By Joane Amay
A lifetime spent developing a career that keeps her as much on the London stage as the Hollywood film lot is finally paying off for Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Now 30, the transatlantic beauty that was born in Oxford to an English mother and South African father, first caught the acting bug at the age of 11 after playing Dorothy in a school production of the Wizard of Oz. By 17, she was touring with the National Youth Music Theatre in Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods and the musical Pendragon in Japan. By 18, she had enrolled in the prestigious RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Successful stints on the popular British television series Doctor Who and Spooks soon followed, but in 2009, her portrayal of Ophelia in the Broadway production of Hamlet with Jude Law caught the eye of Hollywood power players. J.J. Abrams, the creator of Lost, offered her a part in his short-lived TV show Undercovers (alongside Boris Kodjoe); Tom Hanks cast her in 2011’s Larry Crowne with Julia Roberts, and she starred opposite Kiefer Sutherland and Danny Glover in Fox’s drama, Touch.
But after spending years perfecting her American accent on stateside productions, a little bout of homesickness motivated her to accept the title role in the British film Belle, a Jane Austen-esque period piece based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate bi-racial daughter of a British Royal Navy Admiral, who was raised as an aristocratic Lady. “I was absolutely thrilled. I felt this was the role I was meant to play,” Mbatha-Raw says. “It must have been a difficult position for [Dido] to be privileged but still not equal,” she says.