Whether she’s seeking out meaningful roles or dedicating her time to working closely with charities, finding a sense of purpose is what continues to drive GUGU MBATHA-RAW – both personally and professionally. Here, the British actor talks to AJESH PATALAY about her valiant new role in Marvel’s Disney+ series, Loki, and the work that sustains her spirit
You’ve got to hand it to Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Not only for landing the female lead role in the hugely anticipated Disney+ series Loki, opposite Tom Hiddleston, but for having walked away from comparable superhero roles in the past. “There have been a few I’ve auditioned for and not got,” the 38-year-old actor tells me. “And one or two [that] I got and turned down.” Why was that? “Sometimes [the role] was so secretive, I was like, I’m not signing up to something where I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I wasn’t sure the character was going to have enough layers. Sometimes the tone of the piece just wasn’t to my taste: how the violence is depicted, how the women are represented. Those things are important to me.”
Loki was appealingly different, though. “For a start, it was exciting that Kate Herron was directing all six episodes,” Mbatha-Raw says of the writer-director who gained recognition for Netflix’s Sex Education. “Also, having been to drama school with Tom Hiddleston, there was a lovely circle of life about working on something together at this point.” Both studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, though Mbatha-Raw was in the year above (she graduated in 2004), so they didn’t share any classes. But the future God of Mischief still made an impression: “He was blond. Sort of angelic. He seemed very…” she casts around for the right description, “centered is probably the best word”. As for her, she was “a keen bean”, straight out of school, newly moved to London from Oxfordshire, where she grew up, and living her lifelong dream of becoming an actor.
The big clincher for Mbatha-Raw about Loki – which is based on Hiddleston’s character in the Thor and Avenger movies – was getting to play Ravonna Renslayer, a role with a rich and turbulent history in the comics. “It was very much pitched to me as her origin story,” Mbatha-Raw explains. “That was exciting, to be able to take ownership of a character pre the comics. She’s an authoritative character. Morally ambiguous. She has to make some difficult choices. I loved that there is a complexity to her that I hadn’t seen in any of the [superhero] roles that had come my way before.”
Owing to the pandemic, the shoot ran from February 2020 for a few weeks before being interrupted for five months. When shooting resumed in Atlanta in September, it was one of the first productions to go back into filming. “It was emotional; the light at the end of the tunnel,” says the actor, who welcomed the “wonderful escapism” that came with re-entering this epic universe. “There was a joy and relief to be back in this imaginary world,” she says. Safety measures precluded the usual on-set japes, but she did relish playing the straight woman to Owen Wilson, who brought “life and levity” and “a real charisma when it comes to improvising moments”.
“For me, there is no price on FREEDOM or on your spirit. I don’t want to be DOING something for years that is going to break me on a SPIRITUAL level”
Another reason Mbatha-Raw had turned down previous superhero roles was down to the immense time commitments involved. “When you get down to the nitty-gritty of some of these contracts, they can be quite restrictive,” she says. “You think, ‘Well, is that what I want my life to look like for the next seven years?’” Of course, she won’t comment on the time obligation for Loki or whether her character will return for future installments (everything in the Marvel universe is top secret, including details of the plot), except to say: “I am very comfortable with the commitment I have made.”
In between filming, Mbatha-Raw spent the first lockdown in Los Angeles. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, she painted portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which she later sold to raise funds for social-justice charities. When filming wrapped in November, she returned to Oxfordshire. Speaking to me from “the shire” in spring 2021, she’s been keeping busy with socially distant walks and prepping for her next project, a BBC/HBO adaptation of the bestselling thriller The Girl Before.
“Sometimes, you HAVE to take a leap of faith and FOLLOW your gut. And if your gut is saying, I feel TRAPPED, you have to listen”
As we talk about her career, Mbatha-Raw has an irrefutable air of professionalism. She cites Reese Witherspoon, her co-star on The Morning Show, as someone she admires, and the two certainly show a similar sense of self-possession and focus. Hiddleston tells me about catching Mbatha-Raw on set one day: “I popped my head in to see how it was going and, within minutes, I watched Gugu deliver 10 pages of dialogue in a single take, with a short sequence choreography in the middle: immaculate, precise, effortless. She’s always so prepared, open and ready.”
Her decisions to turn down those potentially career-transforming superhero roles in the past are further proof of this resolute determination. “Sometimes I’ve made choices when I think that my agent might be like, ‘Oh!’” she admits. “But you’ve got to. For me, there is no price on freedom or on your spirit. I don’t want to be doing something for years that is going to break me on a spiritual level that I don’t believe in. Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith and follow your gut. And if your gut is saying, I feel trapped, you have to listen – otherwise you live with the consequences. That’s when people get cynical.”
“That’s what I’m ALL about… Normalizing complex, nuanced PORTRAYALS of characters that just happen to LOOK like we do”
The roles she has chosen to take often have a strong social or political dimension, whether as the first Black woman to win Miss World (Misbehaviour), the victim of sexual abuse in a TV newsroom (The Morning Show), or a singer battling misogyny in the music industry (Beyond the Lights). Previously, she’s spoken about how, in 2015, she won Essence magazine’s Breakthrough Award and asked fellow Brit actor David Oyelowo to present it to her. At the ceremony, Oyelowo brought his three-year-old daughter up onstage and it made Mbatha-Raw cry. As the daughter of a white English mother and Black South African father, she felt inspired to make career choices so girls of color would see themselves represented on screen in all their complexities.
When we speak again in May, she’s just finished shooting opposite Oyelowo in The Girl Before – a production she was also an associate producer on. I ask her about the casting and the significance of having two actors of color in lead roles, with race having no bearing on the plot. “To have a layered psychological thriller where the cast just happens to be Black and Brown is really interesting to me,” she says. The fact that race is incidental is key. “That’s what I’m all about,” she affirms. “Normalizing complex, nuanced portrayals of characters that just happen to look like we do.”
Mbatha-Raw has actually starred in a superhero film before, although 2018’s Fast Color is more “gritty and indie” than anything Marvel would produce. The ethnicity of her character in that film was not specified in the script (she says it isn’t in about half her projects), but once Mbatha-Raw was cast, the other leads (her character’s mother and daughter) were filled by Black actors. Their race is never mentioned on screen, but you feel its impact because, thanks to the casting, this is the story of a family with superpowers, who happen to be Black. And how often do we see that? “Well, there you go,” says Mbatha-Raw. “Subtly subversive. [Race] is just there. It’s not an issue. It’s not a theme. It just is. I’ve had many conversations with David [Oyelowo] about this. It’s radical and progressive, but not hitting you over the head.”
Towards the end of our Zoom call, the doorbell rings and Mbatha-Raw goes to see who it is. Off-screen I hear her shriek: “Oh my god, thank you. Wow!” She returns with a massive bouquet of flowers. “Honestly, I didn’t stage this,” she jokes. The blooms are to celebrate her being named a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), with which she has been working with since 2018, including visiting camps in Rwanda and Uganda.
She explains that her father, who risked imprisonment by campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, was able to settle in the UK thanks to the UNHCR. But she only found this out after she started working with the agency. “So, it’s what my cousin would call an ancestral call,” she says. “It’s kind of special that I can be part of a legacy [my father] was directly involved in.” Having resisted joining social media for so long, she now uses Instagram partly to raise awareness of the UNHCR’s work. “It does feel,” she reasons, “like it gives those [social media] platforms more of a sense of purpose.” And, fortunately, that is one thing that Mbatha-Raw has never been without.
Loki is screening now on Disney+