GUGU MBATHA-RAW ON ACTING
By Crash redaction
BORN TO AN ENGLISH MOTHER AND A SOUTH AFRICAN FATHER, GUGU MBATHA-RAW – WHOSE FIRST NAME MEANS “OUR PRIDE” – IS ONE OF THE FILM INDUSTRY’S RISING STARS. A GRADUATE OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF DRAMATIC ARTS, THIS YOUNG ACTRESS HAS MORE THAN ONE TRICK UP HER SLEEVE: NOT ONLY DOES SHE ACT, SHE DANCES, SINGS, PLAYS SAXOPHONE… SHE DOES IT ALL. FIRST NOTICED ON STAGE FOR HER PERFORMANCES IN “ROMEO AND JULIETTE”, “HAMLET” AND “ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA”, SHE LATER MOVED ON TO THE SMALL SCREEN – “BAD GIRLS”, “DOCTOR WHO” AND “UNDERCOVERS”, PLAYING THE LEAD ON THE LATTER SHOW. NOW SHE HAS TOP BILLING IN “BELLE”, A BRITISH PERIOD DRAMA SET TO HIT THEATERS THIS SPRING. IN THE RUN-UP TO ITS RELEASE, WE MET WITH HER TO CHAT ABOUT HER MARVELOUS CAREER TAKING SHAPE.
Interview by Michelle Callen
When did you discover your desire to be an actress?
I have always enjoyed performing ever since I can remember. My mother first took me to a ballet class at age 4 and I loved it so much I begged her to let me take tap classes and then modern dance and by the time I was 6 or 7 I was dancing most evenings! It was where I made all my closest friends. Then I joined a local youth drama group and was in all my school plays… Mostly musicals as that was what was accessible to us in my home town in Oxfordshire – I was a big musical theatre fan in my teens. My first stage role was Dorothy in the “Wizard Of Oz” at 11! From there I started taking drama grade exams though the Guildhall school of speech and Drama and that gave me the confidence to apply to the National Youth Music Theatre and the National Youth Theatre. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to be performing, but my route to acting definitely came first through my love of ballet.
You trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, how did this education shape you? What lessons stand out to you the most that you continue to use in your professional career?
I went to raDa when I was 18 years old and it was a very exciting time for me. I was leaving home for the first time and moving to London from a small rural town – something I had wanted to do since my early teens. I love where I grew up, but by the time I was 16 I was finding it a very claustrophobic place to be and I couldn’t wait to spread my wings and follow my dreams of acting. I found the training to be very intense but I soaked it all up like a sponge and really learnt a lot about myself and, to use a dramaschool term, “my instrument”, meaning my physicality, voice and other tools you have as an actor. I had a strong sense of discipline from my dance background, but this was reinforced at raDa. I also learned how to take care of myself, developed stamina and how to pace myself on a hectic schedule. also the tools to relax when things are beyond your control and the importance of trying to stay in the present moment – things I definitely apply to my daily life today!
You’ve worked with some industry greats such as Jude Law and Tom Hanks, and now the likes of Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Felton and Tom Wilkinson. What was it like working with these fellow actors and what did you learn from them?
I feel like I learn something from every actor I work with. Tom hanks is such a warm and generous actor and I learnt through example when working with him on “Larry crowne”. The lead actor sets the tone and his openhearted spirit was very liberating to be around. I realised that being a leading actor on a film set is not just about acting, but also leadership and inspiring a team to “play” with you every day. With “Belle”, I had long admired the work of both Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson and was very excited at the prospect of working with them as Lord and Lady Mansfield. Tom Wilkinson brings such gravitas and humanity to the film and I much enjoyed charting the journey of our father/daughter relationship in the story. He has an innate warmth and honesty which I really responded to. I adore Emily Watson! she could distill each moment to its essence, with no excess, just truth. Understanding the depth and maturity of the Mansfield’s relationship shows what courageous and human pioneers they were in their love for Dido and their acceptance of her, despite the social conditioning of the time… I find Tom and Emily’s scenes together some of the most moving and true in the film. Pure wisdom. It was also a joy to work with Penelope Wilton for the second time – we first worked together in 2009 on the West End stage in Jude law’s “hamlet” playing Gertrude and Ophelia. In that play the women have a pretty tough time and our characters barely had any scenes together so it was wonderful to work with Penelope on a female-centric story that wasn’t a tragedy… Penelope’s comic timing is priceless! In “Belle” I learnt so much from her attention to detail and lightness of touch.
When taking on a project which examines society’s view on race, class and gender, whether in the past or present, it can still be viewed as a tender subject. Did you have any reservations or concerns after committing to this role?
I was fascinated by the story of Belle. To me it brings together so many complex elements about identity in a nuanced, beautiful love story. I was drawn to the idea of doing a lavish Jane austen style period drama told from the refreshing perspective of a woman of mixed-race — something I had never seen before. I was also inspired by the fact that it is based on true events: Dido Belle really existed and many people had never heard of her — including me! I felt that this perspective exploring on the themes of race, class and gender had so many contemporary resonances today, its part of our cultural heritage and I felt that this was a story that needed to be told. My prime concern in taking on the character of Dido was to give her as full an inner life as possible. In a story that explores delicate issues such as race, class and gender, I felt a responsibility to unite these themes on a human level. We are all dealing with universal experiences, like love and finding our place in the world. and if a story I am part of can help break down some of those barriers and celebrate what connects us instead of what divides us then that, to me, is something worth committing to.
“Belle” is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a young woman of mixed race brought to live with an aristocratic white family. What kind of preparation did you feel was neccessary for this role?
In terms of preparation, working with the director amma asante was very insightful. Growing up I had been immersed in many period dramas that we have in the UK such as Jane austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and numerous Thomas hardy and Dickens adaptations for television. amma recommended I re-watch Emma Thompson’s “sense and sensibility” to refresh on the ruthless “marriage market” of that time. and I also drew inspiration from Emma Thompson and Kate Winselet’s performances in developing the sisterly bond that Dido shares with Elizabeth, her cousin in the film played by sarah Gadon. Amma also suggested I watch “Dangerous Liaisons” with Glenn close — which was also inspiring for the grandeur and grit of society in that period. We had some rehearsals for pivotal scenes, mainly discussing the relationships with the other actors and also some etiquette coaching so that we were all on the same page in terms of the appropriate bows/curtsies and what that signified in terms of status. It was very interesting physical expression of how the restraint of manners and class really ruled so many social interactions. This really helped in navigating the love story and making decisions as to when society’s rules are broken… Even though there were quite tight codes of conduct at the time compared with nowadays, I did discover that there is a lot of romantic tension to be found in restraint!
You are also appearing in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster called “Jupiter Ascending” which will hit theaters this summer. You play a character named Famulus. What drew you to this sci-fi role and character?
The main component that attracted me to “Jupiter ascending” was the prospect of working with the Wachowskis. I have been a fan of their work since “The Matrix” and I admire and respect their maverick vision and imagination and how they explore epic stories on a cosmic level. They explore soulful themes in a very ambitious way and there aren’t many people consistently doing that.
It is quite a leap from your period piece in “Belle” to “Jupiter Ascending”. How did your preparation vary from role to role?
although my character in “Jupiter ascending” is very much a supporting role, I was drawn to the idea of working on such a large-scale production and it was fascinating and humbling to go from being a big cog in a small wheel in “Belle” to a smaller cog in a massive studio film like “Jupiter ascending”. There is a completely different sense of scale to a production of that type and you realise that so much of the full picture will be completed in post production, so actually you have to work your imagination ever more deeply.
In “Jupiter Ascending” you will be appearing along with fellow British actors Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean, along with Americans Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. How was the atmosphere similar/different on set from your previous work?
My character Famulus is half-human, halfdeer, so it was fun to engage in that imaginative creative process. For the film I had the new challenge of wearing prosthetics for the first time and, although I’m very recognizably me, the final character has prosthetic ears and an elaborate hornlike headdress! It was very interesting to see how the Wachowskis created this vibrant world and I have a lot of respect for the talent of the makeup, costume and production design teams— it was a very visually stimulating set to be on!
You are starring in “Blackbird” as Noni Jean, an explosive rising star in the music industry struggling to cope with fame and success. How do you cope with your own explosive success in the entertainment industry and the attention and pressure that can go along with it?
In “Blackbird”, my character Noni Jean struggles with the pressures of fame. The film begins with her at a suicidal moment where she has lost her sense of self and
become numbed by her relentless schedule, uber-sexualised image and toxic relationship with her Mother/Manager. Exploring this character made me appreciate my relationship with my parents and how they keep me grounded. Unlike Noni, I didn’t grown up in the often dark and exploitative music industry. and even though I would have loved to have been a child star when I was 11, my mother insisted I stay at school to 18 to do my a-levels. and hollywood simply wasn’t accessible to me growing up in rural Oxfordshire! I was protected and in hindsight I’m thankful, because not only did it just make me more determined to hone my skills out of the spotlight and for fun, but I also know that transitioning from being a child actor to an adult actor can be challenging. I’m grateful to have down-toearth roots and an awareness of life outside of the entertainment industry. I think its important to travel and get perspective and I rely on my old friends to help me stay grounded. I am also learning to see time off as a gift and to fill up on life experiences and adventures. Otherwise acting all the time can leave you emotionally depleted and you have nothing interesting to give to the next project. I like to do yoga and spend time in
nature when I can as that just makes any perceived “pressure” of the entertainment industry seem so very trivial… Perspective is key!
How do you feel about fashion?
I am enjoying discovering more about fashion. Working on “Belle” where the costumes are such a beautiful part of the period and experience has led me to designers like Vivienne Westwood who really understand how to make a contemporary corset comfortable! I am also excited to be attending the MET Ball in New York this year for the first time as a guest of Lanvin and creative director alber Elbaz. I’m very much looking forward to experiencing this historic fashion event! It will be the first time that i will get to wear a custom-made couture dress so I am really going to relish this cinderella moment!
What are your favorite brands?
I adore the Lanvin dress that I’m going to be wearing for the “Belle” premiere in New York. I also love wearing designers like Burberry Prorsum, alexander McQueen and reem acra, and I admire Dior for its timeless elegance.
PHOTOGRAPHY Jermaine Francis / FASHION Verity Parker / TALENT Gugu Mbatha-Raw
HAIR Tracie Cant @Premier / MAKE UP Kay Montano @D&V