'Belle' Of The Big Screen: Gugu Mbatha-Raw Stays Busy In Film
LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
When NPR last visited with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, she was fresh off a starring role as Belle, the title character the movie is named for. She played Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain and an African slave entrusted to a powerful English lord. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has since played roles in some seven films at the box office and in an episode of the acclaimed TV series "Black Mirror." We checked in with her because she's also in the political thriller "Miss Sloane" out in theaters this weekend. She joined us from our NPR West bureau, and I asked her to give us the latest on what she's been up to since she last spoke with NPR two years ago.
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: I can't believe it was two years since I was talking about Belle. It really has flown. It's been phenomenal. I mean, I've had some wonderful opportunities. I spent a chunk of time in New Orleans doing the movie "Free State Of Jones" getting to work with Matthew McConaughey and also did "Concussion" where I got to work with Will Smith. So it's been fascinating, you know, getting to learn from those movie icons, and then really lovely to be doing "Miss Sloane," you know, with a female lead. Jessica Chastain is an actress that I've admired for such a long time.
SINGH: Over the years, I know that you've taken on a lot of roles examining race in depth. You know, this comes at a time at least here in the United States where racial tensions seem to be at an all time high, I think, depends on who you ask. But why do you think we're having so many discussions about race particularly in the United States?
MBATHA-RAW: I think being biracial is a different experience. I think that and coming from the U.K. I feel as much white as I do black. And so it's really important for me to address these issues of identity in my work. But also, you know, we're always stronger when we work on, you know, what we have in common. And I love exploring that in my work.
SINGH: I ask because as a biracial, bi-ethnic journalist of Latina and South Asian descent, it seems that that conversation happens so much more in the United States than when I'm, you know, traveling overseas. I wonder if you've had that experience.
MBATHA-RAW: I absolutely have. I think that may be coming from the U.K., it wasn't something I was as used to talking about. It wasn't really something I was asked about very much in the U.K. For me I think it's a question of cultural legacy, and I think that it cannot be denied that slavery happened here in America. And I think that the wounds of that are still being worked through. And I think that's a very specific cultural legacy to the United States of America.
SINGH: Are you ever concerned at all about being pigeonholed?
MBATHA-RAW: I really don't think so. You know, I feel like my work has been incredibly diverse. You know, I'm always working on doing different projects in different areas. You know, Belle was one thing a few years ago, but then being able to do something like "Beyond The Lights," which doesn't really explore the issue of race at all. It's more about identity and pop culture and women and misogyny in the music industry, you know, and then to be able to go and do something like "Black Mirror" which is, you know, again, another period of history and, you know, has this sort of sci-fi element to it.
SINGH: Well, I'm glad you actually pivoted to that. We were going to go there because another role this year has been that of Kelly in the episode of Netflix's "Black Mirror." You play a 1980s party girl in a same-sex relationship. And, first, here's your character Kelly meeting her love interest for the first time. Both women are outside in the rain.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")
MBATHA-RAW: (As Kelly) Sorry I pushed you into it. Saturday nights once a week - it's like no time. I get impatient.
MACKENZIE DAVIS: (As Yorkie) No, no, it's not that. Everyone was looking.
MBATHA-RAW: (As Kelly) Looking?
DAVIS: (As Yorkie) Yeah. You know, two girls dancing.
MBATHA-RAW: (As Kelly) OK - one, folks are way less uptight than they used to be, and two - this is a party town. No one's judging. Face it. If they were staring, it's because I am bodacious.
SINGH: Bodacious - oh, look at you.
SINGH: So the episode was definitely praised for its moving portrayal of a lesbian relationship with LGBT representation lacking in Hollywood, many might say. Was this something in the back of your mind this - you know, what this role would actually mean in the broader sense?
MBATHA-RAW: You know, what? I actually have to confess my ignorance at this point because I had no idea, really. I wasn't aware of the misrepresentation, I guess, of, you know, the LGBTQ community. And I confess I was ignorant to that. And so I was very surprised and delighted that so many people have found so many layers to it.
SINGH: Let's get to the next layer of your career which is the latest film. You play the character of Esme Maniturian (ph). Is that right?
MBATHA-RAW: Manucharian (laughter).
SINGH: I would have lost the bet on this one. OK.
MBATHA-RAW: No. It's OK, and it's kind of ironic because we do have a scene in a radio studio in the movie where the announcer mispronounces the character's name, which I could relate to so that was fun.
SINGH: Oh, I didn't mean for that parallel to happen.
SINGH: You play the character of Esme...
SINGH: ...You work for the lobbying group that's very similar to the Brady Campaign which fights for gun control.
SINGH: Let's take a listen to your opening lines in the film with Jessica Chastain who plays Miss Sloane.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISS SLOANE")
JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Elizabeth Sloane) We're all here to ensure safe passage of the Heaton-Harris bill into federal law. How do we do it?
MBATHA-RAW: (As Esme Manucharian) Realistically, we don't. We fight as hard as we can, build a strong base of support, so we have a better chance when they introduce the next year's Heaton-Harris or the one after that.
CHASTAIN: (As Elizabeth Sloane) I didn't just move across town with the aim of losing as slowly as possible. Name and seniority?
MBATHA-RAW: (As Esme Manucharian) Esme Manucharian - nine years.
CHASTAIN: (As Elizabeth Sloane) Manucharian - I've heard that name. You led the fight to preserve the concealed carry ban in Illinois.
MBATHA-RAW: (As Esme Manucharian) Ultimately, unsuccessfully, but yes.
CHASTAIN: (As Elizabeth Sloane) OK, Esme, why are we going to lose?
MBATHA-RAW: (As Esme Manucharian) For every dollar Brady spends on campaign contributions, you know how much the gun lobby spends?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) 38.
MBATHA-RAW: I got to do a lot of research. I got to visit Washington, D.C., for the first time and - with Jessica. We were actually there doing research together.
SINGH: And you talked to lobbyists?
MBATHA-RAW: Yeah. I got to meet several lobbyists. We had a lobbying firm that were sort of our consultants for the movie. And myself and Jessica got to do a tour of Capitol Hill which was fascinating. I also got to meet with leading members of the Brady campaign as well as a young woman whose mother was involved in the Sandy Hook and how that had motivated her to become involved in gun violence prevention.
SINGH: Sort of becomes more than headlines doesn't it?
SINGH: Well, Gugu, what's next for you?
MBATHA-RAW: Well, I'm here in LA right now about to start work on "A Wrinkle In Time" with Ava DuVernay which I'm really excited about. (Laughter).
SINGH: I bet.
MBATHA-RAW: Yeah, yeah. I'm thrilled. You know, I didn't grow up with the book as a little girl in the U.K., but I'm reading it now (laughter). And, you know, Ava is just so dynamic, and it's just such a phenomenal cast in that film. So I'm really thrilled to be able to get to work on that in the next couple of weeks.
SINGH: That was Gugu Mbatha-Raw. You can watch her in "Miss Sloane" in theaters this weekend. Gugu, thank you so much for being here.
MBATHA-RAW: Thank you so much for having me.
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