Gugu Mbatha-Raw talks Motherless Brooklyn, working with Ed Norton, and her love of History.
I was lucky enough to see Motherless Brooklyn at the Telluride Film Festival over labor day weekend. The film, which is based on a very popular novel of the same name, is a passion project for Edward Norton. Given his passion for the source material, Norton has been attached to the project for many years and during his journey of getting the film made, he managed to assemble an all-star cast that includes the incredibly talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I was lucky enough to talk with about the film.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Hi Scott.
Scott Menzel: Hello Gugu, how are you?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I’m good, thanks. How are you?
Scott Menzel: Things are going good. I’ve been such a big fan of yours for quite some time now. I loved you in Beyond the Lights and Fast Color. You’re so wonderful and I’m glad that you’re getting more and more work.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, thank you so much. That’s so kind, thank you.
Scott Menzel: So, I was lucky enough to experience this film and I do say experience because I think this is a film that is an experience as it takes some time to digest and think about. It’s not an instant Twitter reaction.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: It is a full meal, isn’t it?
Scott Menzel: Very much so. So, I have to ask, as Ed spoke so passionately about you before introducing you at the premiere of this movie at Telluride. What was it like for you to be there? You’re no stranger to film festivals because I know you’ve been to TIFF and SXSW before, but what was it like to different audience reactions over the course of that four-day festival?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, Telluride was really magical. That was my first time there, my first time in Colorado, and my first time at the film festival and just to speak about that place for a moment, I mean, it’s so stunning and it’s almost a hard place to go into a dark movie theater because the mountains are so breathtaking, but also it just feels like this very special sort of pure bubble in which to experience films. It’s not commercialized in the same way that some film festivals are and it was really special to have the premiere there because you know that everyone in the audience is made up of real film lovers. They’re there to see the films and it’s the first time a lot of these films are being seen for the season, and so it was really special and to be able to hear Edward talk about the process and introduce us all, was just wonderful. It was a really lovely experience.
Scott Menzel: I’m a big supporter of film festivals, it’s usually where I prefer to watch most movies that I see because I think you’re watching with a much more dedicated film group, like people who are film aficionados and love the craft. So, I think that’s great and you’ve been very lucky that you got to go to South by Southwest with Fast Color, and with Belle, you got to see how audiences responded in Toronto, right?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, Belle went to Toronto.
Scott Menzel: It’s great how you’ve been able to have those experiences and get that sophisticated crowd and experience the film with those audiences who really loved films as a whole. Anywho, so this film is based on a very popular book. Did you have any connection to the original source material before being offered this movie?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Nope. I hadn’t read the book. My first experience with Motherless Brooklyn was reading the script. So, at first, I didn’t fully appreciate the boldness and genius of the adaptation. Not knowing that the book was set in the 90s, I just took it at face value and thought that this was not a very pure adaptation and it was only really after meeting with Edward and him saying, “Well, you know, better read the book. If you’re looking for a researcher, you’re tagged because she’s not in it. You may want to check it out before you take this role.
So, it’s been interesting for me to read the book in retrospect because I had to go elsewhere for my research for Laura as she’s not in the source material, but in a sense that was quite liberating in a way to be able to research the period, to be able to visit Harlem and research the jazz scene. There’s so much imagery of that era and just to have a bit of creative freedom to sort of create the Laura that we wanted to see in the film.
Scott Menzel: I actually talked with Edward about the film as well and it was fascinating. He told me that this movie was made for $26 million, which is unbelievable because of how much he’s got out of it. Like, not only having a great actress like yourself, but also the rest of the cast like Willem Dafoe and Alec Baldwin, it’s incredible. When you do a period piece, and you’re no stranger to them because you’ve done one before, but do you have any sort of reservations about them?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: No, I find it really exciting. It’s like time travel for me. I loved history at school. I was at an A level in History. I loved art and English literature. So, for me, it’s a real gift. I think people often say period movies are just one genre, but I mean, every period is so specific. In Motherless Brooklyn, we’re dealing with 1957 and you look at what music came out in that year and you look at the clothes, hairstyles, and what movies are out and it’s very unique. Every period project is a completely different historical journey and obviously, you can get so deep into it.
We’re not doing a history documentary, of course, but for me, there’s always something to be gained from listening to the music of the period, feeling the clothes, just looking around at the architecture, reading what was popular at that time, and whether it helps be actual performance at the end of the day on set, who knows, but I think it certainly gives you confidence to actually feel like you’re really embodying it. For me, as someone who loves history, it’s fun and it’s a fun part of the process to educate myself.
Scott Menzel: I like how you spoke a little bit about the details and about the type of research that you did, like going back and reading books and looking at the movies, I wonder how many actors actually do that when prepping for a film? I’ve kind of asked that question before and I’ve got so many different takes on it, but I think the way that you responded makes so much sense because those little nods, I personally think, add something to the performance because you can tell that you did your homework.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, and there’s no judgment. There’s no exam at the end. Obviously, it’s totally up to you how much research you do, but I think for me it’s all about arming yourself when you woke up at four in the morning and you’re on the 14th hour of the day and you’re losing the light, and there are all sorts of different challenges to filming and I think sometimes you can just play a song or remind yourself of something that you saw in your research and it fuels you creatively in the moments when the technicalities of film can be tedious, you know?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, absolutely. Edward Norton is a very gifted actor. I think he’s taken on very daring roles. He’s made some bold choices. He’s gone against some of the more popular stuff, but I think this film is so impressive, not only in terms of his performance but as a writer and director. You know, I’ve known you, you’ve worked with a lot of directors so far in your career and you’re going to be working with a lot more in the years to come, but what was it about Edward’s direction and working with him that made him stand out? What was something about the way that his working alongside you made him different from someone else you worked with?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, as you said, he’s so respected amongst his peers for his body of work and his incredibly dangerous performances. For me, if you spend five minutes with Edward his searing intelligence shines through. He’s incredibly articulate. He is really passionate about this film. It’s been something that he’s been wanting to do for such a long time. I think working with somebody that is that committed, well prepared, but also, as an artist is able to transition from a writer, director, and actor, it all feeds in.
I think it makes it feel more like a sort of experience. You just have one vision and I think he was really smart to surround himself with an incredible team of amazing DP like Dick Pope, and our production designer Beth Mickle, and Amy Roth the costume designer, and really, really very collaborative in his nature. He just has such amazing attention to detail. I think, as an actor, that’s what you want, someone who is passionate and specific, as well as being incredibly talented.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I don’t want to pry too much on this, but I do want to ask, do you think there’s something different about working with an actor who later becomes a director than working with a director who only does that role?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh yeah. I mean, for me it makes it so much more intimate. I think you speak the same language and I think that you know you’re working with someone who, on an intuitive level, knows what it feels like to be in your shoes. I think that that is such a bonus because you really have a shorthand because you’re in the trenches together and yes, he’s your direct and your writer, but you’re also in the scene together.
So, there is a sort of fluidity with how the scene evolves and how he gives direction, but he’s also giving himself direction and sort of massaging the whole scene to become something richer. You know, for me, I just think to have an actor as a director, they have the vocabulary, they have the emotional awareness to really communicate with you. So, yeah, I loved it. It was a very fluid, intimate experience.
Scott Menzel: Awesome. You’ve taken on interesting roles and there’s been so much conversation lately about the roles of women in film as well as diversity. Do you feel like times are finally changing for the industry and what’s your current take on the direction everything’s going?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, I think it’s in our hands and I think it’s in a role like Laura who defies cliches. You know, in another version, she would be the femme fatale, or the singer in the jazz club, or the 1950s housewife. I think it’s very hard historically to see women and women of color in films in the 50s that have the emotional depth that Laura goes through, and the fact that she’s an educated woman with a law degree, she’s a pioneer. Those are the roles that I’m drawn to and as I said, it’s in our hands to make those choices and someone like Edward to create those roles and make them as multifaceted as possible so that we are seeing more three-dimensional women on-screen and women of color and women in general in period films.
I love the fact that Laura is an activist in the film. You know, she’s a community activist, discrimination in housing, even though she grew up in the Harlem jazz scene. I think that makes her so much more multifaceted than I suppose some of the roles we’re accustomed to seeing. So, yeah, I think it is changing and hopefully, with this role, it has its own contribution too.
Scott Menzel: Fingers crossed. There has been a lot of talk about this film that started out of Telluride and then went on to TIFF and then with the New York Film Festival. As an actress, I know the work and the craft is its own reward by itself, but when someone starts talking about your performance or the film that you’re a part of goes on to be a bigger part of a much larger conversation for awards season, how does that feel as an actress?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, I’m excited to share the film, obviously it’s hard to pay too much attention to that stuff because it’s not really in my hands, but for me it’s very flattering if people are enjoying the film and enjoying my performance, but it’s also about getting the word out, getting to play the film in New York, getting people to see it. You know, it’s such a unique, as you said at the beginning, this film really is an experience and not the kind of film that people make anymore. So, it’s exciting to be at film festivals. It’s exciting to talk to film lovers about it and yeah, it’s a lovely ride and an amazing journey to be able to share it.
Scott Menzel: I don’t want to go off topic, but I do have to ask about this. I’m excited that you’re going to be part of one of the first series that launches on Apple TV, which is The Morning Show. What was that like to be on that show and how does it feel to be one of the first to be part of a new network launch?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: It’s a whole new world, I have to say, and it comes out on the same day as Motherless Brooklyn. So, I’m spread a little bit thin, but it’s really exciting because obviously, it’s such a different way of consuming content and, for me, to be able to work with that incredible cast, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell, and it’s a very contemporary series, and the writing is so good. So, for me, I don’t know, I mean, it’s just really exciting. Who knows what’s going to happen with Apple. I think it’s such privilege to be there at the beginning and I just feel like that’s a real once in a career opportunity to be able to be there at the launch of it which was fate.
Scott Menzel: I am very happy that you are apart of it. I realize that you have other interviews to get to so I will let you go in just a minute but I’m curious, in your career so far, you’ve taken on so many different roles. Every single character is unique and stands out. Is there a type of genre or type of role that you haven’t done yet that you would love to be a part of or embrace?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: You know, you never know until it comes along and then I’m like this movie, I was like, “Oh the fifties,” detective noir, drama. I don’t know, my soul is probably in character-driven drama, but I love to experiment. I’d love to do an action movie. I’d love to do a musical. I love things that are a bit more heightened as I think they would be a fun challenge, but yeah, I sort of always like to do something that’s different to what I’ve just done because it keeps me interested and hopefully stops me getting bored and hopefully stops audiences from getting bored of me. So, yeah, I love the variety.
Scott Menzel: Oh, I’ll never get bored of you. You’re absolutely fantastic. I’m not kidding.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, no problem at all. You have a wonderful day. Thank you so much for chatting with me.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Thanks, you too.
Motherless Brooklyn is now playing