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.
‘She’s got a big mouth and has sex appeal, but she ends up thirsting for much more than that. She doesn’t just want the ‘tit parts’ she gets given, she’s got the intelligence for more.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is talking about Nell Gwynn, mistress of Charles II and the most famous actress of the Restoration era. She says she identifies with Gwynn “absolutely”. The 32-year-old is about to play “pretty, witty Nell”, as Samuel Pepys described her, at the Globe theatre. Right now, though, she’s sitting in a booth in a café near the Thames, dressed in black, dark eyes flashing as she talks with untrammelled enthusiasm, drawing parallels between the 1770s and the present.
Mbatha-Raw is one of Bafta’s Rising Stars of 2015. You might recognise her from Amma Asante’s Belle (2013), in which she starred as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate child of a Navy captain and a West Indian slave who was brought up in London society. Or you might know her as companion Martha Jones’s sister in Doctor Who (2007), or as Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet in the West End in 2009, and later on Broadway. You might not know her at all – but that’s about to change. Over the coming months we’ll see her in films opposite Will Smith, Keanu Reeves and Matthew McConaughey. Mbatha-Raw’s star is rising.
But first there’s Nell Gwynn, a play written by her friend Jessica Swale. Swale is a director turned writer, whose first play, Blue Stockings, premiered at the Globe in 2013. The two met on an open-air production of As You Like It in Bristol 10 years ago. Mbatha-Raw was playing Celia; Swale was assisting the director. “We kept in touch over the years,” says Mbatha-Raw. “I’ve done the odd play reading and workshop of her stuff.” She notes delightedly that Gwynn “had this close relationship with Aphra Behn, the [female] playwright of the time – that’s like me and Jessica”.
Swale has created what Mbatha-Raw calls “a modern play in the style of the Restoration stage”. Is their Nell going to be a racy portrait? “You can’t do Nell Gwynn without acknowledging the bawdiness and the vivacity of that era,” she says. “Under the Puritans, the theatres were closed, the Globe was closed, there was no theatre or dancing or anything joyful allowed for several years. Then everything came back with a bang, and Charles II garnered a reputation as this decadent king. We’re definitely going to explore that in a cheeky way. But we were all very clear that we didn’t want it to be ‘Carry On Nell Gwynn’.”
Gwynn was famously brought up in a brothel, although she denied having been a child prostitute. She was first noticed by Charles while working as a “flirty orange seller” at the King’s Theatre, before her stage career took off, then went on to become his mistress for 17 years and a fixture at court until his death in 1685. Aside from the mostly glowing mentions of her acting in Pepys’s diary, she comes to us vividly across the ages in portraits by Peter Lely and others, including several nudes.
I wonder if Mbatha-Raw sees any parallels with the way actresses and pop stars are portrayed today. “As in ‘sex sells’? Historically, that’s always been an element of that in acting,” she says. “The first actresses were often compared to prostitutes and sometimes they actually were. It’s fascinating to me; I did a film recently [Beyond the Lights] which explored the misogyny in the music industry, what women have to do, or think they have to do, to get attention, playing up your sexuality and all of that. It’s really interesting to go back to Nell Gwynn and realise that this is not remotely a new idea.”
I ask Mbatha-Raw if she thinks it’s hard to be a feminist in the entertainment industry. “I don’t think it’s hard; you’ve obviously got to know who you are. I suppose I’m a feminist but I think that word comes with so many connotations of a previous generation. I think it’s about the choices you make, really: sometimes it’s as much about the stuff you turn down as the stuff you actually accept.”
In Beyond the Lights (2014), Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a British pop star who has been groomed for stardom for years by her overbearing mother but desperately struggles with fame.
I wonder which of the two characters she most identifies with – the sassy, sexy Noni or the tightly laced Belle, for whom much of the emotion is below the surface. Belle, she says, she “completely relates to on every level”, but she notes: “Those characters share a lot. In many ways, a character like Noni has a more complex inner life, precisely because her armour is so sparkly. You forget that this person is deeply troubled because they’re shaking their booty in your face and have got lashings of make-up and hair extensions.”
Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin described Beyond the Lights as “a wildly larger-than-life star-is-born story” with an “unexpected rawness to the romance”, noting that Mbatha-Raw and her co-star Nate Parker had “better chemistry” than any screen couple he had seen in the past year. Despite its growing number of admirers, however, the film went straight to DVD in Britain – a fact that Mbatha-Raw describes as “disappointing”, “frustrating” and “irritating” – and the suspicion remains that this was down to unspoken racism about the fact that its leads were both non-white.
Mbatha-Raw is the mixed-race daughter of a South African-born GP and a white British nurse. Does she think some people will have a problem with her being mixed-race and playing Nell Gwynn? “I don’t know,” she says. “For me it’s not an issue.”
Is it a provocative piece of casting? She expresses surprise. “That’s who I am, so I suppose that would mean my very existence is provocative. I’ve played Juliet and she’s supposed to be Italian, and I’m not Italian, and I’ve played Ophelia and she was in theory Danish. I think with theatre hopefully if you have the essence of a person it doesn’t matter so much what you look like.”
Race really wasn’t anything she thought about growing up in the sleepy middle-class village of Witney in Oxfordshire, she says. Her parents separated when she was three and, being an only child, she was encouraged by her mother to join lots of after-school clubs. “I identified more with being the theatre girl and the dancing girl and the girl that played the saxophone and sang in the choir, that was really my world.” It was the stage rather than film or television that drew her to acting. “There was never a conscious choice. It was always theatre because it was the only thing that was tangibly accessible to me growing up.” Her first role was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, aged 11. She auditioned for Rada at 17, and went there at 18. Ben Whishaw was in the year above; Tom Hiddleston and Andrea Riseborough in the year below.
She made a splash the year after she left drama school in two acclaimed Shakespeare productions, but is only now being recognised by Bafta. As a woman, she says, the challenge is to find roles that are not just “the wife of, or love interest of”.
Is she a wife of? Or love interest of? She tries to keep her personal life separate from her career, she says. “I think once you open the door, it’s very hard to close it again, so I never open the door.
“I’m not on Twitter or Facebook or any social media. You have to protect your sanity and your sanctuary. I think that’s really important, as an actor, because if you want to be able to represent real life you have to still have the ability to observe real life. And if everybody’s observing you, it must just become a very lonely place, unless you completely make friends with it.
“Someone like Will Smith has been a movie star for such a long time, he enjoys it and he’s very comfortable with it. I think it depends on your personality.”
Mbatha-Raw appears with Smith in the forthcoming film Concussion, about the forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu, who uncovered the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players, caused by years of sustaining concussive blows. (The condition is the same as that associated with “punch-drunk” behaviour in boxers.)
She has a supporting role in soon-to-be-released legal drama The Whole Truth, which stars Keanu Reeves and Renée Zellweger, and she has also recently returned from a gruelling shoot in New Orleans with Matthew McConaughey, which she describes as “70 days shooting in swamps in a corset” for The Free State of Jones, which tells the true story of anti-slavery Confederate deserters in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War. McConaughey, she says, was formidably focused and in character most of the time.
After that, she says, she needed to come back home to “do some theatre, see some old friends, go to yoga, take a hike, do some normal things” to “refill that deep, deep well of emotion that is required for those more emotional roles”. The comic tone of Nell Gwynn will be a departure. Is it a risk for her? Her brow furrows. “Risk sounds so negative.” (This is very Mbatha-Raw; she describes herself as “relentlessly optimistic” and it would be hard to disagree.) Is she funny, though? “The idea of stand-up is my worst nightmare,” she says.
I wonder if she feels keenly the predicament of the courtesan, so dependent on a man’s favour, growing older, being replaced by someone else. “Oh yes, the mistress before and the mistress after, the play talks about that.”
Does she relate to it as a woman in the acting world? The fear of losing out on roles to the next generation of pretty young things?
“Well those roles are fine for a time but you don’t want to be chasing that forever, that’s a bit tragic. I can’t wait to play more mature roles.”
But are those roles there? Or are they simply rewritten as roles for younger women?
“You have to write them yourselves!” she says. “I’ve had many conversations about this with the female writer-directors that I’ve worked with. You can’t expect a man to have the same point of view that you’re going to have.”
We’ll see the fruits of it in Nell Gwynn, she says. There haven’t been that many portrayals of her, and she’s never been the subject of her own drama. “She’s always that slightly silly floozy and we’re trying to make her a little bit more than that. A little bit more gutsy.”