From Burbank to Bristol: Gugu Mbatha-Raw on her stellar career so far

From Burbank to Bristol: Gugu Mbatha-Raw on her stellar career so far

Monday, 7th February 2022
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Girl Before (credit: BBC)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Girl Before (credit: BBC)
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Gugu Mbatha-Raw tells the RTS why there is more to casting than meets the eye.

I feel like there’s a part of me in every role,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw told the RTS during a wide-ranging Q&A session with the radio and TV presenter Edith Bowman.  

The actor discussed her latest role, in the BBC One psychological thriller The Girl Before, and looked back on an extraordinary, eclectic career. This has ranged from Shakespeare (playing Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet in the West End and on Broadway) and Hollywood movies (including Larry Crowne, co-starring Tom Hanks) to TV series, such as Bad Girls and Doctor Who, and the title role in Belle, for which she won the 2014 British Independent Film Award for Best Actress.  

In The Girl Before, which was filmed in Bristol and premiered late last year, Mbatha-Raw played PR executive Jane and was an associate producer.  

As for more behind-the-camera involvement in other projects, she said she’d like to take it a step at a time: “I hope to continue growing as a producer.… Being part of the casting process made me appreciate that it’s not just about talent. There are so many talented people out there that, so often, it’s about fitting the pieces of the puzzle together.  

“Casting is not just about getting one great person for the role. The balance between the actors has to be right.”  

Working on The Girl Before was a homecoming, as it marked her return to acting in the UK after making Loki across the Atlantic. She portrayed Ravonna Renslayer in series 1 of the Disney+ superhero series.  

It was a departure from many of her previous roles because she played “the bad guy” – though “not your stereotypical villain” or typical superhero chick. Mbatha-Raw explained: “She keeps you guessing, and her moral compass is a little bit greyer, which meant I could bring some nuance to the role.” That Kate Herron directed all six episodes was a big plus. Series 2 is in the pipeline.  

When it comes to choosing which parts to accept, Mbatha-Raw said it was very much down to instinct, but there were other considerations: “Is it a director I’m excited to work with, is it a genre I maybe haven’t done before or haven’t done recently? 

“Another big thing is the message of the story. Is it going to bring some positive vibes to the universe? Is it going to create a conversation, uplift people or move them? It’s usually a good sign if I start reading my character out loud.”  

She starred in the 2016 Black Mirror episode San Junipero as Kelly, and was immediately struck by the script, having read it from beginning to end on her phone. “That was very Black Mirror,” she recalled. “I started reading it on a London bus. I thought I’d read the first couple of pages and put it down and finish it on my laptop when I got home, but I couldn’t stop reading because it was so compelling.”  

Regarding diversity, she said it was vital that every everyone, “regardless of their sexuality or gender should see themselves represented on screen”. Mbatha-Raw played a gay woman in the Second World War movie Summerland. “Whether they identify as queer, bisexual or lesbian, to me, what’s important is that they are portrayed as whole, three-dimensional characters.”  

As for the one part she’d like to take on that she hasn’t yet played, the actor said she’d love to play Cleopatra. “Having played small parts in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, I think there is a lot more to her than we’ve seen so far, especially as she’s often depicted from the male gaze. I’d love to find more nuances in Cleopatra.”  

Report by Steve Clarke. ‘In conversation with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’ was an RTS event held on 25 January. The event was produced by the RTS and Public Eye.