Destined for big-time fame, Gugu Mbatha-Raw talks about her English countryside upbringing, making movies that matter, facing her fears and better living through yoga.
She’s still relatively unknown in the United States, but just wait. British screen and stage actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw is about to become a household name. Following last year’s one-two punch of critically acclaimed roles—she played the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral in the English period piece Belle, and a suicidal contemporary pop diva in Beyond the Lights—the 32-year-old is now gracing movie screens opposite Will Smith in Concussion (opening Dec. 25). She’s also been tapped to co-star with Matthew McConaughey in the Civil War drama The Free State of Jones (due to hit screens March 2016) as well as to play feather duster Plumette in Disney’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (with a release date in 2017). The actress is hitting her stride, emerging as a powerhouse talent with incredible range and a star of the brightest magnitude.
Elegant and refined, Mbatha-Raw is outfitted in what she calls her planewear—a gray-colored chunky cable cashmere sweater, a scarf tied around her neck, dark jeans and black leather boots—in preparation for a flight to London later today. “I have to say, I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about fashion,” she says, her charm punctuated by her British accent. In fact, donning the stunning fashions for her Modern Luxury photo shoot was “a Cinderella moment,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I got to wear my first Chanel dress—I’ve never even tried on any Chanel before. And the Carolina Herrera dress I wore had a demure quality to it that made me feel like Audrey Hepburn.”
We’re chatting over cups of Earl Grey tea, nestled in a red leather corner banquette at the lounge inside the Andaz Wall Street, the New York City hotel where she’s staying, and, of course, her role in Concussion is on the top of her mind. It’s the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Smith), a Nigerian immigrant and forensic neuropathologist who blew the whistle on the NFL by linking chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease affecting football players, to repeated blows to the head. Mbatha-Raw plays Prema Mutiso, the doctor’s wife and strongest supporter. “I really loved the essence of the story about fighting for truth and doing the right thing,” the actress says. “The film has a strong moral core.”
In the gripping drama, the two African immigrants search for the American dream while holding true to their own values and ideals—something to which the biracial daughter of a black South African father and white English mother says she can easily relate. “My character, Prema, is both the emotional and moral compass for Bennet Omalu in this David and Goliath kind of journey they go on, with him inadvertently taking on this big corporation and what the implications of that are,” Mbatha-Raw says. “They’re two foreigners in America, but [they] somehow bring a perspective that was not numbed by the culture. There was a freshness to the way that they saw life and the culture here. I relate to that in some ways, in terms of not having grown up with American football in my consciousness.”
Mbatha-Raw brings a sense of grace and quiet confidence to her role, and she was struck by the subtly of the subplot, a love story. “It was their faith that brought them together, which I thought was quite beautiful and romantic,” she notes. “And it was unsentimental how they get together, which was quite refreshing. It wasn’t sugarcoated in any way.”
Raised in Witney, a small town in the English countryside outside of Oxford, and educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Mbatha-Raw has lived in Los Angeles for six years. Remarkably down-to-earth, she doesn’t speak at all about her romantic life, or post selfies on Instagram or travel with an entourage. She selects her roles with an eye toward the bigger picture: “I do think quite carefully about the projects that I choose and what the message is. Because, ultimately, rather than having fun pretending, it’s like: Well, what are you putting into the universe, and what are you contributing? And how is that going to evolve the culture potentially? I know that might sound highfalutin and pretentious, but I do think that is a potentially wonderful aspect of what we do.”
On the contrary, there’s nothing pretentious about Mbatha-Raw. “This job is such a gift—to be able to make people laugh, to uplift them, to raise questions and debates, and to have the gift of being able to inspire people or create a safe place for people to heal in a cathartic way. It’s a real privilege to be able to tell stories because I think that’s how we evolve as a culture,” the actress confides, flashing a warm smile. Before signing on to a project, she thinks about “what rings true, and what’s worth getting up at 4 in the morning and being in a strange town, away from people that you know.” She continues, “Movies are very expensive, not just on a financial level, but they’re expensive to your soul sometimes. There is a cost to what we do emotionally. So it has to be something bigger than you. It can’t just be an ego, vanity thing. Ultimately, the more fulfilling projects are uplifting to a community.”
Each new role takes her further down the road of self-knowledge too. “You learn who you are. Certainly when you put yourself out of context somewhere. You grow, and you learn where your soft spots are and your weak points, and how to look after yourself, and what you’re interested in investing your time and emotional energy in,” Mbatha-Raw says.
Inspired by the personal growth of the characters she’s played, Mbatha-Raw embarked on her own journey of self-discovery: her first trip to South Africa, where her paternal roots are planted. “I wanted to go for a long time, and being half South African, I always thought that I would go. But it’s just a complex situation, with the legacy of apartheid and my parents not being together for a lot of my childhood. I always knew that I couldn’t knock it out as a quick little holiday. I knew that it would cost something of me, and I needed to give it time,” she admits. “I was like, wow, I’m doing all of these projects that are thematically about identity—maybe that’s a little indicator that that’s something I need to look at. ... I bought a ticket very spontaneously and was on a plane in two weeks [after Beyond the Lights wrapped],” she continues. “Another catalyst for me going was a rather negative experience. I got mugged in L.A., and it made me think of what I was really afraid of. And I realized I was afraid of going to South Africa and really exploring my identity on a deeper level. So I went by myself, and I really learned a lot about fear.”
While there, she visited her grandparents’ grave; climbed Table Mountain; took a Pretoria-to-Cape Town train; and traveled to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years. “I got this postcard, and it’s a Nelson Mandela quote from Long Walk to Freedom,” Mbatha-Raw says. “It’s one of my favorites: ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’” The big takeaway for the actress: “Fear is there to teach you. If you really deeply look at the things you’re afraid of, they can unlock a whole new world for you if you investigate them.”
On that life-changing trip, Mbatha-Raw continued her regular practice of yoga. “I find yoga very grounding. Wherever I go, I try to find a yoga studio,” she explains. In New York City, while making her 2009 Broadway debut opposite Jude Law in Hamlet, she discovered a local studio, Jivamukti, that is a longtime favorite of Sting and Russell Simmons, in Union Square. “We were doing eight shows a week, and I was playing a crazy lady, Ophelia, and that was really my sanctuary, to be able to go there a couple of times a week and do that Spiritual Warrior class. In South London, I do hot yoga. There’s a great place in New Orleans, in the Warehouse District. ... I’ve done a few yoga retreats as well, further afield, like Egypt and Thailand.”
In her down time, she also likes to draw and paint (“I think it’s quite meditative”), hike in the canyons outside L.A. and head to a spa in Koreatown, especially if she’s feeling jet-lagged or run-down. “It’s one of the city’s best rejuvenating hidden secrets,” she says of the spa-packed neighborhood, where she goes for “a good scrub and steam and sauna, and just cleanse the day away.” This year, for the holidays, she’ll be with her family back home in Witney. “I’m an only child, so it’s usually quite a small affair—nice and intimate. It’s just lovely being in Oxfordshire at Christmas because it’s so pretty in the countryside. It’s nice to get out there on a frosty morning and take a walk. That’s where my mum and I catch up, over good chats on little country walks,” she shares.
Leaving the lights, cameras and glamour behind and returning to her childhood home, she continues, helps put everything in perspective and reminds her of what really matters in life. “When you are an actor and you are putting yourself out there, you spend most of your life pretending to be other people,” the actress admits. “To at least have a foundation of reality somewhere in your past is beyond valuable. … Knowing yourself, I think, can really only be through life experience. You can sort of be comfortable in your own authenticity and not try and be something that you’re not.”
As a confident, insightful actress reaping the rewards of her own hard work, it’s hard to envision Mbatha-Raw wanting to be anybody but herself. That is, when she’s not in character.
Hair by Ted Gibson for Ted Gibson Beauty at Jed Root
Makeup by Nick Barose for Exclusive Artists Management using Tom Ford
Manicure by Michelle Matthews using Dior Vernis
Styling Assistant: Kevin Ericsson