Gugu was born in Oxford, England. After Graduating from RADA in 2004 she appeared in TV series Bad Girls, Bonekickers and Doctor Who. In 2013 She starred in Amma Asante's film Belle, playing the eponymous historical character, Dido.Followed by starring in Gina Prince-Bythewood's film Beyond The Lights
The annual Charles Finch and Chanel pre-BAFTAs dinner party calls on the industry’s talent to celebrate British film before the awards ceremony. Last night, Greta Gerwig, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Natalie Dormer joined industry heavyweights Kristin Scott Thomas and Sir Patrick Stewart at London’s Kensington Palace.
Newly engaged Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Sam (Michiel Huisman) have been the love of each other's lives since childhood. But when the future they envisioned together takes a tragic turn, their relationship is put to the ultimate test.
Also featuring Christopher Walken, Kate McKinnon, Steve Coogan, and Jacki Weaver. Streaming February 16th.
Watch Irreplaceable You on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80184625
Netflix changed the game and stunned everyone with its surprise release of the sci-fi horror adventure flick The Cloverfield Paradox—one of a string of films under the Cloverfield franchise. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki and is directed by Julius Onah. Produced by JJ Abrams, the film is set in the near future, among a group of international astronauts on a space station. They are working to solve a massive energy crisis on Earth, and the experimental technology aboard the station has an unexpected result, leaving the team isolated and fighting for their survival.
Gugu chatted briefly with BGN about the film, how she prepped for the role of Ava Hamilton, and she discussed candidly her thoughts on the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movement happening in Hollywood. She also shared what she geeks out over the most.
Jamie: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time out of your super busy schedule because I know that you’re killing it girl. You are killing it.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Awww. That’s okay. That’s okay. It’s nice to be able to talk to you. Thank you.
Jamie: Absolutely. So yeah. I’m just going to go ahead and start. Thank you for talking to Black Girl Nerds. We’re huge fans of yours. We really wanted to see you in Star Wars, by the way, just saying that.
So Cloverfield Paradox. I watched the film right after the Superbowl and I kind of regret it and I’ll tell you why.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Right.
Jamie: The movie had some really scary moments for me and it was difficult to go to bed that night.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh no. Did you have nightmares?
Jamie: I did. I did. I was like, “This movie’s terrifying.” But I wanted to ask for you going through these scenes, was it just as terrifying for you dealing with these experiences as Ava as it was for us watching her?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well for me, what really grounded the story for me was knowing Ava Hamilton’s backstory and what she is wrestling with from her past. And that was really, really helpful because I think you know having her history with her family on earth, understanding what she was escaping emotionally speaking. When all these kinds of really surreal events start happening, it was interesting. I talked about Julius, the director, and the script definitely evolved a lot as we were in the process of making the film.
But there was definitely a sense that this is also a woman not just hanging on by a thread emotionally, she is also still grief-stricken. But also then when these bizarre things start occurring, she’s also slightly questioning her own sanity. You know especially when it comes to the next level in terms of dimensions and whether she’s really losing it herself. So that was kind of an interesting thing to play with.
So yeah, beyond it being sort of…I mean those things are actually — although time-consuming — they’re actually quite fun to shoot. They’re not scary to shoot as such. But I think they’re much more scary to watch than they are to shoot. But for me, the challenge was always grounding the response to everything in what she’s personally going through underneath the surface.
Jamie: Well that’s comforting knowing that what was terrifying for us was entertaining for you. At least you weren’t scared going through those scenes.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Exactly.
Jamie: But it was really good. I really enjoyed the film. And I was curious to know how you prepped for this movie. Because a lot of the scenes look like they were very physically demanding. So what was the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: There were a lot of challenges. I think for me, this is a genre I haven’t really done before, you know, the space movie genre. And for me, it was quite a big challenge. Most of the movie was filmed on a sound stage at Paramount Studios in L.A. was quite a challenge in itself, because I think when you are mostly in a very sterile sound stage environment. I mean I guess it’s not unlike a space station in a weird way but it’s quite an intense way to shoot I think. You know, you’re not necessarily out and about on the street shooting in the real world as it were. And I think sometimes that can be challenging. You know, especially when you’ve got things like green screen and a lot of special effects. You’re having to use your imagination a lot. You’re responding to things that on the day maybe aren’t necessarily there, or haven’t been decided upon yet. And that can definitely be an acting challenge because you don’t necessarily know 100% what is going to be put into the movie in the post-production process. So that’s a challenge.
We also had some wire work, some physical work wearing a space suit. I mean it was actually challenging for me because of our amazing costume designer Colleen Atwood who’s award-winning and incredible. But these space suits, they’re not necessarily designed for comfort. They looked great. Being several hours with the helmets on and things like that, I would get claustrophobic. So I’d be like, “Can we just wait until the camera is actually rolling before I put my helmet on?” Because then as soon they yell, “Cut,” I’m pulling the helmet off.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: It wasn’t the most comfortable costume I have to say. But you know, it all added to the drama and as I say, what we were going through.
Jamie: Well it looked really good. So even though it wasn’t comfortable, it looked great on screen.
You know what I really loved about this movie, there was this beautiful dichotomy between this being a sci-fi horror film and all of these terrifying elements to being a family drama which is centered around your character Ava. How important is it to work on a film where you’re given so many options in the screenplay?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: So many options? You mean in terms of the character’s backstory?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah I mean for me, that’s what drew me to the original script, you know, God Particle, which was very much centered around this woman Ava Hamilton. I really responded to the fact that she was a three-dimensional woman. She’s a mother. She has this tragic past that she was dealing with. She was still getting on with her life. And it didn’t mean that she…I think sometimes often in sci-fi movies, you see these female astronauts that are very cold and are basically trying to actually like men in that world to be able to survive. And I think that the interesting thing about Hamilton is she is a woman, she’s vulnerable. She has a lot going on that she’s dealing with. And I think I just love the fact that you see her struggle emotionally but still continue and persevere. And that to me is always an interesting conflict when a character is wrestling with things internally, that that gives you a lot of juicy stuff to play with emotionally.
Jamie: Yeah. It was great to see how that unfolded on the screen.
Now, this is a bit of a heavy question. A lot of folks in the entertainment industry is talking about the #MeToo movement. And when it comes to changing who has the power to create and tell stories to challenge sexual violence. You know, there’s this broad movement for change currently happening in the entertainment industry. When designed and led by women of color, what looks different about this movement for change?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: About #MeToo? Or #TimesUp? Or …
Jamie: Yeah about the whole movement surrounding the discussion on sexual violence and harassment. So yeah, #MeToo, #TimesUp.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Right well I think what’s exciting is that it’s a movement change for women, meaning all women. And then not just actresses, not just…say women of all ethnicities. And I think that that’s really exciting because I think it’s inclusive and it empowers everyone, whatever industry you’re in. I think even though actors are perhaps more visible, I think what happens is this empowering message trickles into every industry from farm workers to domestic workers to women across the globe, I hope, will feel inspired to not accept this kind of treatment anymore.
And also, I think it’s really interesting that there is a kind of sense of community really being fostered with women in the industry that I haven’t really seen before. From the #TimesUp email chain to meetings, the groups that we’re all chitchatted together, you know there’s a conversation happening. And that, I think, is something that so often, speaking for myself and as an actor, you may be the only woman, you may be two women on the set in terms of an acting department and actually to be able to be united to be with other actors. Like not just two, three but a whole community of women who are having and sharing these experiences and conversations. I think it’s just so empowering. And I think as I say, everyone is feeling included, which is a step in the right direction.
Jamie: Right exactly, the way it should be, you know?
Jamie: And something a little more light-hearted. You know we here at Black Girl Nerds, we talk about nerdy and geeky things. So what are some nerdy fandoms that you’re into? Whether it’s gaming, comics, anime, sci-fi, what’s your geeky secret?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: My geeky secret? Oh, my God. I don’t know. I mean I’m not really into any of those things that you just used as an example. I love to research in terms of my roles and everything. I’m such a nerd when it comes to the research.
I’m just about to start a movie set in the 50s and for me being able to immerse myself in that era and the music, in the novels at the time, the imagery, reading around each role. If I get a chance to visit somewhere, like for example, with a Wrinkle in Time, I got to visit JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and talk to literally rocket scientists and people who are doing astrophysics. And for me, that’s my not so secret nerdy passion—which is being able to really meet people who do the job that your character does. I mean for the Cloverfield Paradox, I got to meet a couple of astronauts, talked one on the phone, one of the first female astronauts who was the consultant on the movie. That to me is really fascinating when you get the chance to delve into another world. So yeah, the research is the nerdy stuff for me.
Jamie: Nice. Love that. I can spend hours and hours just researching stuff on some of the most random things. I love researching bacteria and viruses. I know that sounds really weird.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh my God. You’re a complete germaphobe. You’re like, “Oh no. She reaches for the hand sanitizer.”
I mean for me…and also I love history at school. So again, anything that is either a period of time or be it something set in the 80s or the 50s or the 1800s. That’s a chance for me to get back into my history student zone. And I just find it so interesting because there’s so much we can learn from the past. And I think essentially human beings and human nature don’t change that much. But I think it’s really fascinating how we express ourselves and how culture evolves. I’m really intrigued by that.
Jamie: Amazing. One last question. I know you’re super busy.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh that’s okay.
Jamie: You’ve got Wrinkle in Time. You’ve got Irreplaceable You. You’ve got Fast Color. And you’re about to be filming Motherless Brooklyn. Aside from those projects-
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah. You’ve got them all on the list.
Jamie: Anything else that’s next for you?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I mean literally I am about to start filming Motherless Brooklyn next week. So that’s definitely the next thing that’s taking my focus. I’m in 1957, I’m listening to a lot of jazz because my character was born in a Harlem jazz club. So we’re around Brooklyn and Harlem and a lot of New York filming that. So that’s really exciting.
In terms of after that, I don’t know, maybe a holiday.
Jamie: Maybe some sleep?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah maybe some sleep would be really nice.
Jamie: Well awesome. It was fantastic talking to you. Are you going to be at South By Southwest?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yes. I just got my flight. I’m so excited. I’ve never been to Texas.
Jamie: Oh my God.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: So I think my flight’s through Dallas-Fort Worth airport maybe for an hour or something. But yeah, I’m very excited to go to Austin. I hear it’s really fun.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: And I’m really, really excited for Fast Color to have its world premiere there. So I’m going to see the movie actually for the first time next week. So yeah, it was an amazing experience shooting that film with Julia Hart in Albuquerque. I can’t wait to see it. And as I say, my first time at South By.
Jamie: Well it’s all about the tacos at South By and the queso. And our team will be there as well. So I hope we get to meet you in person and talk to you about Fast Color because I read the story behind it.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh that would be so fun.
Jamie: Yeah the story is right up our alley. Supernatural, black women with abilities, like hello.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah exactly. And you know it’s starring Saniyya Sidney and Lorraine Toussaint as well. As I say, I’m sure you’d love to talk to both of them too. They’re amazing.
Jamie: Thank you Gugu. It was great talking to you.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Thank you. Thank you. Have a great day.
This interview was edited for clarity
Cloverfield Paradox is currently streaming on Netflix. Irreplaceable You will launch on Netflix Feb 16th. Fast Color will make its world premiere at the South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) which runs March 9-18 in Austin, TX. A Wrinkle In Time premieres March 9 in theaters nationwide. Motherless Brooklyn directed by Edward Norton is currently in production.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is high on life. I can hear the smile in her voice when she picks up the phone—her joy bubbles over the line, and it's wholly warranted.
The last seven days marked a frenzy of career highs for the 34-year-old Brit: the surprise Netflix release of her latest film, The Cloverfield Paradox, was the talk of the Super Bowl; she joined the cast of the Edward Norton-directed Motherless Brooklynalongside Willem Dafoe and Bruce Willis; and she premiered her other Netflix movie, a heartbreaker of a romantic dramedy titled Irreplaceable You, in New York.
Oh, and last Friday, she became a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace (MBE). Casual. "We've been joking that I've been working on my damehood since I was 12," she tells BAZAAR.com, laughing. "I've had one rung, three rungs down from a dame, so I've still got some more to go."
It's not difficult to imagine Mbatha-Raw walking in the footsteps of famous thespian dames like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Harriet Walter. She, too, got her start on the stage before establishing herself through starring roles in Amma Asante's Belle, Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights, last year's Disney mega-hit Beauty and the Beast, and a critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning episode of Black Mirror.
But these triumphs merely set the stage for a year poised to shoot Mbatha-Raw to the highest rung of superstardom. Though critics panned the Julius Onah-directed Cloverfield Paradox, it's worth a watch for Mbatha-Raw's performance alone. She commands the screen, no easy feat alongside talents such as David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, and Elizabeth Debicki. And that's merely the start of a string of highly-anticipated projects including the Ava DuVernay-directed A Wrinkle in Time, which is set to claim another box office victory for Mbatha-Raw when it hits theaters March 9.
Below, the actress opens up about her big week, venturing into STEM with her latest projects, and the fairytale Cloverfield moment that led to her casting in A Wrinkle in Time.
Harper's BAZAAR: You've had a huge week—congratulations!
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Thank you, thank you so much. I know, it has been a little bit surreal and lots of surprises and excitement. I'm kind of in the recovery position in my Brooklyn apartment right now, just kind of taking it all in.
Mbatha-Raw receives her MBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace.
HB: Tell me about receiving your MBE on Friday.
GMR: Oh wow, that was so special. To be able to go to Buckingham Palace with my parents, to meet Prince Charles, I mean, it was sort of a bit like a fairytale, I have to say. It was very surreal and so meaningful to my parents to be able to be there and be inside Buckingham Palace.
You know what the most exciting thing for me, beyond all the pomp and ceremony and the fact that it's such a huge honor, was actually getting to meet all the other awardees. The various awards from MBE, to knighthood, to OB, to CB. When we got there, we were all divided up away from our guests and put in a room with all the other award winners. I got to talk to people from so many different walks of life. I think so often in show business, there's so many award shows and award seasons, and everybody is related to the film industry, but to go to something like that, to be in the same room as the world table tennis champion, or somebody that is being honored for their work with drug victims, or somebody who's a Paralympic rower. It was just so fascinating to talk to these extraordinary people in so many different fields.
HB: And then on Sunday, Netflix surprise-dropped The Cloverfield Paradox right after the Super Bowl. When did you learn that was happening?
GMR: On Sunday morning. J.J. Abrams emailed the cast to say he had an exciting update and he wants a conference call with us all on the phone at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning. To be honest with you, I'd heard the rumors about Netflix, but they hadn't been confirmed. I just thought, "It's Super Bowl Sunday, maybe there'll be a trailer." [Laughs] That was kind of as far as I had imagined. So when he called us all, and he starts explaining the full breadth of this completely disruptive marketing campaign—or non-marketing campaign—this huge event that they'd been plotting at Bad Robot and Netflix, I mean, I was kind of flabbergasted.
It was a complete surprise to us all, and so exciting to be part of this experiment in a way, a different way to release the movie on such a massive platform of the Super Bowl, and the fact that we sort of got away with it! The title didn't get out. I mean, various rumors of the title got out, but nobody knew that this was happening. I think, in this day and age with the internet, where nothing is mysterious, or secret, or sacred, it's kind of incredible that it happened and it caught everyone, and it was such a surprise.
HB: The movie is harrowing—was the environment on set equally stressful?
GMR: We shot it mostly at Paramount Studios in LA, which was kind of amazing because it's one of the oldest studios. You could see the Hollywood sign from outside the soundstage. It's so Hollywood in 1922, very historic.
It was an incredibly intense shoot. I feel like when you watch the movie—I mean, I have a very different experience probably, because I sort of lived through it—but I definitely feel that there's a real sense of foreboding. I think when you have a group of very intense and talented actors, all pretty much on the soundstage, it definitely increases the pressure cooker energy: grueling hours, quite emotional, obviously, for my character, from the journey that she goes on. I was just so excited to be able to play an astronaut.
I think, for me, that was like my childhood self, getting a chance to play something that seems so sort of far out of your reach. It was wonderful. It was a while ago now, but Brexit was being announced while we were shooting. We had an international, sort of European cast, and watching that happen and unfold in reality, and also being around such talented actors, was really inspiring for me. It's such a strong ensemble.
As Ava Hamilton in The Cloverfield Paradox
HB: When you saw the script for the first time, what made you want to be a part of the project?
GMR: For me, the script definitely evolved considerably from what I initially read to what you see onscreen. Initially, when I signed on and it was called God Particle, it was very much interesting to me to see a female-driven sci-fi movie.
The thing that was intriguing to me, I had been looking at a lot of sci-fi scripts, some big franchises, and at the time, was that this story was told very much through my character Ava Hamilton's perspective. She wasn't just part of a world that was ruled by the men, even though David Oyelowo's character is the commander of the station at the beginning of the movie, I definitely felt like Hamilton had this emotional journey.
Also when you read sci-fi material, you think, "This looks really cool. This person's really kick ass, but I don't know if I necessarily believe that they have the depth to them." The fact that she was a mother, the fact that she was conflicted and had this grief-stricken past, I was just really intrigued by her backstory. I felt like she had a complexity to her that you don't often see—or you haven't historically—in female sci-fi characters. They're often depicted as so tough and emotionless, almost like a man, to play that kind of role.
What was interesting about Hamilton, for me, was that even though she had these challenges, she was still very much a woman. She's struggling and she wasn't pretending to be a man. She wasn't pretending not to be struggling with her emotional center. I just thought that as an actor, that was an interesting challenge, to have the emotional breadth and the sci-fi together.
"This story was told very much through my character's perspective. She wasn't just part of a world that was ruled by the men."
HB: What did you want to bring to the character that you didn't necessarily see on the pages of the script?
GMR: When I initially meet something, I'm just sort of thinking, "Can I connect to the character? Do I believe this world? Is this challenging to me? Is it a genre I haven't done before? How am I going to be stretched?" Then really it's the process of working with the director, working with Julius Onah, and J.J. Abrams, who had a strong hand in the development of this script and the story. I think that's when I start really getting inspired, when you start to collaborate with everyone else. I kind of have my own ideas, but I think you want to make sure that you're all in the same movie and you're all telling the same story.
For me, it's a creative, collaborative conversation that really kind of sparked my interest. We have an amazing creative team here. Dan Mindel, the DP, had come from Force Awakens. Most of our crew worked on Force Awakens. Colleen Atwood, the incredible award-winning costume designer, she designed all those space suits. Obviously J.J. and Julius, an incredibly strong group of actors. I think when you've got such great people to work with like that, it's just bouncing off each other and each other's energy, which in an ensemble crew kind of vibe, like this, is really vital.
HB: you're also starring in A Wrinkle in Time in March, which is another science fiction film.
GMR: The concept of quantum entanglement goes through both movies, and I had a moment where I was like, "What is going on? What is the universe trying to tell me right now?" But from very different perspectives you know, one person who's a doctor and astrophysicist at home and then somebody who's actually in space, and so it's kind of very apt that they'll be coming out so close to each other. And I do kind of feel like they're partner pieces in a way, for me.
As Dr. Kate Murry in A Wrinkle in Time
HB: How did you get involved with that? Did they come to you?
GMR: I got an offer from Ava. It's funny, because it was when I was doing the Cloverfield movie, I was working with Davif Oyelowo, and we had a crazy schedule, and we're in space, and it's all green screen and really hectic, and Ava was putting together a bunch of short films for the opening of the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture. And I remember David saying, "Oh I think Ava wants you to be in one of these," but it was shooting on a Sunday and we were doing six-day weeks, and I was like, "Oh my God, I don't know." This is Ava DuVernay! I don't wanna be part of her short film for the Smithsonian and not give it my best.
I was tempted to turn it down, and then I was on set one day with David, and David's on the phone, and this is the producer in him, he's on the phone saying, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, hang on," and he goes, "It's Ava," and just hands it to me—just hands me the phone! [Laughs] And I'm like, "Oh, thanks a lot, thanks a lot." So I was just chatting with her, like, "Well, of course I'm going to have to do it. Yeah, it's the seventh day of the week, but anything for you, and this is a really good cause, and it's a historic museum."
So anyway, we did this one shoot, which was a short film, in one day, which was incredible. It was about Hurricane Katrina and we shot underwater. My character was swimming through an underwater set, we used the same tank as they used for Lemonade. I mean, it was crazy. So that was when I first met her, and then I realized she was probably sussing me out a little bit, because then about a month later, I received the script and an offer for my agent.
The script was written by Jennifer Lee, who wrote Frozen. And then, it's crazy, because it was two days before the opening of the museum! It was such a crazy moment. I'm in the back of this limousine in Washington driving past the White House after we'd gone to this black-tie event, and Ava's like, "So what do you think? Are you gonna do it?" It was one of the best offers ever because we were both dressed to the nines. We'd both been to this incredible day in Washington, and I was like, "Hell yeah, I'm gonna do it. I'd love to work with you. Thank you so much."
HB: Was it strange for you to play a mother?
GMR: It's interesting. I definitely said to Ava when she first offered me, "Do you think I could pull off this mother thing?" I said, "I'm not trying to put myself out of a job or anything, but you know, if you believe it, I'll believe it." And she's like, "No, I think you have the access to the maturity and the gravitas. I believe you and Chris Pine would be a good dynamic." That was what I mostly took most convincing on, because knowing Ava, I was like, "I wanna be part of this world."
And as I say, as soon as I saw a picture of Storm Reid, I'm like, "Oh my God!" I saw myself in her and I was like, "I want to be a part of her ascendancy. I want to be part of her journey and support that." There weren't really Disney films with girls that looked like me and Storm when I grew up, so that was kind of special for me to be a part of.
HB: Did you do a lot of research to get into these worlds?
GMR: I did! We got to go to JPL! Disney hooked us up to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the NASA Research Center in Pasadena, which was really cool, having a tour there and talking to people who are, you know, taking missions to Mars! It's really fascinating meeting genuine astrophysicists.
We also had a consultant on Wrinkle in Time, Stephon Alexander, he wrote a book called The Jazz of Physics, and we had dinner with him and honestly, I'm still you know, I'm not gonna lie, I don't know that I grasped, or I'm ever going to be at that level. But it was just fascinating to know what is possible, and even though these books are on the realms of fantasy and science fiction, the stem of what they are based in is real science.
For the Cloverfield movie, I spoke with real female astronauts and that was really incredible. I met another astronaut when I was in Washington, D.C. For both of them, it was all sort of intertwined.
As Abbie in Irreplaceable You
HB: You've had such a busy year! Beauty and the Beast last year, and now three projects on top of each other: Cloverfield Paradox and A Wrinkle in Time, and then Irreplaceable You on Netflix next Friday. Is it going to make me cry?
GMR: [Laughing] I don't know! I don't want to give too much—big build up, anticipation. It is very funny as well. That was what was so interesting about the script, is that it really has the tonal balance between the gallows humor and then the seriousness of the situation. But it's also got some really funny and absurd moments, like life! Sometimes you're crying one minute and then laughing the next, because things are so painfully true.
I hope it's going to be uplifting. We intended to make a sort of inspiring film. I hope you'll feel hopeful and like you've had a sort of cathartic experience, but you still feel uplifted.
The Cloverfield Project is on Netflix now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.