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