The won­der of Gugu

Gugu Mbatha-raw was cin­ema’s best-kept se­cret. Un­til now

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents -

Gugu Mbatha-raw, 35, and I had plans for when we met – high­fa­lutin plans. In light of her role in Dis­ney’s block­buster A Wrin­kle in Time (which is set to hit SA cin­e­mas from 4 May), we were go­ing to take in some crisp air and chat an­i­mat­edly about life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing, as we strolled around Lon­don’s Royal Ob­ser­va­tory. Lon­don, how­ever, had other plans, and a deep, shift­ing mist ob­scures what should be a panoramic view of the city. “Oh, wait – I can see the Thames! It’s that brown sludge,” Gugu says. She turns to me with her woolly black hat pulled low over her curls. “Is there some­where to get a cup of tea?”

So off we go to find a cuppa. “This is cosy,” says Gugu, as we set­tle in at a nearby café and or­der green tea for her, mint for me. She smiles broadly, as well she might. The 35-year-old ac­tress from Ox­ford­shire has just re­turned to the UK af­ter an as­ton­ish­ing three-year pe­riod of near-con­stant film­ing that prom­ises – fi­nally – to trans­form her into an in­ter­na­tional star.

To be fair, if you don’t know about Gugu yet, it’s not for any lack of try­ing on her part. From sup­port­ing roles with Tom Hanks and Ju­lia Roberts in Larry Crowne to play­ing the feather duster Plumette in last year’s mega-hit Beauty and the Beast, as well as her cap­ti­vat­ing turn as Dido El­iz­a­beth Belle in Amma Asante’s 2013 film, Belle, she has a steadily build­ing fan base. And her re­cent lead in the ro­man­tic drama Ir­re­place­able You, re­leased glob­ally on Net­flix, will have gar­nered her a few more. And a par­tic­u­lar favourite came in 2016, when she starred in Char­lie Brooker’s Black Mir­ror, play­ing Kelly in sea­son three’s stand­out episode ‘San Ju­nipero’. (“One of the most com­pelling pieces of TV I’d ever read,” she says.)

It helps, of course, that Gugu is trained at the world fa­mous Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art (RADA), and al­most tran­scen­den­tally beau­ti­ful. Dressed down in a hot-pink polo neck, black jeans and knee-high boots, she al­ready looks like a star. But it’s in her work, too.

Com­ing up next month are a chance to do the Hol­ly­wood hero­ine thing in a spooky Clover­field fol­low-up, and there’s a slate of in­de­pen­dent films and pres­tige TV on the way.

But it is A Wrin­kle in Time, directed by award-win­ning di­rec­tor Ava Duvernay, with a screen­play by Frozen writer and co-di­rec­tor Jen­nifer Lee, that looks set to make her. Based on Madeleine L’en­gle’s much-loved 1962 science-fan­tasy novel, the movie is about Meg Mur­ray (Storm Reid) who, as in Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land, must jour­ney to a fan­tas­ti­cal al­ter­na­tive di­men­sion. Gugu plays the hero­ine’s mother, Dr Kate Mur­ray, join­ing a cast that in­cludes Reese Wither­spoon, Chris Pine, Rowan Blan­chard and Oprah Win­frey.

“I was al­ways in­trigued by Gugu, and I re­ally loved her work in Belle,” Ava tells me over the phone. “She’s just lovely with a cap­i­tal L. Not bois­ter­ous or wildly ‘on’. She comes in like this sweet lit­tle pres­ence – but fully alert and very fo­cused.”

And Gugu is by no means the grand movie diva. In fact, she of­ten bats her own ques­tions back at me in­stead of an­swer­ing the ones I put to her. It’s not that she’s shy per se – this is a sea­soned per­former – but you can tell that her wide eyes take ev­ery­thing in, from the names of the teas at the café to the kids scream­ing their heads off and the con­nec­tion she feels with a labradoo­dle we come across.

She started early, she says. She grew up near Ox­ford; her fa­ther, Pa­trick, was a South African doc­tor, her mother, Anne, an English nurse, but they sep­a­rated when she was young. She was an only child, and Anne, want­ing to en­sure Gugu was meet­ing plenty of other chil­dren, signed her up for ev­ery­thing ex­tracur­ric­u­lar.

“I loved dance; that was sort of my first love,” she says. “But I played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when I was 11, and that was it, re­ally.” She au­di­tioned for RADA at 17 and at­tended at 18, which is un­usu­ally young. “It was so in­tense and amaz­ing,” she says, though it wasn’t with­out its com­pli­ca­tions. “I was prob­a­bly one of the youngest in my year, and, cer­tainly ini­tially, I felt sur­rounded by peo­ple who stud­ied drama and were very ar­tic­u­late in ex­press­ing

their opin­ions about play­wrights and the­atre, and I didn’t have any of that. But I was brave. I’d be the first per­son to vol­un­teer for some strange method-act­ing ex­er­cise.”

She be­came a the­atre favourite af­ter drama school, get­ting a sub­stan­tial break in 2009, when she was cast op­po­site Jude Law in Ham­let. One re­viewer was so im­pressed, that he de­scribed her per­for­mance as Ophe­lia as “the sweet­est, most piti­fully vul­ner­a­ble” he’d ever seen.

The play trans­ferred to New York, bring­ing her to the US for the first time. “That was my Broad­way de­but, and it was in­cred­i­ble.” It also changed her world view, sharp­en­ing her am­bi­tion and putting Hol­ly­wood in her sights. “[With­out Ham­let], I don’t think that would have oc­curred to me, re­ally, as be­ing prac­ti­cal or re­al­is­tic. Good Bri­tish the­atre was sort of stim­u­lat­ing enough, and Hol­ly­wood sounded faintly ridicu­lous and very far away.”

Ev­ery­thing changed when she booked the lead in Belle, the story of the slave daugh­ter of a Bri­tish no­ble­man who cap­ti­vated Lon­don high so­ci­ety at the end of the 18th cen­tury. “Belle is so close to my heart, not just be­cause it’s the first lead role I got to play in film,” she says. “Grow­ing up, I watched end­less Charles Dick­ens adap­ta­tions, and I was ob­sessed with Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity with Emma Thomp­son and Kate Winslet.”

But even af­ter RADA, a role in pe­riod drama was some­thing she thought she could have only done in the­atre. “I could play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on stage, but seem­ingly in film, there was more of a mi­cro­scope of ‘his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy’. I didn’t re­ally see how I could be in a pe­riod drama with­out play­ing a slave, or a char­ac­ter in a very sub­servient or bru­talised role.”

She warms her hands on her mug. “As a bira­cial woman born in the ’80s, if you let pop­u­lar cul­ture dic­tate it, you’d think mixed-race peo­ple were like a new thing. And that’s ab­so­lutely not the case. Peo­ple of colour have ex­isted through­out his­tory – it’s just who has been able to tell the sto­ries. And it be­came re­ally im­por­tant to me to il­lu­mi­nate that, to show that Dido El­iz­a­beth Belle is as valid a story as El­iz­a­beth Ben­net,” She says firmly. “And, you know, El­iz­a­beth Ben­net is fic­tional,” she adds.

Gugu has been lucky to work with a lot of fe­male di­rec­tors, in­clud­ing Amma Asante and Ava Duvernay. “It was a no-brainer for me,” she says, of tak­ing the role of Dr Mur­ray in A Wrin­kle in Time. “There are just a lot of em­pow­er­ing truths there for young women. As soon as I saw Storm Reid, who plays my daugh­ter in it, I was re­ally ex­cited. I was like, ‘Oh my good­ness, she’s a mini-me! I have to be in this.’”

She’d al­ready worked with Ava on Au­gust 28th, a short film for the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture. “We shot in this tank out­side LA where they shot some of Bey­oncé’s ‘Lemonade’ mu­sic video, and my char­ac­ter was swim­ming through her house to try and es­cape. It was quite ter­ri­fy­ing, ac­tu­ally,” she re­calls. “The chance to work with Ava again, and what it means for a woman of colour to be directing some­thing of that scale and bud­get for Dis­ney – I wanted to be in that line.”

Then there was her “won­der­ful fairy god­mother”, Oprah Win­frey. “We didn’t have any scenes to­gether in AWIT,” says Gugu. “But we were both on the set on the same day, and she came and hung out in my trailer for a lit­tle bit and we had a chat, in her full char­ac­ter re­galia, which is just god­dess-like. I hope we ac­tu­ally get to do some­thing where we work to­gether in a scene be­cause that would be in­cred­i­ble. I feel so thank­ful to have her in my life and to have had her guid­ance. She’s a very spe­cial hu­man.”

That feel­ing of sur­prise and won­der is some­thing Gugu wants to keep search­ing for. “I re­ally am en­joy­ing the jour­ney,” she says of the ex­tra­or­di­nary year ahead. “So many things have hap­pened that are un­ex­pected and ex­cit­ing.”

And with that, she’s off to have a deep-tis­sue mas­sage: “I’m feel­ing on the cusp of some kind of flu, and I’m go­ing to get some kinks out,” she says. Later, I re­alise that she left me a voice­mail that morn­ing. “Hi there,” her recorded voice says. “It’s Gugu. I’m here.” She cer­tainly is.

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