Gugu Mbatha-Raw is stretching herself, even while social distancing. The actress co-stars in Summerland, a British dramatic film written and directed by Jessica Swale. Mbatha-Raw plays Vera, the love interest to Alex (Gemma Arterton) during the 1940’s. The love doesn’t last and heartbroken, Alex becomes a recluse in her quaint cottage home. It isn’t until she’s signed up to be a temporary caregiver of Frank (Lucas Bond) during WWI that Alex is forced to face her fears and her past love.
When I spoke to Mbatha-Raw a few weeks ago about the film, she was in a reflective mood. With such an expansive career, we got to dive deep on the common threads of her characters, how to hope in quarantine and the one character she would reprise.
Hey Gugu. How are you doing?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I’m good. Thank you. All things considered.
In Summerland, there is a dialogue between Alex Lamb (Gemma Arterton) and Frank (Lucas Bond) about
rebuilding life when it crashes. What’s a moment in your career, or even in your personal life, where you felt like you had to rebuild?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Hmm, interesting. I think we’re always doing that. Like I find in every job, in a sense with every character. You’re not just rebuilding but you’re building. But yeah, I feel like that’s kind of the joy of acting in a way, is that you can constantly start fresh on a new story. And so I kind of try and look at it in a positive light. But yeah, I guess maybe, initially when I first got into acting, I came from a dance background. So initially as a teenager, that was what I wanted to pursue. So in a way that rebuilding, the idea of being, maybe doing musical theater, or rebuilding the idea of moving more towards classical acting. And so I guess it’s been sort of moments along the way and then going from more like theater to film and TV. I think you’re constantly evolving as you go, to be able to take on different stories and different genres.
Talking about telling different stories and different genres, there’s a common thread in your characters in that they always reflect the cultural conversation (the female, Black and LGBTQ+ community), no matter the time period. I’m thinking about roles like Hannah from The Morning Show, Jennifer Hosten in Misbehavior, Vera in Summerland. How do you find the balance between both immersing yourself in the character in that time period while injecting the modern cultural discourse?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I think, especially whenever you do a period drama, you have to have a strong sense of why you’re doing it now. And I think the really refreshing thing about Jessica Swale’s script with Summerland was that, although it was set in a very particular time and place, I felt like the characters and the themes felt very modern and relatable. And I think that that’s the lovely thing about period pieces is you get mold into feeling like you’re in another time and place, but it actually enables you to really see your own culture and recognize your own self with a bit of a distance, enough to like sort of take in the story. So yeah, for me I think it’s important that I’m more drawn to stories that obviously have a cultural resonance, or a conversation because I just think it’s more interesting to work on.
We’re not here in a vacuum. I think art has a purpose, has a role in our culture to help us sort of provoke conversations or digest more uncomfortable aspects of our history and sort of have a reckoning with them. So yeah, for me, it’s always more satisfying when interesting things to talk about around the stories.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with some really fantastic and talented female directors, such as Jessica Swale in this film and Gina Prince-Bythewood for Beyond The Lights. How has those relationships been with those directors, in terms of that common bond and in terms of building your character in partnership with them?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, well as you mentioned Gina, I mean working with Gina Prince-Bythewood on Beyond The Lights has been an incredibly rich experience for me. She’s just such a nuanced writer, director and really authentic and grounded. And we had a long preparation process for that role, which was very layered, and I think helped with the character’s emotional journey. And everything that she went through. And Gina always taught me actually, to be honest with you, [to look at] at stories that have a bigger resonance. It has to be sort of something bigger than you. I remember her saying that specifically.
And at that time we were talking more about misogyny in the music industry and one artist’s identity and how women are sexualized, hyper sexualized in hip hop, and all of those things that Gina was wrestling with in terms of her sort of love/hate relationship with hip hop music and how it has been depicting women. So I think as much as that was a very intimate journey for many, there was a bigger conversation there for Gina in terms of for young girls watching that movie, or young girls growing up and feeling like they have to look a certain way to be attractive and actually, or successful like that character. And so for me, she really opened my eyes up to the idea that you can tell a story that has a greater purpose, that can shift people’s perspective. And that is infinitely more satisfying when you’re able to work on stories that do that.
Another common thread between your characters is their struggle to persevere and and the journey to overcome. You have these characters that are working to break through that glass ceiling, no matter what it is. Whether it be personally, professionally or otherwise, have you experienced the struggle to break through that glass ceiling? And what helped overcome those moments?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well I think we’re all on a journey, right? And I think that, for me, it’s kind of hard to always identify those moments when you’re in them. It’s only when you look back perhaps, that you get to see what a breakthrough moment or what’s the shift. I think for me, certainly transitioning from theater and coming to work in the US was a big transition, and a breakthrough. And there’s internal breakthroughs as well. I think if you want to transition into a different point in your life, you sometimes have to let go of an old one.
And I think for me I wanted to work in film or TV. I had to turn down from theater for a while, and that’s counterintuitive for an actor. In order to move from TV to film, you have to not stop doing TV for a minute to make yourself available to do something different. Make a vacuum, as they say, and the universe will fill it, and I think that. And so there’s internal shifts that you go through as well, beyond waiting for anybody to give you permission. You have to give yourself permission first.
You’ve had opportunity to work in not only theater, but in film and television. Have you found yourself during these times of reflection, thinking about returning to one medium over another?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I try to look at the positive and instead of going, “What have I missed?” I go, “What’s available to me right now? What can I do right now?” As opposed to sort of bemoaning what we’ve lost, I’ve tried to be more practical.
For example, I was able to do an audio book from home during this time, which is something I’ve never done before. But in isolation, I was able to read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, essentially from my closet, which has been sort of compressed into a makeshift sound booth. Actually, quarantine provided me with an opportunity for a genre that I’d never done before. So, in a weird way, just to answer your question, I was able to do something completely different and still use my skills in a different way, which has been lovely. And in reflection, finding other artistic avenues, other ways to creatively express yourself if you can’t act all the time.
Obviously, acting is not a solo business. And I’ve been able to rediscover painting at home in isolation, which is something that I loved when I was a teenager. Painting portraits of friends and family, and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many other people in my life. That I was able to use the time actually to do something that the all-consuming nature of being on set and traveling all the time doesn’t always allow me. So I’ve tried to reframe the time as opposed to a lost you know, to look at what’s available to me within these limitations.
That’s a great point. I love the hopeful perspective.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah I think it’s healthier. It’s a way of taking control of your creativity and your time and a meditative experience. You know what I mean? I think sometimes we have to pivot and we have to accept where we are as opposed to wishing where we are is something it’s not. Just accept it and work with what you’ve got. I think that’s why the human race has been here for so long. We have to be adaptable.
Switching to something a little lighter: you’re also a part of the upcoming Disney+ LOKI series. How was the experience of working in the superhero genre and what did you learn from it?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, to be honest with you, I really have still a lot of work to do on it. I’ve only just started so I can’t really reflect on it quite yet. So maybe you’ll have to ask me, we’ll have to have another catch up once we’ve wrapped on the show and I can be more reflective.
Since we’re talking streaming shows: Are you a part of the Amazon Studios Fast Color series that Julia Hart is leading?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, in the early days, we really talked about that. I know that they’re doing it and I’m very excited by the idea, but it’s a bit early to really confirm where that’s going in terms of my involvement, but I’ll let you know.
Variety dropped an article about the importance of Black representation in the hair and makeup department. From your experience, do you had any personal anecdotes about advocating for a Black hairstylist or your Black character’s hairstyle?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh Yeah, it’s been a journey. And I think it depends on the character and it depends on the hairstyle for that character. I have found with my textured hair that I, with everybody, with a bit of coaching, usually people who I’ve worked with are able to work with it fine. I have not had any major issues. And I’ve worked with some amazing, transformative hair stylists like Kim Kimble, who’s worked for many years with Beyoncé, who did Beyond The Lights and also Wrinkle in Time.
And she helped me when I was going back to the UK to do Misbehavior, where my character is a person of color in this world and she has this huge, long hair that’s not my own. It’s a hair piece and I consulted with her for sourcing the right hair and wig and all of that stuff because I was just concerned that there wouldn’t be time to do all of those kinds of fittings in the UK when I got there. But that wasn’t because of the skill set of the UK stylist. Far from it. It was more because I knew and trusted Kim, and that with the essence of time, I think when you’ve worked with people before, you have a shorthand like that. So yeah.
And I mean on things like on where I’ve been able to, on movies like Irreplaceable You and Fast Color, certainly I have the same pair of makeup team, which was all African-American hair makeup team. And that was a particular, specifically particular to Fast Color because there were several actresses of color in the film and with different hair textures and that was something that Julia Hart felt was really important to be honored with experienced hands. So but then it just depends on the job and I think luckily nowadays people are much more skilled, and if they don’t know, then they’re willing to learn or get somebody who can teach them. So yeah, I haven’t had any horror stories.
Last question: If you had to choose a character to reprise, if you had the opportunity, what character would it be and why?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, I don’t know. I always feel quite satisfied. When I finished the job, I left it all on the floor, so to speak. I don’t feel like I need to go back necessarily. I mean, the second world that I think would be interesting to inhabit again, I don’t know necessarily as the same character or necessarily maybe take that character forward, something like Fast Color for example, or San Junipero. Very unique worlds that could definitely grow. But no, I never feel like I want to go back and do it all again kind of thing. I feel quite satisfied by the experience to move on and work on something that’s going to stretch me in a different direction.
NOTE: interview has been edited for clarity.
“Summerland” opens on VOD and all digital channels, Friday July 31, via IFC Films.