Gugu Mbatha: Raw Hollywood's latest 'Belle'

Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:41 PM ET

NEW YORK – Blame it on Hollywood. It’s been more than three years since Gugu Mbatha-Raw spoke onscreen with a British accent.

“I came in wondering if I’d forgotten it,” Mbatha-Raw joked while promoting Belle, a movie about a real-life, mixed-race 18th Century British noblewoman.

She was discovered on Broadway by J.J. Abrams while she starred as Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet. Abrams immediately cast her in his short-lived spy series Undercovers. When it was cancelled, she moved directly into the short-lived Kiefer Sutherland series Touch.

In between, she was cast in the Tom Hanks movie Larry Crowne. In every case, the young woman from Oxford played an American.

“I was one of those annoying kids that was doing American accents ever since I could remember,” says Mbatha-Raw, the daughter of an English mother and a South African father. “I grew up watching American films and TV shows, it was second nature to me.”

But it was also second nature to return home, to a period piece that was shot very near her Oxfordshire home.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the niece of the Lord Chief Justice of England (Tom Wilkinson), whose legal decisions set the stage for Britain’s outlawing of slavery, generations ahead of the U.S. A painting of her and her cousin Elizabeth (Canadian actress Sarah Gadon) adorns a wall of Scotland’s Scone Palace. It was a controversial work in European art history, depicting a non-white as a peer.

Director Amma Asante, who’d waited out Mbatha-Raw’s availability, sent her a postcard of the painting.

“I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of Belle before, and when I first saw a postcard of the painting, I was so intrigued by it.

“Talking to Amma, I realized this was a story that needed to be told. And then with the political angle as well, that really sort of grounded the thing. I got further grounded to the story by the love story and the romance (with John Davinier, a lawyer and anti-slavery activist with whom Dido had three children).

“Being bi-racial is a relatively modern concept. This is told by women from a woman’s perspective (Asante and writer Misan Sagay are both women-of-colour). That just doesn’t happen very often. It’s a period drama that’s going to surprise you.”

Despite the fact that, “growing up in England, this whole Jane Austen world was almost part of my DNA,” the “young’uns” in the film – Mbatha-Raw, Gadon and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy to Harry Potter fans) – all had to take etiquette lessons. “It was all about exploring the nature of status, the bows and curtseys, using your fan to convey things. I learned I’ve been eating soup the wrong way my whole life.”

But being an actress-of-colour in a classical environment gave Mbatha-Raw the background to play a role breaker. Prior to breaking traditional casting as Ophelia, she played Juliet to Andrew Garfield’s Romeo, “when we were both just out of drama school.

“One of the things that excites me about this film is the idea of identity. Last year I went to South Africa for the first time. It’s been a long journey for me to find the courage to go.”

When moviegoers next see Mbatha-Raw, it’ll be as a half-human/half-deer in the Wachowski siblings’ sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending

“After Belle finished, I was kind of deflated, because I had such an amazing time. You’ve just expended this emotional energy and so it’s like, ‘Oh wow, what to do now?’

“The only answer is to do something completely different.”

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