By Zoe Stagg
Photography by Robert Ascroft
“It has to be something bigger than you.” Gugu Mbatha-Raw has show business figured out. “It has to be for something bigger than you. And I don’t mean a paycheck or a profile or any of those fabulous Hollywood things,” her silky accent ripples into a chuckle. “I mean the message, the idea, is it worthy of it.” It’s a soul truth that Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed Gugu in Beyond the Lights, put into words—and Gugu lives it prolifically. The classically-trained star broke out as the title role in Amma Asante’s Belle, and has racked up so many credits in the past few years that it seems time isn’t a constraint that applies to her—not even “wrinkled” time. While the book opens, “It was a dark and stormy night,” the internet is lit up at a full blaze in anticipation of the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
With the diverse and luminous cast, it’s got everyone with a well-loved copy talking—and the all-star cast and director are making new fans, too. “It’s certainly a magical and inspiring realm, and getting to work alongside Reese Witherspoon and Oprah. That was really incredible!” Gugu plays Dr. Kate Murry in the familiar fantasy due out in March. Hopping between century, genre, and even shape (Gugu tickled viewers’ fancy as “Plumette” in the live-action Beauty and the Beast) there’s almost no label that will stick—especially in outer space. Gugu’s heading out of the atmosphere next in Cloverfield. The third installment of the series is set on an international space station and she calls the top secret project, “One of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.”
Growing up in England, Gugu found her spotlight early—in ballet class at the tiny-tutu age of four, and never left. She was in almost more plays than classes, and would have been entirely, if not for her parents’ emphasis on education. Even when Gugu tried to make finishing her reading homework, capital-D drama, her mom persisted. Her father is from South Africa, her mother is English, and both have jobs far from show business—and lives that are far from boring.
“On the surface they are a doctor and a nurse which sounds really conventional. But they’re not really conventional people from their journeys that they’ve had.” Even if they kept Gugu in school, they nurtured her dream along with it. “They were always very supportive of me. I think they are very resilient people, and have worked really hard in their lives to be where they are. And they know that when you really love something you have to support that.”
Her own love for what she does has lead her to tackle heady roles. “I’m drawn to stories of justice and courage and pioneers, people who’ve had to be the first person in a situation, and how they dealt with that journey.” It’s a philosophy she balances with colorful projects like Black Mirror and Beauty and the Beast. The bottom line it seems, is that her heart has to be in it. “It is a lot of commitment to make a film. It takes hundreds upon hundreds of people and thousands of people’s hard work. I think that life is really short, and you want to feel that you’re doing something that is going to uplift people, but that is also going to be provoking people for something that is bigger than yourself. That really helps when you’re getting up at four in the morning in the Louisiana swamps or wherever you’re shooting that you can feel it’s not for you, it’s for a bigger idea.”
Sometimes those bigger ideas are controversial, like in Concussion the sports drama exposing the dangers of pro football she starred in with Will Smith. “I think it takes a long time sometimes for culture to really shift. You can contribute to an idea and sometimes with a film it is entertainment— you’re not necessarily going to completely shift a huge perspective on a much-beloved sport—but at the same time, sometimes I think it’s just about planting a seed and contributing to the conversation.”
Controversy, as anyone with a TV, newspaper, or window, knows—is everywhere. Gugu isn’t shying away from it. “The Women’s March is the first march I actually went to in my life, which I’m sort of proud to say.” While there’s a lot to fight for in terms of equality, there are shift happening in the entertainment world. “The last three films that I’ve done this year have been written and directed by women. And in my career that’s no longer unusual. I think I’ve always worked with a lot of female directors but it’s increasing and the awareness is amazing.” It might feel like it’s been decades of shouting at the ceiling, but the glass is starting to crack. “I think there really is a sort of energy and drive in women with what they’re expecting and demanding now, and the confidence about those issues are growing. It’s sort of like a group mentality, that unity, and I feel people just feel more confident.”
Political involvement doesn’t end at the march, living in modern times almost requires immoderate involvement. While the U.S. debated and divided in 2016, Gugu was playing Esme in Miss Slone, a political thriller entrenched in the gun control debate. She couldn’t escape the climate, but couldn’t participate. “It was a very interesting perspective being a foreigner and not beingable to vote here but having a very clear perspective of what’s going on.” The results of that vote, of course, affect the entire world, a fact she chooses to face optimistically. “As difficult as that was and how devastating the election was, the silver lining is that women are very much more aware of politics than before. Always looking for the positive response in any difficult situation.”
Gugu uses her profession and passion to find positive ways to give back. She’s done work with Dramatic Need, an organization for creative change that features artists performing monologues written by vulnerable children in Africa. “They are asked to write about the best day of their life or the worst day of their life, and how that releases them to talk about those experiences.” The performances raise money for the cause, and the children benefit from the therapeutic act of writing—and the performers, too. “It was a wonderful way to engage what I do—acting, being on stage—and also where my father is from, that connection and also be a part of something bigger than you. It was very impactful for me, amazing really to find those monologues that are so rich with their experiences and so visceral.”
With a half-dozen projects including the thriller Fast Color with David Strathairn and the dramatic comedy Irreplaceable You rushing to a screen near you in the next year, keeping the pace isn’t the challenge; it’s just the opposite. “I think sometimes the harder thing is to be still.” She laughs at the trick of physics. Relying on yoga and meditation, she counts her secret weapon in bubbles. “A good hot bath at the end of a crazy working day will definitely do the trick.” While she works on being more present while she relaxes, she hopes her work provides a bit of both, too. That maybe her projects will provide an escape, and also a spark. “We’re making movies, we’re telling a story, it’s not necessarily going to make huge changes but you never know somewhere in someone’s heart or mind that a film might emotionally awaken something we didn’t think of before. And I’m happy with that, that’s enough for me.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is looking for something bigger than her, and the world has found the next big thing.