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’s acting portfolio boasts roles like a bonnet-wearing 18th-century aristocrat in Belle, a violet-haired pop star in Beyond the Lights, and a futuristic astronaut in The Cloverfield Paradox, to name a few. It’s impossible to predict whom the 35-year-old is going to play next—and that’s just how she likes it. “No one wants to be stuck in a box,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I have a short attention span and want to keep myself interested. Variety is the spice of life, and I never want to get bored.”
At our New York City shoot, she is in full-on storytelling mode, assigning personalities to the many hats she tries on. An oversize green Mulberry topper is “very My Fair Lady,” a straw-bow Delpozo style is appropriately dubbed Minnie Mouse, and a wide-brimmed Elie Saab design is so “Anne of Green Gables” that Mbatha-Raw jokes she should go get some honey from her bees as she poses.
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There’s no doubt that Mbatha-Raw loves what she refers to as the dress-up element of getting into character, but when it comes to her hair and makeup, she prefers to keep things simple. “I feel most beautiful when I’m not being perceived as beautiful,” she says over coffee in Brooklyn a few days after our shoot. “If I’m not thinking about what I look like, then I’m just happy and free to be myself.” Growing up in rural Oxfordshire, “a million miles away from Hollywood or any big city,” she was raised by her English mom, a nurse, and her South African dad, a doctor, to “nurture the soul, spirit, and intelligence rather than the exterior.” That notion has stuck with Mbatha-Raw, so it’s been a process for her to accept the value placed on appearance in the entertainment industry. “I’ve had to come to terms with the concept of beauty without judging it as a vacuous thing,” she says. “My image is part of my job, but I’m getting more comfortable with knowing that it doesn’t define who I am or mean that I’m a superficial person. It’s about expressing yourself.”
Both on and off camera, Mbatha-Raw favors wearing her voluminous, curly hair as is. If a project specifically calls for another hairstyle, “it really has to support the story,” she says, explaining that her role in 2014’s Beyond the Lights was one such case. “My character ultimately took out her purple weave and wore her hair natural, which was essential in the evolution of her authenticity.” For The Cloverfield Paradox, which hit Netflix in February, she was determined to have her character depicted just as authentically. “I was quite adamant about showing my natural hair onscreen, because I had never really seen anyone with hair like mine in a sci-fi movie,” she says. “Images are so important, and I thought it was an opportunity for little girls growing up mixed to feel included and see that they can be an astronaut too.” Though her hair appeared totally natural in the film, she did get a bit of added length from extensions. “I could never shed the character because I was literally carrying her on my scalp,” she says. “That was hard, because at the end of the day, you really want to strip it all back and just be you.”
Mbatha-Raw is all for a toned-down look, and after having her hair pressed into a retro “wet set” style for the upcoming 1950s drama Motherless Brooklyn, she gained a newfound appreciation for today’s more relaxed beauty standards. “I’m grateful that in the 21st century, I have the freedom to go to yoga or SoulCycle without having to worry about what I look like,” she says. “But even though I’m constantly running around barefaced with wet hair, I really do respect that element of putting yourself together before you step out the front door. There’s definitely power in making a choice about how you present yourself to the world, as long as you never feel tied to wearing a mask.”
Disguises are limited to the big screen for Mbatha-Raw, who doesn’t plan on pursuing a full-time gig on TV anytime soon. “I have to say, I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe,” she says with a laugh. “I just can’t get my head around the idea of playing one character for several years right now, which is why I like film. It’s nice to have a beginning, middle, and end. That way, you know where you’re going.” She might know where she’s headed, but one thing’s for sure: Her audience certainly never will.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital downloadApril 13.