In the past 12 months Gugu Mbatha-Raw has landed roles opposite Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith and been taken under the wing of America's foremost talk-show host. So what's next for Britain's brightest star?
Published: 29 January 2015
Updated: 13:48, 29 January 2015
In her most recent film, Beyond the Lights, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a Rihanna-like pop star who’d never turn up to a press engagement without a cavalcade of black SUVs and an entourage of assistants, stylists and hangers-on. But Gugu is still sufficiently down-to-earth to arrive for our interview at an LA studio in her own car — a Mini Cooper — without anyone to hold her handbag.
That state of affairs may not last long, because the 31-year-old star of the 2013 British film Belle is about to hit the really big time, with a string of major Hollywood movies on the horizon, in which she’ll be seen acting opposite Keanu Reeves, Will Smith and Matthew McConaughey. She has also been nominated for the EE Rising Star Award at this year’s BAFTAs, chosen by the public. Previous winners include James McAvoy and Kristen Stewart.
Her fellow nominees include Jack O’Connell, the breakout British star of Unbroken and ’71, and Miles Teller, from the Oscar-nominated drama Whiplash. ‘I’ve actually kissed Miles Teller,’ Gugu confides, in what sounds like a scoop. In fact, the smooch was on-screen, as part of a short film series for The New York Times website.
Gugu, who has never been on Twitter or Facebook, plays her real-life romantic cards close to her chest. She dated the actor Harry Lloyd until 2012 and may run into him on the red carpet this awards season — he plays Stephen Hawking’s best friend in the much-nominated The Theory of Everything. If she has a boyfriend now, she’s not saying.
Playing Noni, who spends a lot of her time at parties or being pursued by paps, will have given Gugu some practice for the pressures of public life. For the part, she performed songs specially written by The-Dream, who has penned hits for Britney and Beyoncé, and choreographed by Laurieann Gibson, Lady Gaga’s former creative director.
The musical demands of the role weren’t a total departure for Gugu, who learned to play the saxophone as a girl and whose earliest ambitions were in musical theatre. At 11, she took to the stage for the first time as Dorothy, in a local production of The Wizard of Oz, and later appeared in National Youth Music Theatre productions, including Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Beyond the Lights portrays the poignant romance between Noni and an idealistic young cop (played by Nate Parker), who saves her from a suicide attempt. Due to be released in the UK this summer, the film was barely seen in the US, despite appearing on several best-of-2014 lists, and some have suggested it was overlooked by the mainstream because it was marketed misleadingly as, in the words of one critic, ‘a date movie for black audiences’.
Gugu admits to frustrations with the film’s promotional campaign. ‘As far as I’m concerned the movie is not about race,’ she says. ‘It’s a love story, and it’s about a woman finding her place in the world, struggling with her identity, which is universal. There were some short-sighted decisions made about reducing the capacity for the movie’s reach, [but] just because you’re the lead doesn’t mean you get approval over the poster.’
In the film, Noni’s pushy, single ‘momager’ is played to perfection by Minnie Driver. By contrast, Gugu’s mum, nurse Anne Raw, was wary of showbusiness and insisted her daughter complete her education before pursuing acting. On the other hand, Gugu says: ‘I am an only child, so I relate to the intensity of that single-parent, mother-daughter relationship.’
She was born in Oxford in 1983 and her parents split the following year. Her South African father Patrick Mbatha, a doctor, lives in Shropshire and they remain close. But Gugu grew up in Witney, where she occasionally crossed paths with the local MP, David Cameron. ‘He used to turn on the Christmas lights, and I once saw him in Waterstones,’ she says. ‘He came and talked at my school long before he was Prime Minister.’
At RADA, Gugu’s contemporaries included Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston and Andrea Riseborough, all former nominees for the Rising Star gong. Shortly after graduation, she was Juliet to Andrew Garfield’s Romeo at the Manchester Royal Exchange, when they were both 22. The last time she ran into The Amazing Spider-Man star, she says, was at the Met Ball in New York.
After a few years in small roles on the likes of Spooks and Doctor Who, in 2009 Gugu landed the part of Ophelia in a Donmar Warehouse production of Hamlet, opposite Jude Law. The show attracted mixed reviews but blockbuster audiences, and soon transferred to Broadway. She’s worked in the US ever since. ‘I never said, “Right, I’m going to crack Hollywood.” At RADA my aspirations ended at the Donmar and the Royal Court and the National Theatre,’ she says. ‘But I just started getting work here.’
Her rising-star status was cemented by her performance as the title character in Belle, which saw her named Best Actress at last year’s British Independent Film Awards. The story of a mixed-race aristocrat who pursues love and the end of the slave trade in 18th-century London, Belle won one important American admirer: Oprah Winfrey, who championed the film in the US. They often email. ‘Oprah is a wonderful fairy godmother,’ she says.
For now, home is Gugu’s apartment in West Hollywood, although she tends to hang out in hip Los Feliz or Silver Lake, and regularly takes advantage of the city’s open spaces, such as Griffith Park or Malibu Canyon. ‘I love to go hiking. There’s a lot of concrete in LA, and I come from the Shires, so it’s important for me to get back in touch with nature.’
She gravitates to greenery whenever she’s back in London, too. ‘One of my favourite places is Hampstead Heath,’ she says. ‘When I first moved to London I lived in Highgate and I would walk on the Heath at the weekends and go to the Kenwood House coffee shop.’
After shooting twisty courtroom thriller The Whole Truth with Keanu Reeves in New Orleans last year, she’s about to return to the Big Easy for The Free State of Jones, based on a true story from the American Civil War, with Matthew McConaughey. ‘I’m thrilled, because I love period dramas, and for a long time, being biracial, I wasn’t necessarily going to turn up on Downton Abbey,’ she says. ‘But yesterday I had my first costume fitting, and there I am — back in a corset!’
It makes a change from her last gig, playing Will Smith’s wife in the NFL whistleblower drama Concussion. During one gruelling day on the film’s Pittsburgh set: ‘We were shooting a club scene and the extras had to dance to the same song for eight hours,’ Gugu recalls. ‘Everyone was exhausted, so Will jumped up on the decks and started doing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song, and everybody sang along. It wasn’t egotistical; it was a morale booster. You spend any time around Will Smith and you learn how to be a movie star.’
It’s a lesson that she’s about to find very useful indeed.
Portraits by Steve Schofield
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