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.

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