Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: You should see Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a crown. A classically trained actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Oxford, England-born Mbatha-Raw’s cinematic breakthrough came in 2013 with the titular role in Amma Asante’s stately period piece, Belle. This fall, she co-stars in Misbehaviour, a historical dramedy that looks at a more recent piece of British history, the eventful 1970 Miss World Pageant. Mbatha-Raw plays Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, who—despite a ceremony derailed by protests from the women’s liberation movement—became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World. For Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Misbehaviour was another chance to play a woman of color who broke down real-life barriers, something she’s been doing herself with a prolific career that’s gone far beyond period pieces to encompass almost every genre imaginable. From political dramas to Disney adventures to gonzo space-operas to The Morning Show, she livens up any project with her warm charisma and natural star power.
Ahead of Misbehaviour’s VOD release date, The A.V. Club had the opportunity to speak with the actor about her young but already impressive career. With a busy schedule ahead of her—including a mysterious role in Disney+’s Loki series—Mbatha-Raw still took time for Zoom chat to discuss her bond with Beyond The Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood, contemplated why “San Junipero” is everyone’s favorite Black Mirror episode, celebrated the 10th anniversary of J.J. Abrams’ gone-too-soon Undercovers, and revealed which Jupiter Ascending prop she saved as a keepsake. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.
Misbehaviour (2020)—“Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada”
The A.V. Club: This role finds you stepping into the shoes—and tiara—of 1970’s Miss World, Jennifer Hosten, and you got to spend some time with her prior to filming. What was that experience like?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yes, I was privileged enough to get to meet with Jennifer Hosten, which is a real honor. I mean, it’s always a bit nerve-wracking getting to play a real person because, you know, you want their approval, in the sense you don’t want them to hate what you’re doing. But you also want to stay true to the story. And, obviously, this film Misbehaviour focuses on just one aspect to Jennifer’s life, a very small aspect. I mean, it had a great impact, but it’s not “the Jennifer Hosten story”—it’s specifically around the events of Miss World in 1970.
I actually suggested we meet in Grenada, which was really fun. I wasn’t sure if she was going to take me up on it, but she was game. And I went with my mom and [Hosten] brought her daughter and she gave us a tour of the island, which was amazing. Along the way, I got to listen to her accent and just ask her questions and hear stories of the event, her perspective on it and everything. It was really enriching to have that time with her and to build a relationship with her so that I felt like I could ask her anything I needed.
In terms of playing her, it was really special because we’d spent that time together. She even lent me one of the dresses that she wore in the real competition—this gold, sort of crocheted gown that had trousers and then a crocheted, sort of beaded top. I mean, it was very unusual! And she kept it all these years and sent it to our costume designer in a shoe box [Laughs.] in London. And, with a couple of alterations and a few things, I was able to wear it in the film, so that really imbued me with a sense of—wow, she really wore this dress! You can’t mistake how special it is to have that energy and also, in some ways, her blessing
AVC: Part of the joy of watching you in this—especially during the pageant scenes—is the way you showcase Jennifer’s composure, while letting her internal feelings play out wordlessly across your face. As an actor, how do you find the balance between the internal and the external in the performance?
GMR: I think that was one of the things that I got from Jennifer; she is very poised. This is a woman that had elocution lessons as a young girl. And, even though she grew up in Grenada, I think the idea of the Queen’s English was very much something that people were aspiring to, even with the sort of Caribbean lilt. Her dad was a lawyer, so I think she felt like she was always trying to be respectable and proper. There’s a sense of properness to her. Also, she’s very watchful person. When you meet Jennifer in real life—she has now become a trained psychotherapist—her observational nature is definitely there, the way that she watches and observes people. So I was trying to get that going as well!
But there’s that thing—there’s a few private moments in the film of Jennifer maybe combing her hair in the mirror—otherwise, I think during the time in the competition, there is an awareness that they are putting on show. And, in this sense, I think Jennifer very much saw herself as an ambassador for her country. You know, a lot of people had never even heard of Grenada, and it was Grenada’s first time in the competition—it still didn’t have its independence from England at that time. So there was that sort of push and pull of her trying to be professional, but also—like you say—a lot going on internally.
Beyond The Lights (2014)—“Noni”
AVC: Another character of yours that, at least initially, is always putting on a show is Noni Jean in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights. Gina is having a big year thanks to The Old Guard—did you get to see that?
GMR: Yes, I did! Just before it came out on Netflix. I’m so proud of Gina. I mean, she’s just—she totally deserves such a massive platform for her work. Having worked with her so intimately on Beyond The Lights, I’m so excited that this film has been such a blockbuster for her. And I’m just excited for what she does next.
AVC: As you just said, your work together on Beyond The Lights was very intimate, almost a symbiotic relationship to tell a story so personal to the both of you. How did you establish the connection with Gina and build that trust?
GMR: It was really a process, I have to say. I quite traditionally auditioned for the part, then had a second audition, and then I got the role. And then that was really when the work began, because it wasn’t initially an easy project to finance. I think the studios involved maybe wanted a real pop star to play the role. And then Gina was like, “No, that’s not the point!” Because the point is evolution, and if we’re bringing the baggage of a pop star we already know, it’s going to be harder to really understand and care for her emotional fragility, you know? So Gina really, really fought for me for that role. And probably, there were many opportunities when it could have been easier to get it financed to cast a big star at the time. So I’m forever grateful to her for that.
And we just spent time together doing research; we went to the Grammys, and we went backstage. Gina put me through my paces with many dance rehearsals and singing and many, many experiences that we had. We made a teaser of the film, like a short-film version of it, before before we got financing. So all of those experiences, I think, bonded us together. [Laughs.] And that happened over a couple of years, really, before we got to shoot the film. So by the time we were actually there, we’d spent a lot time together.
AVC: What was the hardest part of becoming a pop star?
GMR: Gosh, there were so many challenges, but I loved the transformation. Obviously there’s the superficial elements of the hair and the makeup for the Noni pop-star character. But I think what I loved is that I got to shed all of that in the same role. You know, I think sometimes you get the glamorous roles, or you get the more raw, no makeup, and this character had it all, she had the whole gamut. But it was challenging, just the stamina of doing the rehearsals and working on a music-producer schedule, which is very different from a film schedule. You know, music happens often at night, and at different hours, while film often starts—with military precision—very early in the morning. So that was kind of an adjustment!
And the costumes themselves were quite challenging to wear, just the physicality and owning that sort of sexual ferocity, and the dancing and everything that is part of Noni’s persona. It was a challenge, but it was really fun.
Black Mirror, “San Junipero” (2016)—“Kelly Booth”
AVC: Last year, we ranked “San Junipero” as our favorite Black Mirror episode, and that’s probably a sentiment many share. In your opinion, why does this episode stand out so much?
GMR: Well, everybody tells me it’s the only Black Mirror episode that is sort of optimistic and hopeful. And, you know, Charlie Brooker is such a genius. All of the concepts that he comes up with—every episode could be a full movie, or could be its own TV show. They’re just such brilliant, prophetic, terrifying ideas that he has for the world. And there’s also that nostalgia for the ’80s that everybody has—that music, the clothes. And it’s just such a love story at its heart. These characters—my character, Kelly—are so vivacious and fun-loving. And the idea of mortality is something that’s so universal—love that transcends time. I think that there’s a lot that kind of works on you in your soul. Like, “How old is your soul?”, and all of the questions. That’s what I kind of love about the show.
AVC: You mentioned the ’80s nostalgia—do you have a favorite song from that episode?
GMR: It has to be Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” Once that pops in your head, it’s there. [Laughs.]
The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance (2019)—“Seladon”
AVC: We just learned that another project you were involved with, The Dark Crystal, won’t be getting a second season. Did that come as a surprise?
GMR: You know, I had only signed up to do that one [season], so I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen with it, so I wasn’t banking on another one. But it was such a special thing for me to work on a Jim Henson show. Growing up with things like Fraggle Rock and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, and obviously The Muppets—there’s just so much—that to be able to voice one of those puppets, was kind of my childhood dream! So I’m happy to have done it.
AVC: Since this was a voice role, how much of the Dark Crystal world did you get to see before recording? For example, were you aware of what your character, Seladon, would look like?
GMR: The episodes were filmed already, actually. The way it works with animation, there are different processes; with some types of animation, you do the voice first and then the animators work around the voice. But with the Jim Henson puppeteers, they’re such artists in and of themselves—they had already filmed all of that. So you’re sort of doing the voice to what’s already created, which is, in a way, more technical. Not to spoil it for anyone [Laughs.], but, as an actor, there’s certain things that have already been set in place that you’re bringing to life. So it was kind of challenging, I have to say, on a technical level. But we were able to see everything beforehand, and they sent me this massive bible of The Dark Crystal in the mail that just had everything on the original, and all the imagery, and everything to sink my teeth into.
Undercovers (2010-2012)—“Samantha Bloom”
AVC: The Undercovers pilot first aired on September 22, 2010. Of course, it was gone too soon, but do you have fond memories of working on that series?
GMR: Yeah! You know, in some ways, it was a bit of a blur because it was really a baptism-by-fire for me: It was my first job in America, my first TV show, my first lead role. Before that, I’d done TV in the U.K., but I think doing network television in L.A. was just such a culture shift for me. And with J.J. Abrams directing the pilot, producing the show—with the ambitions and the scope of the show—every episode we were in a different country, even though we didn’t leave L.A., you know? [Laughs.] There was action, and different accents, and—yeah, huge fond memories, actually. I’m so glad to have done it, and it really did set me up for everything else to come.
AVC: As you said, Undercovers was your proper introduction to Hollywood. With the prolific career you’ve had, would you say there’s anything you know now—10 years later—you wish you had known at the time?
GMR: I don’t know if I would do anything differently. And it’s so funny, isn’t it? Because you evolve. I think you become more resilient. And certainly that’s obviously being tested for us all the time at the moment, you know? But I think just staying optimistic and staying playful. And, certainly with the break that I’ve had this year being at home, coming back to work with a renewed sense of play—just how lucky I am to be in an imaginary world, appreciating the fact that it’s pretend stakes. [Laughs.] I think, in the real world, there’s so much uncertainty and volatility at the moment, there is a comfort in going to a story. So I’ve really learned a lot of solace from that.
Fast Color (2018)—“Ruth”
GMR: I remember back, early [during quarantine], when all the toilet paper was just impossible to find. I remember going into the store in L.A. and texting a photo of it to [Fast Color director] Julia Hart and saying, “This supermarket looks like the store in Fast Color right now.” Just some cans and empty shelves.
We shot that film in this sort of near future, or parallel universe—the idea of a drought and climate change and water being this thing that was just so highly prized. So it’s kind of eerie how how close that feels, with so many parallels that you can draw.
AVC: Considering those parallels, what do you think could be gleaned from watching Fast Color today? Does it give us any hope for the world we’re living in right now?
GMR: I hope so, because it really is about women finding their power, and finding this power deep within them that actually is always been there, but they just didn’t know how to harness it, or they were afraid of it. And I think, now more than ever, I hope that young women watch it and feel empowered by it and uplifted. Even though a character like Ruth has had her struggles—she’s flawed, and she’s not a great mother, and she’s been scared of how powerful she really is. I think there’s such a solidarity in those women, those three generations of women, that they need to come together in order to really rise. So I hope that people will still get get some inspiration from it.
Belle (2013)—“Dido Elizabeth Belle”
AVC: There’s a similar theme of perseverance in Fast Color and Belle, and in a number of projects you’ve been involved with—specifically women of color persevering, despite a system built against them. What did it mean for you to take on a real-life, historical role like Dido?
GMR: For me, it was exactly that. Growing up on Jane Austen adaptations and Dickens adaptations at home in the U.K.—there are so many period dramas that we make—I’d never seen myself in them, you know? Literally. And to be able to know that [Belle] was a real story, that this wasn’t somebody doing colorblind casting or imposing some extra concept onto it, but that Belle really existed. There’s this painting of her, and this is part of our history. To be able to show that perspective, I think, was really, really special.
Amma Asante wanted her to be such a nuanced character, and that it was complex. She was dealing with, not just issues of race, but of class and gender and all of those things that are still very prevalent today. It’s about being able to feel comfortable in her own skin and in her society. It’s the difference between how you see yourself and what the world endows upon you. And those were always the themes that we that we talked about in the film. And to do that along with a beautiful romance—you know, a “different English Rose,” if you like. That, to me, was always really special to be a part of.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)—“Famulus”
AVC: As a final question, we’ve got to know more about the hair and makeup process for your role in Jupiter Ascending.
GMR: I still have the ears! I kept the ears.
AVC: That’s exactly what I was going to ask!
GMR: I have them somewhere in a box. I mean, they used to throw them away every day! And I’d be like, “What are you going to do with those?” And they’re like, “Well, you know, once the glue [sets on them] and you unglue them, you can’t glue them back on.” So they’d have several of them, and they would just chuck them, so I was like, “I’m keeping these.” [Laughs.] I don’t know what I’m going to use them for! I did have them on a bookcase.
AVC: In the future, one day, a relative is going to open the box and be very confused by them.
GMR: Yeah, just like, “What the what are these?” [Laughs.]