Gugu Mbatha-Raw interview

English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn’t a household name yet, but I feel like it’s only a matter of time. She’s already headlined a quiet romantic drama (Beyond the Lights), a sci-fi thriller (The Cloverfield Paradox), and what might be the best episode of the anthology series Black Mirror (season 3’s “San Junipero”).

In Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, Mbatha-Raw plays a scientist and mother of two, a grounding force in a narrative that eventually travels to far-off worlds and wholly unfamiliar places. I spoke with the actress at the movie’s press junket last week, where we talked about working with director Ava DuVernay, her on-screen bond with actor Chris Pine, what she thought about The Cloverfield Paradox going straight to Netflix, and more.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw A Wrinkle in Time 2

Gugu Mbatha-Raw interview

I’ve been a fan of yours since Undercovers, so it’s great to be able to chat with you.

Wow! Way back! My first American job.

You’ve worked with a lot of really terrific directors. What was it like working with Ava on this one?

I’d always wanted to work with Ava. When I saw Selma for the first time, I was really inspired by her. Then 13th, which is so important. I’ve been really impressed by her energy and her vision. We actually worked together briefly on a short film which was for the opening of the Smithsonian – the African-American Museum of History and Culture. It was a short film about Hurricane Katrina, actually, and we shot in an underwater tank for a day. It was a beautiful little piece. When we went to the Smithsonian for the opening was when she first mentioned A Wrinkle in Time to me. I was at first unsure, because I didn’t know the book. Also, I’d never played a mom before, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this, but if you think I can pull it off, sure, let’s discuss! I really want to work with you.’ So then I read the script. I knew Oprah was attached and I was like, ‘OK, it’s going to be a big one.’ And it’s Disney. And it’s culturally and historically significant that Ava has this incredible big budget movie, so I really wanted to support that. Then I saw a picture of Storm [Reid], and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, of course I have to do this,” because I could totally see myself in her. And I really wanted to be a part of this cultural moment.

What did you see Ava bring to this movie that no one else could have?

Ava brings Ava. I think that’s part of the message of this movie. We all have something unique to offer, and who you are is enough. I think she brings her point of view and like every audience member is going to bring their own life experience to this film, whether they have a history with the book or not, or whether they’re a fan of somebody in the movie from something else, or whether they’re a parent or a child. I think that’s the empowering thing about this adaptation. It’s got her DNA all over it. It’s her vision. It’s colorful and fantastical and beautiful and spiritual and has this incredibly diverse cast, all things that I think are very conscious choices for Ava in terms of shifting the cultural zeitgeist and providing us with something we can see ourselves reflected in.

Mrs. Murry isn’t in the story very much, but she’s important because she establishes a baseline of normality before her kids get whisked away. What kinds of conversations did you and Ava have about the character?

Yeah, like you say, there’s relatively few scenes – I always compare her to Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan, being there at the beginning and at the end and bookending the reality before the children go on this fantastical adventure. For me, obviously it was interesting to me that she was not only a mom – basically a single mom at this point, with her husband being away for four years – but also a scientist. A doctor in her own right. A working mother keeping the family together, which is something I relate to growing up with a single mom, too. So there was so much there that really grounds the story in the home. That’s really what they’re all trying to get back to, and unite at the end of it. So I was just focused on being as real and grounded a force as possible.

Had you met Chris Pine before making this movie?

No.

Did the two of you spend any time together to create the bond we see on screen?

You know, Ava actually did sort of set us up with a date with the children (laughs). It was kind of funny. We had lunch when we met them, so that was interesting. It was me, Chris, Deric, Storm, and Levi. I thought maybe Ava was going to come along, and their parents, and then suddenly we’re in this restaurant, and everyone’s gone. It’s just me and Chris and the kids. I’m like, ‘Oh, nice one. I see what you did there. Throwing us into our parent acting exercise, method style.’ So that was a bonding experience and parenting in at the deep end. (laughs) We also got to meet this wonderful doctor, Dr. Steven Alexander, who wrote this book The Jazz of Physics and who sort of consulted on the science of the film. It was really interesting having dinner with him. We both visited JPL in Pasadena and got to meet real rocket scientists, and people planning missions to Mars and getting into the headspace of that theorizing was interesting extracurricular activity. Beyond that, it was just going to work and jumping in and showing up and playing.

Your reunion with him is one of the film’s most emotional moments. Was that a tough scene to shoot?

It’s beautifully written in the script, and as I say, we had relatively few moments to sort of establish this lived-in marriage and this absence. So yeah, I did feel a bit of pressure. How do you know how that would feel? But I think the way that Ava’s captured it cinematically, there’s an epic romantic beat going through that moment that’s very cinematic. I don’t know, those scenes are always – especially when you don’t have many words – it’s all about the thoughts going through your head.

netflix the cloverfield paradox deal

When did you find out The Cloverfield Paradox was going to debut on Netflix, and what did you think about that decision?

I found out the same as the rest of the cast on the morning of the Super Bowl. We all had a conference call at 11am that morning, and I had no idea. I had no idea. I knew it was Super Bowl Sunday, and I thought maybe the news would be that there would be a trailer (laughs). That was literally as far as my imagination had stretched. So yeah, it was a surprise. It was a complete surprise, and a shock. It’s a new way to debut a movie. It took me a long while to process that. But I don’t know. It’s interesting, it’s sort of an experiment in a way. As an actor, you have control over few things, so sometimes you just have to be zen about that stuff (laughs). Otherwise, as I say, you can’t get caught up in controlling those kind of moments. But it was a privilege to have that sort of debut, I suppose.

I know you have a relationship with Netflix already because you starred in one of the best episodes of Black Mirror. Is that a show you’d be interested in returning to?

I had the best time with San Junipero. Who knows? I love Charlie Brooker. He’s such a genius writer. Those stories are always original and compelling. So yeah, I’d certainly be open to it.

Your new movie Fast Color is debuting at South By Southwest. We know it’s about a woman with superhuman abilities who has to return home after being on the run, but what more can you tell us about that one?

You have to come to South By and watch it! [laughs]

[laughs] I think we’re going to have somebody there. No hints?

I’m sort of in the Wrinkle zone today, so maybe we can talk about that in a couple of weeks.

Have you seen J.J. Abrams lately?

I see J.J. periodically. He was around during Cloverfield, so we’re always running into each other.

Do you guys have anything in the works?

No, not that I know of. Who knows? We shall see!

***

A Wrinkle in Time opens in theaters on March 9, 2018.

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