Raw positivity: The resilient optimism of actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw

The British star, currently starring in Marvel’s latest hit 'Loki', talks to Andrew Billen about diversity, cracking America — and the day Oprah called

29 August 2021 - 00:02 By Andrew Billen
Gugu Mbatha-Raw at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2021 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2021 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Image: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Off-duty in Los Angeles, where she lives in normal times, Gugu Mbatha-Raw enjoys hiking in the Hollywood Hills. For our interview, though, one of the busiest British actors in America is walking with me around Oxford in the UK. She was brought up in Witney, 17km away, and has a home nearby.

The Sheldonian Theatre, the building that helped to transform her career, is in this university town.

This isn't because it was where the future star of the Miss World movie Misbehaviour, Black Mirror and now a Marvel TV series, once performed; despite its name, Sir Christopher Wren's provincial masterpiece is not a playhouse.

Nor did she receive her degree there, as Oxford University students do; she went to Rada, the Oxbridge of the dramatic arts. The Sheldonian was, however, the building that doubled as the London law courts in her 2013 movie Belle, the film that got her noticed.

She played the title role, Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a British admiral and an African slave, who grew up in 18th-century England as a kind of half-aristocrat. As the partially true story has it, Dido helped to persuade her guardian, England's lord chief justice, to make a key legal judgment against a slave-trading syndicate.

The movie won eight awards, with Mbatha-Raw landing three for best actress and nominations for half a dozen more.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray, in a scene from the film ‘Belle’.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray, in a scene from the film ‘Belle’.
Image: Fox Searchlight

Hollywood noticed. As did Oprah Winfrey, who was watching her on CBS This Morning promoting the movie. Today that interview carries an irony.

Last year Mbatha-Raw played Hannah, a talent booker who was raped by a breakfast show's host on Apple TV+'s The Morning Show. In 2014 one of her inquisitors on CBS This Morning was Charlie Rose, who would not so long after be fired for real-life sexual misconduct.

But never mind that. Shortly after the interview, Mbatha-Raw was rung by the most powerful woman on American TV.

"I was in a taxi in New York, going to JFK, when I got the call."

She picked up the phone and there was Oprah?

"I don't pick up if I don't know a number. And so she left a message and I was like, 'Oh, no!'"

She called Winfrey back.

"She said I was a breath of fresh air on the show and she loved the movie. At the time I'd been compared to other actresses — they said, 'Do you want to be the next so-and-so?' [Rose's co-host, Gayle King, had mentioned the Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o] and I'd said, 'I'd rather be the first me.' She liked that."

Lunch at Winfrey's home followed and Winfrey then filmed a segment about Belle for Entertainment Tonight. Four years later, the pair appeared together in the sci-fi fantasy blockbuster A Wrinkle in Time. The only moment in the whole star-making Belle process that was less than happy was when Mbatha-Raw was sent the designs for the first US poster and realised that, in the photo, her breasts had been inflated and her brown eyes made green.

"I was annoyed about it and we got it changed. Marketing is important and even though it's a different beast you have to be true to what you're actually selling and the integrity of the project. So yeah, that was silly."

Silly but also racist?

"I don't know. It's funny, isn't it? I think probably subconsciously in somebody's mind they were trying to make it from their viewpoint. It's the whole unconscious bias of what you view as more appealing."

Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten — the first black woman to be crowned Miss World — in ‘Misbehaviour’.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten — the first black woman to be crowned Miss World — in ‘Misbehaviour’.
Image: IMDb

Last year, discussing Misbehaviour, in which she played Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten — the first black woman to be crowned Miss World — Mbatha-Raw used the word "intersectionality", meaning, in that case, the point where gender as an issue met race as an issue.

In contrast, The Morning Show didn't emphasise Hannah's skin colour. It's also true that Hannah was far from the only victim of the show's bullying anchor. She was, however, the victim who died, possibly from an accidental overdose, perhaps from a deliberate one.

"The way I felt about it was that Hannah didn't intend to end her life, but she did intend to numb the pain. It probably was accidental but the culture that she was in, the ecosystem of the show, the culture of silence and people being complicit in that world, all contributed to her trauma and her mental state."

In her 15 years as an actress, has she experienced harassment?

"No, I feel fortunate but I have had friends who've had those kinds of experiences. The #MeToo movement is ongoing work, but it's not just about predatory behaviour. It's also about the distribution of power and what prevents somebody from feeling like they can speak up about that. In The Morning Show, if Hannah had gone to the head of the network's office and it had been a woman there instead of a man ... maybe that conversation would have gone differently."

There's more diversity at the Oscars and Baftas now, but how much of a problem has this been in the past?

"I think it's healthier to look at the future. Looking back, I think things are going in the right direction because now there's an awareness. Once there's an awareness you can't un-see who's not in the room, who's not on the list. You can't go back to ignorance or invisibility."

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ravonna Renslayer in 'Loki’.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ravonna Renslayer in 'Loki’.
Image: Marvel Studios

We move on to Loki, the Disney+ series that made its debut last month, with her providing support to her fellow Brit Tom Hiddleston as he reprises his role as Thor's baddie brother from the Marvel movies.

"There's a wit and a charm to that character of Loki. He's the god of mischief."

The Marvel world, she explains, relies on mystery and surprise to entice its fans. She plays Ravonna Renslayer, a judge at the Time Variance Authority, and looks impressively stern wielding her light sabre.

But Renslayer isn't her first superhuman. In 2018's Fast Color she played a punkish homeless woman called Ruth who had the power to trigger earthquakes and conjure a storm to end years of drought. Directed by a woman, and with three black female leads, it was well reviewed but ill-fated. Released at more or less the same time as Avengers: Endgame (in which Loki had reappeared), it received limited distribution.

"Fast Color was never intended to compete with the box office of a Marvel film. It was a different beast, but it wasn't terrible timing because a lot of people saw it as counter-programming, and it entered the conversation around female superheroes and different ways of approaching the superhero genre," she says. "We'd got a tiny fraction of the budget and it's a credit to the power of the story and the lack of female-driven superhero movies at the time that we were punching above our weight in that conversation."

Gugu is short for Gugulethu, a Zulu name contracted from "igugu lethu" meaning "our pride" or "our treasure".

Her father, Patrick Mbatha, a retired doctor, was brought up in apartheid SA and joined the ANC as a student. His activism forced him to flee the country. The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, helped him settle in the UK, where he completed his medical training.

At Oxford's Churchill Hospital, a cancer centre, he met and married a white nurse named Anne Raw. On April 21 1983, Gugu was born in the nearby John Radcliffe Hospital. The marriage didn't last and her parents divorced when she was three. Brought up in Witney by her mother, she spoke to her father daily. Her mother continued nursing, a rewarding but hard job that persuaded her daughter to aim for a living that was frankly more fun.

Partly because as an only child Mbatha-Raw was in need of friends, her mother enrolled her in a ballet class aged four. She loved expressing herself and burning off energy. By six she was playing before audiences. Ballet and other clubs occupied her evenings and weekends: tap, drama and jazz (Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald were her childhood soundtracks).

She begged her mother to send her to a London stage school. "But I'm glad my mum said, 'Do your A-levels and then we'll see. See if you're still as excited about it then.'" She still spent time as a teenager at the National Youth Music Theatre.

"At Henry Box [her secondary school] when I was there, there were probably two brown people in my year group, and not that many more in the school."

How did that make her feel?

"I never thought about it. I wasn't made to feel anything about it, which I'm grateful for. I was just Gugu — 'Googs' to her friends."

She was "a very enthusiastic student" and as gifted in the art room as on the stage. She chose a career in acting in the end because it was the more collaborative of the two: painting could be "lonely and introverted".

WATCH | 'Loki' trailer.

In 2001 she moved to London on a full Rada scholarship. In the cohorts below were her future Loki cast members Hiddleston and Wunmi Mosaku, who plays a soldier in the Time Variance Authority. Other black actors, such as Paapa Essiedu, have said that the classical curriculum of drama schools was of little relevance to them; Mbatha-Raw, who like Essiedu went on to play Shakespeare, says she happily soaked up everything.

Was Rada biased against people of colour?

"Not when I was there. They let me in! Back then in our year of about 34 there were probably five non-white students."

In 2009, by which time she'd already been Juliet at the Manchester Royal Exchange and played Martha Jones's sister in an episode of Doctor Who (Prince Charles mentioned that when he presented her with her MBE for services to drama in 2018), she was cast as Ophelia opposite Jude Law's Hamlet in the West End.

The critic Michael Billington called her a "touchingly bewildered Ophelia" who went "quietly mad instead of indulging in a psychiatric cabaret turn". The Hamlet reviews were more mixed when the production transferred to Broadway but this, her first visit to the US, led to a part in Undercovers, a short-lived series from the Lost showrunner JJ Abrams, and then a role in Kiefer Sutherland's slightly more enduring Touch.

In that Hamlet Ophelia's father, Polonius, was played by Ron Cook. I note that she'd entered her profession at a time when people had largely stopped harrumphing about "colour-blind" casting.

"There was certainly no harrumphing around our production."

Is she confident she suffered no discrimination, that she always got the parts she was likely to get?

"I try to focus on the opportunities I've had and make the most of those. I suppose I try put my energy into the things I can control."

She can't always determine what she's offered, but Amma Asante, who directed Belle, has said Mbatha-Raw "chased down" that title role for eight years. Misbehaviour was a comedic take on intersectionality.

The Morning Show made glossy melodrama out of the #MeToo movement. But Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Farming two years ago, which was a passion project for Mbatha-Raw, was a raw, semi-autobiographical piece about a Nigerian child's adoption by white working-class parents in a racist Britain.

As far as actual activism is concerned, last year she was among 3,500 film and TV professionals who signed an open letter to the "UK screen industry" accusing it of "systemic racism".

"You're a large part of the problem," the signatories wrote.

In February, after three years working for the UNHCR, during which she visited refugees in Uganda and Rwanda, she became its global goodwill ambassador, acknowledging the help it had given her father. Last year she auctioned some of her paintings in aid of Black Lives Matter. Two of her bold, dignified portraits are of victims of police violence, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Her mild and philosophical thoughts today, like her resilient optimism, are almost as unexpected as the upbeat ending of San Junipero, her episode of Charlie Brooker's typically mordant techno-satire series Black Mirror (Brooker later said the tale of a lesbian couple experiencing "nostalgia therapy" was an attempt to "blow up what the show was"). Perhaps the self-help books she admits to reading to remain grounded within a nomadic lifestyle have actually worked wonders.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, now a UN global goodwill ambassador, with a refugee at a women’s centre in Uganda in 2019.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, now a UN global goodwill ambassador, with a refugee at a women’s centre in Uganda in 2019.
Image: UNHCR/Caroline Irby

"What's wrong with being positive?" she asks when I say it sounds as if nothing much has gone wrong in her life and she insists that like everyone else, especially this year, she's had her struggles. "It's a survival technique, isn't it? You attract the energy you put out. I'd rather be positive."

It is only afterwards, when I seek out her 2014 appearance on CBS This Morning, that I find a possible explanation for that preference. What had always been an inclination seems, at a moment of specific trauma, to have become a conscious choice.

King, having noticed that Mbatha-Raw's mobile phone had the word "Smile" on its back, related it to a barely reported incident the previous year. Mbatha-Raw had been mugged at gunpoint in Los Angeles. She escaped unscathed but, as she later told a black women's lunch in Hollywood, "the end of life" had been right there in front of her.

"Not to dwell on the negativity of that experience," she told King on the show, "it put things into perspective. It was in the middle of shooting Blackbird (renamed Beyond the Lights). I had a busy schedule and my phone was taken in the incident. When I got a new phone I was going to get one that said 'Smile' on the case. I want positive energy and when you have one of those moments of, 'Oh wow, this is my life and I have got to live it now,' it made me appreciate doing fearless things and not taking things for granted."

Gugu Mbatha-Raw's positivity, like her career, is fully earned. Both may also have been harder won than she cares to admit.

• The finale of season one of 'Loki' is on Disney+.


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