In Hollywood, black female actresses have been typecast since the beginning. There’s the sassy sidekick, the around-the-way girl, and of course, the mammie, usually found in a period drama set during slavery or the Civil Rights era. It’s a dynamic that’s only recently started to change, thanks to a renaissance in black television (Shondaland shows, Insecure, Atlanta) and social media movements like #OscarsSoWhite calling out a lack of diversity in film.
But somehow, during a period when the entertainment industry failed to support both people of colour and women, Gugu Mbatha-Raw has quietly been breaking barriers for years. She’s a black woman who managed to escape the expected archetypes, a chameleon who has played everyone from the lead officer on a space mission to a bisexual beachtown party girl to an animated feather duster. A veteran of British television and theatre, Mbatha-Raw broke into Hollywood in 2013 as the shy, mixed-race 18th century hero of the movie Belle, and became known for her poised and powerful performances.
Since then, she's starred in nearly a dozen major movies. But it’s 2018 that is finally the year of Gugu: Before the end of March, she will have starred in four films — including Disney’s big-budget, Ava Duvernay-directed adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time.
“I guess you could call this my ‘moment,’ but that doesn’t seem fair, because I’ve worked really hard my entire career!” Mbatha-Raw says slowly. She has a habit of taking a few beats to thoughtfully consider her responses before answering. “As an actor, you have power over your performance, but no power over the distribution or timetable. So it just so happens this is all coming out at the same time. But I guess I should embrace the ride!”
Because she is known for serious roles, I’m surprised to see the British actress radiating bright, almost mischievous energy on the set of her Refinery29 photoshoot at New York’s historic River Club. She’s smiley and chipper with a habit of fluffing up her natural curls; she apologises for squealing and “nerding out” when she learns that Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra used to hang out here. Her mood lifts even higher when a crew member switches the soundtrack from uptempo disco to Beyoncé’s “Ego,” her laugh reverberating from the depths of her belly — surprisingly loud — as she dances on the couch. I have a feeling this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here that often.
But Mbatha-Raw certainly has a lot to dance about right now. First, she is helping to save the planet in Netflix’s Cloverfield Paradox, the third instalment of the J.J. Abrams-produced sci-fi franchise. Then she portrays a dying woman struggling to say goodbye to her fiancé in the charming romantic dramedy Irreplaceable You, also available on Netflix. Next month, following her turn as Meg Murry’s mother in A Wrinkle In Time, she’ll play a woman hiding her superpowers in the thriller Fast Color, which premieres at SXSW in Austin.
Of those four projects, three are directed or written by women — something that has been important to Mbatha-Raw throughout her career: Belle was directed by British screenwriter and director Amma Asante, and for her second major leading role, Mbatha-Raw played a Rihanna-like pop-star dealing with the downsides of fame in Beyond The Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
“I make it a point to play strong women, and women have given me the most dynamic and interesting roles of my career thus far,” says Mbatha-Raw. “The fact that we have to consciously find opportunities for women and support the ones who are already out there is nothing new. What is new is that the awareness has changed. Now, we are all aware of where we actually are as an industry, versus where we thought we were.”
Mbatha-Raw credits the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements for the sea change, but is adamant that we also acknowledge the wider systems of discrimination and harassment.
“Change should never be just about actresses. This movement is about everybody,” she says. “If it takes people that have their faces in magazines or on movie screens to raise awareness, so be it. But hopefully this time also brings a voice to women who are a million miles away from Hollywood, and not just the privileged few.”
The daughter of an English mother and a South African father (“Gugu” is short for "Gugulethu,” a version of the Xhosa word for “our pride”), Mbatha-Raw grew up in Oxford, England, and has been taking acting and dancing classes for as long as she can remember. After training as a teen at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she landed small parts in British television shows like Doctor Who. Her first big theatre break was as the Juliet to Andrew Garfield’s Romeo in 2005 at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Over the next decade, she made her way into American projects, first opposite Kiefer Sutherland in the brief Fox TV series Touch, then in Tom Hanks’ romantic comedy Larry Crowne, before Asante casted her in Belle.
Mbatha-Raw says that landing in one of Disney’s most diverse projects yet feels like a culmination of all of her work. A Wrinkle In Time makes DuVernay the first black woman to helm a $100 million film. In the movie, Mbatha-Raw’s husband (Chris Pine) is white, therefore her daughter Meg (newcomer Storm Reid) is biracial; Meg’s three wise, guiding witches are portrayed by Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey — an example of what can happen when filmmakers successfully employ colourblind casting techniques.
Mbatha-Raw’s perspective on the effect race has had on her career options, however, might differ slightly from an American actress.
“There is certainly a complexity in being both black and white,” she says. “But I’m also from the U.K., where it’s not quite as big of a topic. So you might look at me and say ‘she’s black,’ or ‘she’s biracial,’ but people don’t realise there is a very different cultural legacy in the United States than the U.K. Here, there’s a specific sense of identity and community that comes with being African-American — that’s a culture all its own. So coming from the U.K., I had to explore my own identity in order to feel centred within all of the conversations around history and race politics that are very unique to America.”
There is the argument that casting a black woman in a role that was originally written for a non-brown actress might be slightly easier with someone like Mbatha-Raw, who is light skin and appears ethnically ambiguous. There’s also the argument that when the entertainment industry focuses on simply slotting minorities into existing roles, it gets a pass on creating stories for and about people of colour. At the same time, Mbatha-Raw points out, the road to more diversity in entertainment means we need storylines where colour is simply not a factor. She believes that movies like Irreplaceable You, where the fact that her protagonist just so happens to be in an interracial relationship is never discussed, are important for normalisation. And no matter what her role is, one of her signatures is rocking her natural curls.
“It’s empowering to play a woman and not have race be the focus,” she says. “But I will always bring who I am to the story and make sure my ethnicity is celebrated on screen. I’m not afraid to have those tough conversations with directors about how I represent myself. Hair, for instance, sounds like a superficial conversation. But images remain in our subconscious. So when it comes to representing on screen, I can use my hair to send the important message to girls everywhere that they can be who they are.”
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While Mbatha-Raw is happy to be a role model in public, after over two decades in the acting business, she has managed to keep her private life surprisingly...private. Google her, and you won’t find much beyond her IMDb and Wikipedia pages, and there’s no trace of the typical gossip stories about on-set feuds or relationship rumours. She’s not on Instagram or Twitter, and during our conversation, she doesn’t bite when I hint about any romantic partners; most of her interviews past and present, in fact, are strictly about her projects.
“I like to focus on the work,” she says. “I think it can be hard to believe in somebody’s role if you know too much about them personally. I hope to have a long career and play many more different types of roles, so I’m trying to give myself the chance to be as believable as possible, rather than burden the viewer with my personal stuff. You go to the movies to go on a journey and believe the story.”
What she will share is that she lives a “nomadic lifestyle” that has taken her everywhere from Toronto to New Zealand for filming. Los Angeles is her base, though she says she feels most at home with her parents back in Oxfordshire. Her greatest accomplishment of her past year, she adds, was the two months she was able to spend with them during a brief window of time off. That included a casual trip to London to be honoured by Queen Elizabeth II with an MBE, or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an award she gives out every year before her birthday. Mbatha-Raw’s distinction was for her service to the dramatic arts.
“It’s an old school, very English honour from the royal family, but such a big deal!” she says. “We got to go as a family to Buckingham Palace, and it was very surreal.” When asked if she has any opinions on Meghan Markle, another biracial woman who’s recently captured the public’s attention as Prince Harry’s fiancée, she keeps her answer very British and diplomatic. “I can’t speak for all of the U.K., but I’m very excited for them both! Who doesn’t love a royal wedding?”
Two months off was more than enough for Mbatha-Raw. She’s already returned to filming, this time in New York for Motherless Brooklyn, a ’50s detective mystery directed by Ed Norton, a project that, somehow, manages to be very different from anything she’s previously done. And the actress has no plans of slowing down any time soon. In fact, her next steps might be outside the acting realm — inspired by DuVernay.
“On Wrinkle, I always remember Ava saying ‘It’s not about knocking on doors; you have to build your own house,’” she says. “In this industry, we all feel like you need somebody to give you a job, or write you a script, or cast you in something. But why not direct your own films, or write your own scripts, or start your own company? I want to tell stories, and I shouldn’t have to wait for someone else to do it. So I believe it might be time for me to build my own house.”
One thing is for sure: That house will look like nothing that has come before it — and it will have a pretty damn strong foundation.