With ‘Surface’, Gugu Mbatha-Raw enters new territory

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LONDON — Minutes after the debut of “Surface,” a new eight-part series from Apple TV+, the central character, Sophie, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, asks her therapist a question:

“If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?”

Sophie, who suffers from amnesia after a suicide attempt, has a handsome, wealthy, devoted husband, a World of Interiors-worthy townhouse with sweeping views of San Francisco, a fun best girlfriend, and a wardrobe of killer. She’s also beautiful – obviously, as she’s played by Mbatha-Raw, the British actress who rose to prominence playing the title role in Amma Asante’s 2014 feature ‘Belle’.

Mbatha-Raw, 39, has worked prolifically in film and television over the past decade, with with starring roles in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights”, the Marvel series “Loki” and, most recently, the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show”.

But with “Surface,” which premieres on Friday, Mbatha-Raw is leading a major series for the first time, and is also entering new ground as executive producer of the show, created and written by Veronica West (“ High Fidelity,” 2020).

Sophie’s question is the driving force behind the show, which West says was inspired by Alain Resnais’ 1962 film “Last Year at Marienbad.” Why did Sophie try to kill herself? Did she try to kill herself?

In a recent interview at a London hotel, Mbatha-Raw said she was drawn to ‘the fact that Sophie herself is the mystery’, adding: ‘There are amnesia dramas, but I didn’t have haven’t seen that with a woman who looks like me in the middle.”

The role, she said, had forced her to abandon her usual scrupulous preparation to play a character. “She is a blank slate, she looks for clues and her information comes from those around her,” Mbatha-Raw said. “It was the opposite of creating a background story; here, I was building the character like Sophie is building throughout the show.

It was weird working on the role of a married couple when only one character knows the history of the relationship, said Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays Sophie’s husband James. “There are so many different versions of Sophie, and so many versions of Sophie and James,” he said in a phone interview. “But it’s true of our lives.”

Sophie exists in “two realities”, said Ari Graynor, who plays her best friend, Caroline. “The external reality she interacts with and her internal reality of trying to pull it all together. Gugu has a knack for allowing both of these realities to be felt simultaneously with layers of sensitivity, subtlety and precision.

Mbatha-Raw – who was an associate producer on the HBO Max limited series “The Girl Before” – signed with “Surface” before it was sold to Apple. West described her as “an executive in all aspects – casting, marketing the vision for the show, helping to shape Sophie’s story”. She added, “What I admire most about Gugu’s approach is that she always pushed me to get bigger and bolder, to let her character be flawed and messy.”

Reese Witherspoon, who worked with Mbatha-Raw on “The Morning Show,” wrote in an email that she watched “Surface” for two days, “marveling at every twist I didn’t see. come”. Mbatha-Raw, she writes, is “vulnerable, defiant, fierce and determined”.

Mbatha-Raw seems to have always been determined. She grew up in Witney, a pretty town in Oxfordshire, England, the only child of Anne Raw, a British nurse, and Patrick Mbatha, a South African doctor. (Her full name is Gugulethu, a contraction of igugu lethu, which means “our pride” in the Nguni languages ​​of South Africa.) Her parents separated when she was one year old, and she lived primarily with her mother, which sustained her early love for dance and musical theatre. At 11, she played Dorothy in a school production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and said to herself, ‘This is what I want to do’.

Despite Mbatha-Raw’s pleas, her mother wouldn’t let her go to a children’s drama school, but in her early teens she joined the National Youth Music Theater and then the National Youth Theatre, both venues for Highly selective and reliable breeding for British actors. (National Youth Theater alumni include Daniel Craig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosamund Pike and Helen Mirren.)

At 17, she was on tour with the National Youth Theater in Japan (“my first acting experience opening you up to the world and transcending cultures”) when she learned that she had been accepted into the prestigious Royal Academy. of Dramatic Art in London. Unlike some of her peers, she wasn’t “snatched up” by an agent after the three-year course, she said: “But I kind of assumed it would work; I don’t know if it was trust or ignorance.

In person, Mbatha-Raw is articulate, friendly and quick to laugh, self-possessed and observant. (She’s also ably diplomatic in the manner of experienced interviewees.) “You have to have a little bit of blind faith in yourself as an actor, some crazy inner belief to keep you going,” she continued. declared.

After graduating from the academy, she found fairly steady work, landing minor film and TV roles, and came to critical attention playing Juliet opposite Andrew Garfield’s Romeo at the Royal Exchange. Manchester Theatre. In 2007, she was cast in several episodes of “Doctor Who”; and she played the lead role in “Fallout,” a 2009 TV drama directed by Ian Rickson.

“It was the first time I realized I could be the lead on screen, and it was very urban, moving, about knife crime in London, a bit of a stretch for me,” Mbatha said. -Raw. Rickson, she added, made her a playlist for her character, which she has been doing ever since.

Mbatha-Raw is “a transformative,” Rickson said in a phone interview, “someone who can inhabit such different types of women, be wildly different in her roles,” adding, “I’ve seen her play across the generations, across the class, and she made big choices and shunned the typing, the burden on young women to be decorative, libidinous.

The same year ‘Fallout’ premiered, Mbatha-Raw played Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet, first at the Donmar Warehouse in London and later on Broadway. This led to a role in the short-lived JJ Abrams television series “Undercovers” and an extended stint living and working in Los Angeles. “I felt my mind was open to a different scale, to a larger sense of ambition, to the American spirit,” she said.

She was in the United States in 2013 when she learned she had been cast in the role of Belle, based on the true story of the daughter of a once-enslaved African woman and a British aristocrat raised by her husband. family in Georgian England.

In the theater, she says, she never felt that being biracial limited her opportunities. “But I remember when ‘Downton Abbey’ came out and I felt like it couldn’t be a path for me,” Mbatha-Raw said. “Being the lead of a period drama in ‘Belle,’ when you grow up here, felt really meaningful. I realized acting was not just a way to be part of the culture, but to advance the culture.

“Belle” gave Mbatha-Raw a higher profile, “but it wasn’t like my career was suddenly spiraling out of control,” she said. She played what she described as “wife roles” in a number of mainstream films, but also the lead role – a pop star oscillating between fame and self-destruction – in the movie “Beyond the Lights”.

“Within 10 seconds of reading it at the audition, I knew I was looking at the character,” the film’s director, Prince-Bythewood, said in a phone interview, adding that she had shot a short film by eight minutes to persuade unconvinced studio executives “that Gugu was the character I had been working on for three years.

Mbatha-Raw has worked with several black female directors, including Asante, Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay (on “A Wrinkle in Time”), and said she has actively sought female collaborators on recent projects. “I’ve had great experiences with male collaborators,” she said cautiously, “but there’s a lot to be done to balance the distribution of labor and power in our world.”

Likewise, she says, seeing her friend David Oyelowo bring her three-year-old daughter, Zoe, to an awards show made her think carefully about the roles she chooses. “I want Zoe to grow up seeing herself represented.”

The decision to take on an executive producer role on “Surface” was driven by these two ideas. “When I came out of drama school, I didn’t even know what a producer did,” Mbatha-Raw said. “But spending time in America and doing projects like ‘The Morning Show’ with Reese Witherspoon’s production company, in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, really made me think about having a voice in how these stories are put together.

“There’s power in being behind the scenes,” she added, “to learn how decisions are made, how to navigate those rooms, those conversations.”

When asked if she would be interested in directing, Mbatha-Raw responded cautiously. “There are definitely stories that I would like to explore, stories about Zulu culture,” she said, alluding to her father’s heritage. “I’m definitely looking for things – let’s see.”


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