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.
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.