema with female characters from that period, and certainly women of colour.

Mbatha-Raw liked the script because such stories, she says, are rarely seen on screen. Her research into the politics of 1950s New York was an education: Learning about things like how the bridges were built low so that the buses couldnt get to the beaches. The people who were on the buses were the poor people, poor people of colour. A very insidious, technical method to keep these people out of enjoying the city. Laura Rose has a progressive resistance to the bullies at the top.

Researching the role, she went to Harlem, while there meeting up with Denise Burse, who played the older version of her character Kelly in San Junipero. Mbatha-Raw beams when she recollects on the day they spent together, her eyes on the verge of popping out. Oh my God! she says, remembering. Id never been to Harlem before and Denise was the one person that I knew who lived there, who had always said: Ill take you on a tour. So I met the older me! They went for coffee before spending the day in Harlem, with Burse pointing out old jazz bars as they traipsed about. Black Mirror fans catching a glimpse of the pair would have lost their minds.

Belle.
Costume jewel… as Dido Elizabeth Belle in Belle.

The initial draw for taking on Motherless Brooklyn was to work with Norton; she is a longtime fan of his work, but she speaks intently about her characters significance. Its progressive to be an activist, she says. For some time, Mbatha-Raw seemed to lie low, not giving too much away, but she is increasingly speaking up about social issues. On her Instagram and Twitter accounts, promo-centric posts sit beside more politicised ones. I ask her about a Times Up retweet, presuming a show of support; in fact, she has been involved since the activist organisations inception.

I went to the first meeting in LA about it before the 2018 Golden Globes, she says. Ive been to several meetings and been part of both the British and the American gestation of the movement. Gathering together and strategising.

Her concerns are increasingly bleeding into her work, including The Morning Show, Apple TV+s #MeToo-tinged look at US breakfast television, which was rewritten in the wake of the allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment against chatshow anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, confronting such issues head-on. And after Misbehaviour, she stars in Seacole, as Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican nurse who came to the aid of dying soldiers in the Crimean war.

Its an actors responsibility, she says, to work on things that help the culture to evolve, and provoke conversations. Obviously, there are many actors who couldnt care less about such stuff. Thats a personal choice, she says: Its about keeping your soul nourished. About being able to hold your head up and have a conversation about your work. I dont want to be a product.

You can certainly tell in junket interviews when stars are not quite on board with the contractually obliged claims tumbling out of their mouths. She shudders at the thought. Id rather feel free to express myself than feel like I was doing something for the money, she says, than feel like Id sold out and my soul had withered in the process. She giggles at the melodrama of it all. Self-effacing to the last.

Motherless Brooklyn is in cinemas from Friday 6 December

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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