Gugu Mbatha-Raw has known since she was a young girl that she wanted to be an actress. With breakout roles such as Dido Elizabeth Belle in the 2013 film Belle and Noni in 2014’s Beyond the Lights, she’s earned her place as a serious player in Hollywood. Mbatha-Raw’s natural beauty compels us to want to see her in roles where we can admire her on that basis, because as a culture we are mesmerized by, if not obsessed with, beauty. But this spirited actress seemingly defies these types of characterizations and has gravitated towards roles that grow and stretch her as an artist.
From playing a time-jumping septuagenarian in Black Mirror and a communications officer aboard a spaceship in The Cloverfield Paradox to an astrophysicist in A Wrinkle in Time, Gugu has been leaning into the supernatural.
So it is no real surprise that in her latest movie, a sci-fi thriller out this weekend titled Fast Color, Mbatha-Raw plays a young woman with a sordid past who returns home to face her demons and find answers to plaguing questions. BET spoke to the British-bred actress about her role in the film, her on-camera family played by Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney and why heroes are more common than we think.
BET: On the surface, Fast Color appears to be about a troubled young woman with special powers who is on the run, but as the movie progresses, all of these rich themes come to the surface. How would you describe the film and what it’s about?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I was really drawn to the idea of a story about three generations of women with these special powers and the fact that they need to come together to own those powers. Like you said, for me, Ruth is somewhat this troubled person who seems to be on the run, battling her demons and addictions and broken relationships with her family, but ultimately I sort of saw it more that she was on the run from herself and that she’s on the run from her true power, that she’s almost afraid or not ready, or unsure about how powerful she is, and that actually, as you said, it really does come from within.
Lorraine Toussaint, who currently stars in the new NBC drama The Village, plays your estranged mother in this movie. What was it like working with her?
It was such a treat working with Lorraine! I first think I saw her in Middle of Nowhere, one of Ava DuVernay’s early films, and I had never met her in person, but we actually got to meet in New York a little bit before the shooting began, and she’s just so warm, and she’s so soulful, and brings such gravitas. And she’s got that amazing resonate voice – she’s the perfect matriarch, really. And she also has a young daughter, so we also talked a lot about that dynamic as mother/daughter relationships. It was a real treat to work with her.
Another shining light in the film is Saniyya Sidney, who starred in Fences and Hidden Figures in addition to appearing presently in the FOX series The Passage. She plays your daughter, Lila, in this film. What was it like working with her and playing her mother?
The first time I played a parent in a film was, I think, A Wrinkle in Time, of a sort of older child. I’ve played characters who’ve had babies, in Concussion and in Free State of Jones, but certainly a child who’s sort of pre-teenage was Wrinkle in Time and this – such different films and such different relationships. What I loved about the dynamic with Ruth and Lila is that they really are strangers even though they’re mother and daughter. Because of her addiction and not being able to take care of [Lila], Ruth left her with her mom for 10 years, which was sort of her whole life. So they are mother and daughter, but they’re still getting to know each other. There was something interesting about that dynamic, knowing that you are blood relatives and you have this big intimate relationship, but actually somewhat being strangers. I said to Julia [Hart] in the pre-production process, I don’t want to do too much rehearsal with Saniyya, as wonderful and lovely as she is, because I want to give us the space to discover that relationship on screen, because they’re unsure of each other and it builds throughout the film. I wanted us to have the chance to have an authentic process there.
A prominent theme in the movie is family and tradition, and the importance of preserving one’s oral and written history. Can you talk about how the film brings this important element of Black history and culture to life?
Yes, the journal in the film, that really is a big symbol of the generations and generations of women that came before in this family, and for me it’s about legacy. I think that for us, we often feel like we’ve just got here and we’re trying to figure it out, and we have no support behind us and we’re sort of just all alone, and I think that there’s great comfort and a great strength to be had in knowing that our mothers and generations before and their mothers have all been survivors. We are the leading edge of evolution ourselves and we have all this DNA within us, supporting us. So I kind of loved that idea, and looking back, I’ve always loved history – that was one of my favorite subjects in school – and I think that we can learn so much about where we’re going when we really fully acknowledge our roots.
This movie literally and figuratively is so colorful and has so many different layers and dynamics to it, one of which is the theme of acceptance. In these present times, what would you say about the film’s message of not being afraid of those who we perceive as different?
Yeah! Difference is not something to fear, and I think that’s something that we really celebrate in this film, even down to the fact that all the women have different abilities. Their powers are different to each other, like in life! Everybody is different – everybody has a different role to play in the world, and to celebrate that diversity I think is really exciting. And also, to know that you don’t need to have a big superhero suit or a weapon in your hand to feel powerful. I think that there is a much more authentic and grounded way to move in the world. You don’t have to hide behind these symbols of power. You just have to connect with people that you love and people that have created you – your family, other women – and that is an incredible power that you have inside of you all the time that we often overlook.
Speaking of superpowers and special abilities, if you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
[Laughter] Well, my sort of fantasy superpower would be to fly. I think that would be just incredible, just to have that experience. I was talking to Saniyya the other day and she was asked the same question, and she had the most beautiful answer about being able to have this red-hot power she could channel through her hands, and she would touch people’s faces and make them happy, and I just thought wow, that is just so much more imaginative and so much more generous and spiritual and beautiful than mine! But I think obviously in the fantasy world, just being able to just travel and be in a different element to what we’re used to, I think that would be really fun.
Did you have a favorite superhero growing up, and if so, who was it?
I wasn’t a big comic book nerd as a kid. I remember watching Batman. I think that that was what was a really popular one when I was the right age for it, and enjoying it, but I certainly wasn’t obsessed with it. For me, I appreciate the genre, but I think there are so many other things out there as well, so I was more drawn to theater when I was younger.
In the age of Marvel movies, how do you think that will impact how audiences will receive this film?
I think the refreshing thing for me about Fast Color is that it’s not trying to be a Marvel movie. It’s something that’s much more gritty and grounded, based in a recognizable and hopefully accessible world, so for me I think there’s room for everything. There’s room for big spectacle and there’s room for stories about intimate relationships and complex family dynamics, and maybe something a little more soulful.
How do you feel about the use of special effects in the film?
I’ve done quite a few films that have utilized special effects in different ways, and some are more obvious than others. Julia Hart, our director, was amazing at sort of describing what we were seeing if we literally couldn’t see it on the day, and then some of the effects were – not to give too much away – but the ending of the movie, that was very real. We really were in that scenario with the weather that happens at the end of the movie, so that was very tangible and that helps you. You’re not pretending there. We certainly did get wet!
One of the most powerful lines in the film is when Lila hands you a note written by your mom, Bo, that reads, “Go take apart the sky.” Was there someone in your life growing up who helped you tap into your inner power? And who helped you believe you could touch and take apart the sky?
[Laughter] I would have to say my mom! She’s always been my number-one fan and supporter and nurturer, and I think looking back, the confidence and the freedom of expression that I take for granted all came from her giving me a great, solid, grounded upbringing, that really gave me the confidence to feel like I could travel the world and pretend to be other people, and really not live in fear. I definitely give her so much credit for just allowing me to be myself and never shutting down my ideas or my ambitions or my dreams, so yeah, definitely my mom.
What do you think we can do as a people to take better care of our planet, which is a theme Fast Color taps into as well?
Climate change is a very real thing, and certainly in the world of the movie as it relates to Fast Color, the world that we’re in, we’ve been in a drought and it hasn’t rained for many years, and you can definitely feel the decay of the world, that crumbling. Everything is de-saturated and dry and dusty, and that’s the world. I think it’s a recognizable world, and, possibly, we’re not too far from that kind of desolation if we don’t take it more responsibility.
Fast Color is in theaters April 19!