Born in Oxford, England on June 30, 1983, Gugu Mbatha-Raw trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her first professional role was as Celia in an open air production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Gugu subsequently landed roles at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre where she performed the title roles of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, the latter opposite Andrew “Spider-Man” Garfield.
Her television credits include “MI-5,” “Dr. Who,” “Spooks,” “Marple: Ordeal by Innocence,” “Bonekickers” and “Fallout.” In 2008, she was selected as a ‘Star of Tomorrow’ by the showbiz industry magazine Screen International. A couple of years later, Gugu starred as Samantha Bloom in the NBC-TV series, “Undercovers,” for which she was nominated for an NAACP award for in the Best Actress in a Television Series category.
On the big screen, she found her first major feature film work in Larry Crowne, directed by Tom Hanks and co-starring Julia Roberts, followed by Odd Thomas alongside Willem Dafoe. She also recently finished filming Jupiter Ascending with Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis.
Here, Gugu, who divides her time between L.A. and London, talks about playing the title character in Belle, a biopic about Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), the orphaned offspring of an African slave and a British ship captain who was raised in England by her father’s rich relations.
Kam Williams: Hi Gugu, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Thank you, Kam.
KW: I have a lot of questions for you for you from fans. Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: What interested you in the film and how did you feel about the idea of playing Dido Belle?
GMR: There were so many wonderful things that drew me to this project. First and foremost, the historical elements, the fact that this character really existed and that the script was inspired by a real painting. That was fascinating to me because, as a biracial girl growing up in England, I’d never really seen any historical characters who looked like me depicted on film before that weren’t being brutalized or playing slaves. It was refreshing to know that there had been a biracial girl in the aristocracy.
KW: What message do you think people will take away from Belle?
GMR: I really hope people will be inspired by the history of it, and the fact that it’s a true story. The message, for me, at its core, really, is “Be who you are!” Don’t worry about society’s conditioning and the labels that are put on you by external forces. Hold onto your true self. The journey that Dido goes on is about learning to be comfortable in her own skin. I think that’s an inspiring message that we always need to be reminded of in today’s image-obsessed world.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: Did you feel any pressure to do justice to Belle?
GMR: Absolutely! Because I had never played a real person before and since this was an incredibly refreshing tale to me. Even though there wasn’t much evidence about Dido, factually, I felt this was a terrific opportunity to shed light on a period of history that has somewhat been overlooked and certainly has never been seen from this perspective before. A woman of color… in the lead… of a period drama… [Laughs] And she’s not a slave… she’s not being brutalized… She’s being brought up as an heiress in a genteel society, at least one that’s seemingly genteel on the surface. To me, that that was just such an inspiring new perspective.
KW: Larry Greenberg asks: What kind of direction did Amma Asante give you about Dido Belle's relationship with Lady Elizabeth Murray?
GMR: This is something that Amma was very passionate about. Even though they were only cousins biologically, they were nevertheless very much a sisterhood. I know that Amma herself has a sister she’s very close to, and the intensity of sisterhood was something she very much wanted to explore in the film, not only because the starting point was the painting where they are depicted in such an intimate way with a feeling of affection, but also because of a desire to create a Jane Austen “Sense and Sensibility” dynamic in exploring the depth of that bond. Consider the scene where they have a fierce argument and are saying the most horrible things to each other. I think you can only really explore in that fashion with intimate family.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Gugu, and best of luck with Belle.
GMR: Thank you very much, Kam. Bye!
To see a trailer for Belle, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTz5VjBscGk