'Fast Color' Star Gugu Mbatha-Raw On Her Unconventional Superhero Drama [Interview]

The British-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been working so steadily as an actor in both the UK and America that you might not realize just how many things you've seen her in over the years, even before her breakout, one-two punch of leading roles in the 2013 period drama Belle and 2014's music industry love story Beyond the Lights, both of which were directed by women—something that continues to mean a great deal to the actress. In fact, throughout her years in television and film, Mbatha-Raw has always sought out films with strong female characters at the center and/or works helmed by female filmmakers and scripted by female screenwriters.

After parts in such works as Concussion, Free State of Jones and The Wachowskis' insane Jupiter Ascending, she took on more recent substantial supporting parts in films like A Wrinkle In Time and Miss Sloane, as well as the ensemble cast of Netflix's The Cloverfield Paradox. Her latest film, Fast Color, was an audience and critical favorite at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and is finally making it to theaters thanks to the Lionsgate imprint Codeblack Films. Directed by Julia Hart (and co-written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz). The movie focuses on Ruth, who is constantly on the run from those who wish to examine and experiment on her because she has abilities. In order to keep her family (including a young daughter) safe, she left home years ago but finds herself coming back to the family farm when she has no where else to hide. It turns out that her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter (Saniyya Sidney) also have powers, and the three must figure out how to proceed as the world comes closing in. As it turns out, this family may be the key to helping save a world that is slowly dying around them, if the paranoid folks chasing them don't destroy these very special women.

/Film spoke with Mbatha-Raw recently to discuss the fundamental differences between Fast Color and every other film about people with special powers, how a pair of kick-ass combat boots helped her find her character, and how working in a Jim Henson-created universe is a bit of dream job for her. Fast Color is in theaters now.

This film debuted more than a year ago at SXSW. Are you relieved and excited that it's finally getting released?

Gugu: I know, right? Yeah, I'm a strong believer that everything happens when it's meant to. It's so interesting, especially with the themes of the movie, that we shot it two springs ago, but I think it's become even more relevant since the shoot. That was before #MeToo and Time's Up, before all of these conversations about women's empowerment really came to the forefront. So it was very interesting to me to see this as coming out at the perfect time, since we're all so much more acquainted with that conversation.

The film is a giant, layered reveal. Nothing is broadcast or spelled out, and by the end we know everything we need to know. Was that there in the script you read initially? If so, I can imagine that being a fascinating reading experience for you.

Gugu: It really was. I ripped through it in under two hours, and I am not a super-fast reader. I called my agent straight afterwards and said that I really wanted to meet Julia Hart because I loved it and it was so interesting. I was so drawn into the world, especially the character of Ruth. The way the film opens, we're introduced to her as this woman on the run, and there's so much mystery surrounding her, and she's kind of wild and desperate and in this fight-or-flight zone. There's such a primal and feral energy to her, and I was really intrigued to access that as an actor. Then the movie takes on this supernatural energy to it, and its really layered, as you said. There's so much to say about these three generations of women with these powers. The idea of having this power within you that culture or society has made you afraid of, I loved that idea. And then there's the idea of being a mother and the power of being a mother and a mother's love and what it really means to connect with your mother or daughter, and it's through that that Ruth comes into her own.

The thing that Ruth is most scared of in the beginning is herself, and much like anyone in any tense situation, she runs to her mother.

Gugu: I think it's tough as an adult to do that. We see so many film where the hero goes on all of these adventures and trials and tribulations, and then they go home, and that's the end of the movie—roll credits. In this movie, that's really where things start to get interesting. For a lot of people in the world, you can reinvent yourself in the outside world, but when you go home, those are the people who know you and those are the people that made you. Ultimately, that can be hard to face. The hardest thing to do is confront your past and make peace with it and connect in an authentic way with the people who know you best. There was something so deeply true about that because a lot of films tend to gloss over the complexity of those family relationships.

The film feels like the inevitable offshoot of the last ten years of nonstop superhero movies, most of what are versions of the same story. But it feels like Julia and Justin thought "Let's try something different." How would you qualify the differences without giving specifics away?

Gugu: This is certainly not a superhero movie in the Marvel or DC sense. That's pretty clear, but what's so refreshing about it is exactly that. Our culture has perhaps reaching a saturation point with a certain type of superhero movie. But with films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, we're seeing more females at the helm, but there are hardly any female superheroes of color, certainly not three generations of them, two of whom are mothers. It takes the layers of what it means to be a woman and doesn't simplify any of that. I thought it was really grounded and I responded to this authenticity of the world; it's a recognizable world—no one is wearing a cape or a suit. You don't need a weapon. Ruth has one altercation with a gun, but just for self defense. She's not hiding behind a weapon or tricks to save the day. It's not a destructive power she has; it's ultimately a creative power. That I found really original.

Ruth doesn't wear a costume, but you wear these amazing, powerful-looking combat boots. They look like someone who has her powers would wear them because she through maybe they could hold her steady while using her abilities.

Gugu: Hold her down! It's so funny you say that. We had this phenomenal costume designer, Elizabeth [Warn], and a lot of influence for Ruth was punk-era—she listens to a lot of punk music—but also it's a very desaturated, worn-down world. There are no bright colors; everything is washed out and thread bare. I've got clothes with holes in them and ripped jeans, and I remember we had several fitting to get the right boots. She was described in these androgynous terms, like she'd been sleeping rough or even in captivity—living by her wits out there—and the idea was that she's stolen these boots; maybe they were men's boots that were stuffed with paper because they didn't fit right, but they were heavy and solid. That was one of this grounded world that we were creating, so I'm glad you noticed them.

I would imagine they would change the way you walk and hold yourself.

Gugu: Ruth is a person who is wrestling with herself, and this look she had—the big coat, probably a stolen man's coat—is about her trying to blend in and not get caught. There's also a primal quality to her, so her clothes are not about being feminine; they're about practicality. Her belt is a piece of rope. There are no luxuries; water is a luxury in this world. The fact is, nobody is dressing for anything other than practicality and survival, and it's refreshing to see women, especially, dress that way. Women are often dressed to be provocative, certainly in the superhero genre.

There is a wonderful feminine energy to this work, but I noticed looking back over the last few years of movies you've made and several things you have coming out, a lot of them are centered on female characters and/or helmed by female filmmakers. You don't make a big deal about that in interviews, but is that something you're looking for when deciding what you're going to do next?

Gugu: I'm a woman, so I look for the best challenge. I look for somebody who has written the most nuanced character for me to play. I'm always looking to stretch, and not it's not always the case, but for me, it is women who have written to most nuanced stories with someone like me at the center. That's usually where I've found I can get my teeth into. So that's what I'm looking for, but that's not to say that I'm discounting male directors. I'm looking for the best material and the best acting challenge, and the message is key—what is this movie saying? what is the conversation about?

I was just fortunate enough to finish Misbehaviour, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, who did a lot of episodes of The Crown, and it's about the Miss World competition in 1970, which is a fascinating period because it was the year the Women's Liberation Moviement stormed the ceremony on live TV. But it was also the year that the first woman of color, Miss Grenada [Jennifer Hosten], who I play, actually won. It's this intersectional moment in time where feminism is exploding, on the one hand, but also representations of beauty, in terms of being perceived as beautiful, are changing. I think Miss Sweden was odd-on favorite, and suddenly representation is making a step forward at the same time feminism is saying "Now is the time for this misogynist machine to die." [laughs] So that's really interesting to me because it's a great role but also a fascinating conversation. And it's funny as well. You can't do a film in this day and age without having a little wink behind it, but it's done with the female gaze. That is really what a lot of these films need, and it's what I'm drawn to. It's time to look at these traditional worlds from a new point of view.

You mentioned Ruth's punk-rock aesthetic, but you also use music in this film as a battle cry in some cases. Do you also use music as part of getting ready to play her, and are there any tracks that stand out as being useful to do that?

Gugu: Funny you should say that because I just pulled up my playlist—I make a playlist for every character. I just pulled it up this morning when I was getting ready because I haven't listened to it for such a long time. What was on my Ruth playlist? There was some music already in the script, but we couldn't get the rights to a Patti Smith song. X-Ray Spex was introduced to Julia by the music supervisor, and Poly Styrene was this punk artist; "Germfree Adolescents" is the song, and it's great stuff. Also within the script is Lauren Hill; I grew up with "The Miseducation of Lauren Hill," and when I read that in the script, I thought "Oh my god, Julia and I are kindred spirits." Nina Simone's song "New World Coming" happens when myself and Lorraine's character first meet again.

Other songs that I have on my playlist were "Try a Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding—there are so many lyrics there that resonate in the mother-daughter dynamic and how they connect. And Adele song from her first album "19" called "Hometown Glory," which is the first song I ever heard Adele sing, and it's about your hometown and going home and that familiarity but also that bittersweet reflection of what home now is to you. "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac, which is such a classic, but there's also such much power and pain in it about the passage of time, from one generation to another. I've got an early Sia song called "Breathe Me."

I remember hearing that when Julia and Jordan decided to cast you and make this a story of three generations of women of color that they went back into the script to make slight adjustments to reflect that change culturally. Do you remember anything being different or any changes that you might have made to make Ruth more your own?

Gugu: Honestly, the pure casting of us and bringing ourselves was enough to do that. What was so refreshing about this is that it's not about race. These women just happen to be black women in this world. Obviously, this is America and this is the world we live in, and by not saying anything about that, you're making a statement. Imagery and optics are important because they go into subconscious, and without having to make anything an issue, you're including this into the pantheon of movies about women with power. That's important, and we deserve to be here and be represented. I like to think I didn't need to make any adjustments beyond being who I am as a person and actor to the story. These women are survivors; that's how I see them.

Working with Lorraine and Saniyya, did you find ways and elements in your performance to make yourselves seem like you were cut from the same cloth?

Gugu: It's interesting, that, because obviously for my character, she has a history with Lorraine, because she was playing my mom. But with Saniyya, as we said in the backstory, I had abandoned her as a baby, so really Ruth didn't know her; they didn't know each other. They knew of each other, but they didn't have a relationship. I met with Lorraine and we had a nice lunch beforehand; she has a daughter who's an only child, and I'm an only child, and we talked about those mother-daughter dynamics before shooting. Saniyya I met in the audition process, and she was amazing. There were lots of talented young girls I auditioned with, but it was very clear to me that she was the one, and I called Julia right away and told her it had to be Saniyya.

But I was cautious about spending too much time with her because I wanted to save the discovery of that relationship for on screen. I didn't want to become too comfortable with her off screen because that was not the dynamic in the movie. It's really not until the end of the film that the two of them even touch. So Ruth is very afraid of that intimacy, and I wanted to use the distance for the characters. Of course it's difficult to stay away from her because she's a gorgeous, talented incandescent girl, and I was never distant in a mean way, but I wanted to save that.

I know there has been a lot of focus with Fast Color on the superhero aspect of it, but what would you like people thinking about as they leave the theater?

Gugu: I want people to think about their mums [laughs]. I want people to think about the sacrifice and beauty of what it means to bring somebody into the world. Also, I really hope that people feel empowered to know that they have a huge amount of power inside of them, from generations and generations of ancestors. You don't have to wear a cape, you don't have to wield a weapon to be powerful; the power is already within you.

I noticed you are doing a voice—you and about a thousand other people—for this new Dark Crystal series for Netflix. I don't know how much you can say about it...

Gugu: I know! I was one of the first to sign up for it. I had no idea it would become such a star-studded thing. For me, Jim Henson and Dark Crystal are so iconic. I grew up obsessed with Fraggle Rock, and when I was maybe six or seven, I used to play Miss Piggy with my friend playing Kermit, so I grew us with all of that stuff—Jim Henson's The Storyteller. So to have the chance to do something that is so reminiscent of my childhood is incredible. Plus, in so many movies, we have so many special effects and CGI, and this is so tangible, it's almost retro. It's such a different art form, so I'm thrilled.

Gugu, best of luck with this.

Gugu: Thank you so much.