Let’s be honest: Gugu Mbatha-Raw should be a star. After her revelatory performances in “Belle” and “Beyond The Lights,” she should be on the short list of must-land leading ladies from prestige Oscar bait to summer blockbusters. It hasn’t happened yet, but the Brit is in the middle of a noteworthy phase of her career that might finally put her front and center.
Last year, Mbatha-Raw co-starred in the incredible “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror” and stole a scene or two from Jessica Chastain in “Miss Sloane.” This past weekend, she starred in the box-office smash “Beauty And The Beast” as Plumette (a mostly vocal performance), and in October will appear in the sci-fi thriller “God Particle,” which was recently revealed to be the third installment of the “Cloverfield” franchise (whatever that really means).
Earlier this month, Mbatha-Raw took some time to sit down and chat about her experience shooting ‘Beauty,’ the reaction to “San Junipero,” and whether she knew “God Particle” was a franchise film or not.
Gregory Ellwood: How did it come to you? How did it get in your inbox?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh my gosh, I just got a phone call from my agent about it and it was an offer for “Beauty And The Beast,” and I am so obsessed with the Disney original, I squealed [on] the phone because I think I saw the original when I was eight years old and it is my Disney film, so it was a very surreal moment for me. I think my childhood self was just kind of ecstatic to be a small part of it. Then when I heard about the cast and obviously Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, but actors like Emma Thompson and Sir Ian McKellen — these legendary English actors that I have looked up my whole career. It was a no-brainer, really.
Your performance is mostly voice-over because you’re playing the feather duster, Plumette. Were you able to record at all with any of your other cast members?
No, it was completely solo. We did have the wonderful Bill Condon directing us and getting us to try all the vocals different ways, the accent, working with a vocal coach. The most fun part that we got to do all together was the final ballroom scene, and in fact, my first day was a ballroom dance rehearsal with Ewan McGregor, which was the first time that we got to meet. That was kind of a lovely ice-breaker, to suddenly be thrown in a dance studio and trying to learn to waltz, basically. That was kind of amazing, and then we also had the transformation day, where we all transform from our objects and I get pulled from a pile of feathers, which is pretty fun.
Did that occur before you recorded your voice performance?
We did it in stages. We did some recordings around that time and then we did the filming part of it. Then we did some more vocal recordings, and a few months went by while they did some more of the special effects, and then we came back again six months later. It was sort of all done in stages as every department brought the characters to life and we were able to add to it.
You get to sing in the movie[, too]. Were you excited about that opportunity as well?
So thrilled. Obviously Plumette doesn’t really get any solos or anything, but there is a new song ‘Days In The Sun’ in this version, which is especially for the household objects, which I think is very romantic and beautiful. We were all in different [parts of the] harmony, which was lovely, and then to be able to be laying down vocals for tracks like ‘Be Our Guest,’ even in the chorus of that song, it’s so iconic. Singing that song, you just have it in your head for the rest of the day. It’s so catchy. That was really, really cool.
You said this was your favorite Disney animated film. For lack of a better cliché, were you pinching yourself for an opportunity to be in the live-action version?
The whole time. It was so surreal. Stepping on to that Disney ballroom set, I remember walking on there with Emma Thompson. We both hadn’t gotten into our costumes yet, but we just went to rehearse on the set and our jaws dropped. The whole ballroom was garlanded with flowers. You could smell the flowers. They were real — real candles that people had to light and snuff between takes. Our jaws dropped and Emma was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It really just had lashings and lashings of that Disney magic.
You’ve had this amazing year. Many people had seen your previous work, but because of Netflix they’ve now seen you in “Black Mirror” and they’ve seen “San Junipero,” arguably the most buzzed-about episode of the last season. Have you gotten lots of feedback from that? People love that episode so much.
From “San Junipero”? Yeah. It’s been wonderful. All positive. People have said to me it’s their favorite episode. Grown men have told me it’s had them in tears. I think it’s really surprising and wonderful that it’s affected people.
Did you realize that at the time when you were shooting it?
You never know how anything is going to turn out, really. I know we had a great time doing it and I remember when I first read it, it was just so refreshing and the twist just took me by surprise and I just loved the music and the era, and then when you see it together, again the music is so emotive. It really takes you to a place. Yeah, you can never anticipate and you don’t want to be complacent about these things, but I think it’s sort of turned out better than any of us expected.
You’re right, you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. When you saw ‘Beauty’ for the first time, was there anything that surprised you?
I’d seen various versions where the special effects weren’t completely done and I often have reservations about movies with CG, especially if we’re supposed to care about the characters. There’s often a disconnect. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I can tell that this isn’t a human kind of thing. I just don’t feel emotionally connected to this creature that is computerized.’ I was nervous especially for the Beast, I think, and then when I saw the final version, it was kind of amazing to me that it seemed like he had a soul. I don’t know what they had done, but that dance performance, and everybody else’s work combined, really gave the Beast…there’s this humor and you see into his eyes. Again, you really feel like more than many CG characters that I’ve seen that they really accomplish something very human with him.
Before you even recorded, did they show you a sketch or rendering of what Plumette was going to look like?
Yeah, my first costume fitting, Jacqueline Durran, the costume [designer], said, ‘Would you like to meet your object?’ We walked into this room and there was…she’d prepared it all. It was so beautiful. She had Plumette on a stand, this beautiful feather duster about this high, with the feathers and everything, and that was the first time I’d seen it because in the original, I don’t know if you remember, she’s not called Plumette. She’s called Fifi and she’s very mop-like — more like an ostrich with a long handle and a mop end and brown, more like a French maid at the end, but [with a] brown mop. And when you look at the Plumette that we have, which is this very elegant feather duster, more like for dusting ornaments than mopping floors — I was pleasantly surprised that they’d reimagined her almost like a dove or a white peacock. We definitely put a lot of the feathers into the costumes and wherever we could. Jacqueline was putting feathers in the bustle. We were playing on that tail-feather idea. I had feathers in my wig. I got to be blonde, which was fun — an ode to Marilyn Monroe a little bit — but we added some feathers in there as well just to make it whimsical.
Can we talk about that amazing outfit…you transformed into? What was your thoughts when you saw it and did you want to take it home?
(Laughs.) No, although I did steal some feathers because in the transformation scene — spoiler alert — I got buried in a pile of white ostrich feathers. This huge pile and it was a hole in the ground. You can’t really tell, but [Ewan] pulls me out of a huge pile of white feathers, and they were ginormous and I smuggled a few of those home. But no, the costume is wonderful. It had a corset-type shape and everyone was all in white, cream, and then the ballroom scene had this hoop skirt and when we’re swirling around, everyone’s skirts move. It’s very romantic.
Was that hard to do that dancing? Was it tough choreography or was it easier than —
It was tough to… When we were learning it, I had just flown in from LA that morning. I was so jet-lagged the first dance lesson. …It was fun to learn it with Ewan because he’s got a great sense of humor and it’s a great way to get to know somebody, and also, I don’t know. There’s just something really fun and liberating about dancing.
My last question for you is: I know, because ‘God Particle’ is a J.J. Abrams production…[you] can probably say zero about it, but when you made it, did you know it was part of the ‘Cloverfield’ franchise? That it was [its] third movie?
You had no idea?
You found that out later?
Was it a fun experience at least?
It was amazing. It was very intense but it was [an] amazing experience and again another phenomenal cast.
“Beauty And The Beast” is now playing nationwide.