Gugu was born in Oxford, England, she appeared in TV series Bad Girls, Bonekickers and Doctor Who. In 2013 She starred in Amma Asante's film Belle.Followed by starring in Gina Prince-Bythewood's film Beyond The Lights. Also starred in Jupiter Ascending, Concussion, Free State of Jones, Miss Sloane and Beauty and the Beast.
2009: Hamlet with Jude Law at Wyndham's Theatre: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is mad for it
Hamlet with Jude Law at Wyndham's Theatre: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is mad for it
Gearing up to play Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet in Michael Grandage's production at Wyndham's Theatre, Gugu Mbatha-Raw discussed trauma with a psychiatrist – and took in some toddler tantrums .
Fantastic clarity: Gugu Mbatha-Raw
By Georgia Dehn
12:25PM BST 28 May 2009
At the end of 2007 it was announced that Jude Law was to play Hamlet in what would be the last production of the Donmar Warehouse’s year-long West End season, and immediately everyone wondered who was to be his Ophelia. But it wasn’t until January this year that it was revealed that the relatively unknown 25-year-old Gugu Mbatha-Raw had secured the part of the Prince of Denmark’s sweetheart. It is now two weeks into rehearsal, and Mbatha-Raw declares, 'Jude is so passionate about the part. His energy and enthusiasm really buoys me up – it’s infectious.’
Michael Grandage, the director of the Donmar and the man who cast Mbatha-Raw, says that Ophelia was always a role he wanted to keep for his own discovery. 'I didn’t want that part going to some slightly too senior actress. I wanted to find somebody youthful, somebody who is able to act innocence of a kind and yet seem to be in a modern world. When Gugu came in, it was one of those meetings that doesn’t happen very often to a director, where everything fell into place. She had a fantastic clarity with the text and I thought, “Ah, this is our girl.”’
Gugulethu Mbatha-Raw (her full forename means 'our pride’ in Zulu) says that she loves tragedy, but has 'been blessed not to have any horrendous life experiences’. The daughter of a South African doctor father and a British nurse mother, she was born and raised in Oxfordshire and, she says, was a bouncy, happy child who liked to skip around the house singing, before skipping off to London at 18 to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. 'My mum was probably thinking, “Is this child for real?”?’ Mbatha-Raw says, laughing. 'I think I just loved attention really, I was very energetic and a right chatterbox.’
Since graduating from Rada a month early in 2004 to undertake her first professional part as Celia in the Regent’s Park open- air production of As You Like It, Mbatha-Raw’s career on stage has flourished. She played Juliet opposite her fellow rising star Andrew Garfield’s Romeo at the Royal Exchange in 2005, for which she was nominated for the Manchester Evening News Award for best actress, and the same year appeared in two roles in Antony and Cleopatra, also at the Royal Exchange. In 2007
she was part of Michael Attenborough’s cast in the well-received revival of Theodore Ward’s play Big White Fog. And before rehearsals for Hamlet began at the end of April, she was on tour with David Hare’s Gethsemane, which finished its four-month run at the National Theatre in February.
She has had roles in the television series Doctor Who and Spooks, and has been recognised in the street because of it, but the critical recognition came for her brilliant performance in Fallout, the powerful Channel 4 drama about a teenager killed in a stabbing attack, adapted from Roy Williams’s play of the same name. Mbatha-Raw played Shanice, the beautiful girlfriend of the killer. 'That was a crazy time,’ she says. 'I was in Australia for a two-week intensive Shakespeare workshop with Michael Attenborough and Cicely Berry, a voice coach from the RSC, waiting to hear if I got the part in Fallout. I had to fly back a day early to begin filming.
'It was quite strange having those experiences back to back. My brain had to switch from kangaroos and a company of actors sitting chatting about Shakespeare’s language, to the gritty reality of Elephant and Castle knife crime. Although interestingly street language has a level of muscular emphasis and rhythm to it that’s similar to Shakespeare’s.’
Her level of dedication to a role is remarkable. To prepare to play Ophelia (and her mad scene) she spent time with a psychiatrist chatting about grief and trauma, with a particular interest in how people react to extreme situations. As an added extra-curricular activity, she took herself off to Denmark to visit Kronborg castle in Helsingør (immortalised as Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, in Hamlet). 'I know it is doubtful that Shakespeare actually went there,’ Mbatha-Raw says. 'But it was important for me to put my character into that environment. I wanted a sense of it and I think when you are doing such a famous play it is good to get some kind of ownership.’
Sitting here, casual in tracksuit bottoms, pumps and a military jacket, Mbatha-Raw says she is finding the process of discovering her Ophelia cathartic. 'It is a delicate process, especially with something as intense as the madness, which I am still exploring. In terms of emotional preparation I have been listening to a lot of [the harpist and singer-songwriter] Joanna Newsom and Björk.’ One thing she has not done since landing the part is study previous performances. 'I have such a strong memory of how Kate Winslet played Ophelia in the Kenneth Branagh film, which I saw when I was doing my A-levels, but I don’t think watching it again would be helpful. I’m actually finding observing how toddlers behave in public helps more.’
Interview by Georgia Dehn. Photograph by Sam Pelly
'Hamlet’ is on now at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London