Gugu Mbatha-Raw is perfect for the role of Dr. Kate Murry, astrophysicist, and Meg’s mother, in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. Though she has played a variety of characters on stage and screen, there seems to be a type she embodies particularly well: the accomplished, brainy woman. From the costume drama Belle, to the serious drama/biopic Concussion, to the sci-fi drama Cloverfield Paradox, Mbatha-Raw brings depth and energy to her portrayals of women who face difficult circumstances.
During last weekend’s whirlwind of activities surrounding Wrinkle’s cast and creative team in the lead up to the film’s release on March 9th, I had a chance to sit with Mbatha-Raw for a few moments. Effortlessly lovely in an off-white brocade ensemble and seated with bare feet tucked under her, she looked more like one of the film’s whimsical Mrs. W’s than Meg’s sensible mom. Mbatha-Raw was warm and welcoming as she shared some of her thoughts on playing Dr. Murry, on acting for stage and screen, and why she now gets to put the letters “MBE” after her name.
DaVette See: So, did you read A Wrinkle in Time as a child?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: No, I actually wasn’t aware of it. I don’t know if, growing up in the UK, it just was a different sort of cultural moment? But yeah, I got introduced to it first via the script and then I went back and read the book.
DaVette: In the book, your character, Meg’s mother, was a microbiologist, I believe, but in the movie, she’s an astrophysicist. So, when you were talking with Ava about the character, was there any reason given for the switch?
Gugu: Well, I think, we definitely wanted Dr. Kate Murry. In the book, she is often described as Mrs. Murry, but in the 21st century, she’s not just defined by her marriage. She’s a doctor in her own right and Ava was very keen for the relationship [between Kate and Alex Murry] to feel sort of like a meeting of minds as well as hearts. Like they were a pioneering power couple of science, and that, that was their connection. And I think for her to hang on to that hope for so long, and trying to solve the puzzle of where he went for so long, that, that connection had to be deeply rooted in something else.
DaVette: Similar disciplines?
DaVette: You play Meg and her brother’s mom, but since you’re not a mother, was there a person in real life who you wanted to borrow from to help you portray a mother?
Gugu: I probably took inspiration from my own mother. She’s the mom that I’ve had the most intimate relationship with in my life, and also, I sort of saw Dr. Kate as virtually a single mother as we enter the story. Not [knowing] whether her husband was going to come back necessarily, and my mom raised me for the majority of the time on her own. So, I understood what strength that took and sacrifice and being a working mom as well as trying to keep a family together.
Then it was really just focusing on the script, the world that Ava wanted to create, being this grounding force. I sort of see myself as Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan, being there at the house, letting the children go off on this magical adventure, and then they come back and there’s home. I represent the grounding reality of home. Even though I didn’t get to go to New Zealand. [laughs] But she really is sort of the stable foundation of the family.
DaVette: So, to help create that feeling of family, was there anything you, Chris, and the children did as a family?
Gugu: Yes, you know, Ava actually set us up on a sort of family lunch, though we didn’t quite realize it at the time, with myself, Chris, Storm, Derek, and Levi. She said, “Oh, yeah, come to the studio and we’ll all meet and then we’ll all go for lunch.” So, we went for lunch, but then suddenly Ava was nowhere to be seen. Nobody’s parents were there, and it was just me, Chris and the kids, in a room by ourselves. And without realizing it, we’ve been thrust into this family dynamic. So, that was a bit of a method acting exercise, but it was a lovely bonding experience.
DaVette: Now, about you, as an actress. You’re classically trained for stage. You’ve also done a lot of films, but I understand you’ve maintained that connection to the stage. Is there one you prefer, stage or screen, over the other, and any reason in particular?
Gugu: I can’t really choose one over the other. I think they fulfill such different parts of me. The stage is where I began, so that will always be my home. I always feel very comfortable on the stage, and I think what is so special about theater is that connection with the audience, that you don’t really get in the same way in film. [With film] you have to wait a year, year and a half before anybody actually receives your performance. But there is an immediacy in theater that is very invigorating and empowering for actors. In film, you’re at the behest of the edit and special effects and the director’s choices in certain things.
But then, undeniably, there is a reach that cinema has that is huge. I think it’s very significant that this film, with such a diverse cast being made by Disney, directed by Ava, is a historic moment, that Storm is the lead and that people all over the world will see it. So, I think there’s different benefits to both.
DaVette: Right, I’ve been an actress and a director on stage and film, and when acting on stage, of course, you get that immediate feedback. When directing, I like to sit and watch the audience watch the play to see if it made that connection, but I’d think, too, “I wish I could just capture that moment.”
Gugu: Yes, you know, it’s weird because the last play I did, Nell Gwen at the Globe Theater, which is a very intimate space in some ways, because the audience is standing and they’re right there. It’s almost like a rock concert or something. [laughs] The character had a speech exactly like that, about the sort of transcendent and immediate nature of theater and you miss it and it’s gone, and that’s part of its magic.
DaVette: Yes, absolutely. Okay, now, this is off-topic. You were appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2017?
DaVette: So, do you have a title? Do I call you, “Dame”?
DaVette: Do I curtsey? I tried to look it up!
Gugu: No, I am an MBE, so in theory the letters MBE come after my name, but a Dame is, well, I’m like three rungs down from a Dame. You have to get MBE, then there’s OBE, CBE, and then Dame is a bit more senior. So, I’m still working on that. [laughs]
DaVette: Well, did you at least get to meet the Queen?
Gugu: I got to meet Prince Charles. Prince Charles gave me my medal a couple of weeks ago at Buckingham Palace. It was an amazing day. My parents got to come with me, and it was very surreal. I mean, It’s a huge honor. And it was a lovely celebration, and yeah, it’s very special, because unlike awards in the entertainment industry, like BAFTAs and Oscars and all those kind of things, this award can be any industry. It can be for people in the military, or people who are in sports, or charity work, or doctors, or nurses, or lollipop ladies. I was getting my MBE alongside a lady who was the world table tennis champion and a Paralympic rower. So, it was very special to be around so many extraordinary people from such diverse fields.
DaVette: And you’re awarded for your contribution to the community?
Gugu: Yes, well, I was awarded for my services to drama.
DaVette: There you go! Okay, last question. What can you tell me about your upcoming projects, I believe you have four or five films in the works?
Gugu: Yeah, the next thing that’s going to be visible is probably Fast Color, which is a supernatural thriller, and is having its world premiere at South by Southwest in a couple of weeks.
DaVette: Right, I remember reading that.
Gugu: Yeah, yeah, and I’m currently working on a film called Motherless Brooklyn, which is shooting in Brooklyn, New York, which is sort of a noir-ish detective story, directed by Edward Norton and set in the fifties.
DaVette: Ooh, costumes.
Gugu: Yeah that’s a really fun era! It’s like girdles and pointy bras and really cool cars and trilbies. So that’s what I’m immersed in now. I also did a film back in the UK called Farming, at the end of last year. That is being edited at the moment, and that is a very British story about the foster care system in England in the eighties, specifically of children from Nigeria who were fostered into White families. And it’s the story of one boy who really struggled with his identity and actually came from Nigeria, and after being bullied so severely, he became a member of a white racist skinhead gang.
Gugu: It’s a true story based on the life of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. He also directed it. So yeah, a few different things on the horizon.
DaVette: Lots of different things! So, well congratulations on A Wrinkle in Time, your other films, and the award from the Crown! And thanks so much for sitting with me.
Gugu: Of course, thank you so much!
Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time opens in theaters everywhere March 9th.
Originally from the Midwest, DaVette lives in Inglewood, CA and can’t name a single sports team. She’s a sci-fi fan, a movie geek, a drama freak, a Trekkie, and a Browncoat. She has a BA in English and Theater, as well as a Law degree, but don’t hold that against her. She acted and directed for the stage for many years, but really loves filmmaking and writing. She owns Running Lady Studios and she is the producer/star of the web-based talk show, Afro Bites! She is wife to Rob, daughter to Martha, and mom to seven (yes seven) cats. When not covered in fur, she’s a West Coast correspondent and occasional movie reviewer for BGN. Follow DaVette on Twitter and IG @mariavah.