Netflix changed the game and stunned everyone with its surprise release of the sci-fi horror adventure flick The Cloverfield Paradox—one of a string of films under the Cloverfield franchise. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki and is directed by Julius Onah. Produced by JJ Abrams, the film is set in the near future, among a group of international astronauts on a space station. They are working to solve a massive energy crisis on Earth, and the experimental technology aboard the station has an unexpected result, leaving the team isolated and fighting for their survival.
Gugu chatted briefly with BGN about the film, how she prepped for the role of Ava Hamilton, and she discussed candidly her thoughts on the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movement happening in Hollywood. She also shared what she geeks out over the most.
Jamie: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time out of your super busy schedule because I know that you’re killing it girl. You are killing it.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Awww. That’s okay. That’s okay. It’s nice to be able to talk to you. Thank you.
Jamie: Absolutely. So yeah. I’m just going to go ahead and start. Thank you for talking to Black Girl Nerds. We’re huge fans of yours. We really wanted to see you in Star Wars, by the way, just saying that.
So Cloverfield Paradox. I watched the film right after the Superbowl and I kind of regret it and I’ll tell you why.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Right.
Jamie: The movie had some really scary moments for me and it was difficult to go to bed that night.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh no. Did you have nightmares?
Jamie: I did. I did. I was like, “This movie’s terrifying.” But I wanted to ask for you going through these scenes, was it just as terrifying for you dealing with these experiences as Ava as it was for us watching her?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well for me, what really grounded the story for me was knowing Ava Hamilton’s backstory and what she is wrestling with from her past. And that was really, really helpful because I think you know having her history with her family on earth, understanding what she was escaping emotionally speaking. When all these kinds of really surreal events start happening, it was interesting. I talked about Julius, the director, and the script definitely evolved a lot as we were in the process of making the film.
But there was definitely a sense that this is also a woman not just hanging on by a thread emotionally, she is also still grief-stricken. But also then when these bizarre things start occurring, she’s also slightly questioning her own sanity. You know especially when it comes to the next level in terms of dimensions and whether she’s really losing it herself. So that was kind of an interesting thing to play with.
So yeah, beyond it being sort of…I mean those things are actually — although time-consuming — they’re actually quite fun to shoot. They’re not scary to shoot as such. But I think they’re much more scary to watch than they are to shoot. But for me, the challenge was always grounding the response to everything in what she’s personally going through underneath the surface.
Jamie: Well that’s comforting knowing that what was terrifying for us was entertaining for you. At least you weren’t scared going through those scenes.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Exactly.
Jamie: But it was really good. I really enjoyed the film. And I was curious to know how you prepped for this movie. Because a lot of the scenes look like they were very physically demanding. So what was the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: There were a lot of challenges. I think for me, this is a genre I haven’t really done before, you know, the space movie genre. And for me, it was quite a big challenge. Most of the movie was filmed on a sound stage at Paramount Studios in L.A. was quite a challenge in itself, because I think when you are mostly in a very sterile sound stage environment. I mean I guess it’s not unlike a space station in a weird way but it’s quite an intense way to shoot I think. You know, you’re not necessarily out and about on the street shooting in the real world as it were. And I think sometimes that can be challenging. You know, especially when you’ve got things like green screen and a lot of special effects. You’re having to use your imagination a lot. You’re responding to things that on the day maybe aren’t necessarily there, or haven’t been decided upon yet. And that can definitely be an acting challenge because you don’t necessarily know 100% what is going to be put into the movie in the post-production process. So that’s a challenge.
We also had some wire work, some physical work wearing a space suit. I mean it was actually challenging for me because of our amazing costume designer Colleen Atwood who’s award-winning and incredible. But these space suits, they’re not necessarily designed for comfort. They looked great. Being several hours with the helmets on and things like that, I would get claustrophobic. So I’d be like, “Can we just wait until the camera is actually rolling before I put my helmet on?” Because then as soon they yell, “Cut,” I’m pulling the helmet off.
Jamie: Take it off! Take it off!
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: It wasn’t the most comfortable costume I have to say. But you know, it all added to the drama and as I say, what we were going through.
Jamie: Well it looked really good. So even though it wasn’t comfortable, it looked great on screen.
You know what I really loved about this movie, there was this beautiful dichotomy between this being a sci-fi horror film and all of these terrifying elements to being a family drama which is centered around your character Ava. How important is it to work on a film where you’re given so many options in the screenplay?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: So many options? You mean in terms of the character’s backstory?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah I mean for me, that’s what drew me to the original script, you know, God Particle, which was very much centered around this woman Ava Hamilton. I really responded to the fact that she was a three-dimensional woman. She’s a mother. She has this tragic past that she was dealing with. She was still getting on with her life. And it didn’t mean that she…I think sometimes often in sci-fi movies, you see these female astronauts that are very cold and are basically trying to actually like men in that world to be able to survive. And I think that the interesting thing about Hamilton is she is a woman, she’s vulnerable. She has a lot going on that she’s dealing with. And I think I just love the fact that you see her struggle emotionally but still continue and persevere. And that to me is always an interesting conflict when a character is wrestling with things internally, that that gives you a lot of juicy stuff to play with emotionally.
Jamie: Yeah. It was great to see how that unfolded on the screen.
Now, this is a bit of a heavy question. A lot of folks in the entertainment industry is talking about the #MeToo movement. And when it comes to changing who has the power to create and tell stories to challenge sexual violence. You know, there’s this broad movement for change currently happening in the entertainment industry. When designed and led by women of color, what looks different about this movement for change?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: About #MeToo? Or #TimesUp? Or …
Jamie: Yeah about the whole movement surrounding the discussion on sexual violence and harassment. So yeah, #MeToo, #TimesUp.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Right well I think what’s exciting is that it’s a movement change for women, meaning all women. And then not just actresses, not just…say women of all ethnicities. And I think that that’s really exciting because I think it’s inclusive and it empowers everyone, whatever industry you’re in. I think even though actors are perhaps more visible, I think what happens is this empowering message trickles into every industry from farm workers to domestic workers to women across the globe, I hope, will feel inspired to not accept this kind of treatment anymore.
And also, I think it’s really interesting that there is a kind of sense of community really being fostered with women in the industry that I haven’t really seen before. From the #TimesUp email chain to meetings, the groups that we’re all chitchatted together, you know there’s a conversation happening. And that, I think, is something that so often, speaking for myself and as an actor, you may be the only woman, you may be two women on the set in terms of an acting department and actually to be able to be united to be with other actors. Like not just two, three but a whole community of women who are having and sharing these experiences and conversations. I think it’s just so empowering. And I think as I say, everyone is feeling included, which is a step in the right direction.
Jamie: Right exactly, the way it should be, you know?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: And something a little more light-hearted. You know we here at Black Girl Nerds, we talk about nerdy and geeky things. So what are some nerdy fandoms that you’re into? Whether it’s gaming, comics, anime, sci-fi, what’s your geeky secret?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: My geeky secret? Oh, my God. I don’t know. I mean I’m not really into any of those things that you just used as an example. I love to research in terms of my roles and everything. I’m such a nerd when it comes to the research.
I’m just about to start a movie set in the 50s and for me being able to immerse myself in that era and the music, in the novels at the time, the imagery, reading around each role. If I get a chance to visit somewhere, like for example, with a Wrinkle in Time, I got to visit JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and talk to literally rocket scientists and people who are doing astrophysics. And for me, that’s my not so secret nerdy passion—which is being able to really meet people who do the job that your character does. I mean for the Cloverfield Paradox, I got to meet a couple of astronauts, talked one on the phone, one of the first female astronauts who was the consultant on the movie. That to me is really fascinating when you get the chance to delve into another world. So yeah, the research is the nerdy stuff for me.
Jamie: Nice. Love that. I can spend hours and hours just researching stuff on some of the most random things. I love researching bacteria and viruses. I know that sounds really weird.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh my God. You’re a complete germaphobe. You’re like, “Oh no. She reaches for the hand sanitizer.”
I mean for me…and also I love history at school. So again, anything that is either a period of time or be it something set in the 80s or the 50s or the 1800s. That’s a chance for me to get back into my history student zone. And I just find it so interesting because there’s so much we can learn from the past. And I think essentially human beings and human nature don’t change that much. But I think it’s really fascinating how we express ourselves and how culture evolves. I’m really intrigued by that.
Jamie: Amazing. One last question. I know you’re super busy.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh that’s okay.
Jamie: You’ve got Wrinkle in Time. You’ve got Irreplaceable You. You’ve got Fast Color. And you’re about to be filming Motherless Brooklyn. Aside from those projects-
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah. You’ve got them all on the list.
Jamie: Anything else that’s next for you?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I mean literally I am about to start filming Motherless Brooklyn next week. So that’s definitely the next thing that’s taking my focus. I’m in 1957, I’m listening to a lot of jazz because my character was born in a Harlem jazz club. So we’re around Brooklyn and Harlem and a lot of New York filming that. So that’s really exciting.
In terms of after that, I don’t know, maybe a holiday.
Jamie: Maybe some sleep?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah maybe some sleep would be really nice.
Jamie: Well awesome. It was fantastic talking to you. Are you going to be at South By Southwest?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yes. I just got my flight. I’m so excited. I’ve never been to Texas.
Jamie: Oh my God.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: So I think my flight’s through Dallas-Fort Worth airport maybe for an hour or something. But yeah, I’m very excited to go to Austin. I hear it’s really fun.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: And I’m really, really excited for Fast Color to have its world premiere there. So I’m going to see the movie actually for the first time next week. So yeah, it was an amazing experience shooting that film with Julia Hart in Albuquerque. I can’t wait to see it. And as I say, my first time at South By.
Jamie: Well it’s all about the tacos at South By and the queso. And our team will be there as well. So I hope we get to meet you in person and talk to you about Fast Color because I read the story behind it.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh that would be so fun.
Jamie: Yeah the story is right up our alley. Supernatural, black women with abilities, like hello.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah exactly. And you know it’s starring Saniyya Sidney and Lorraine Toussaint as well. As I say, I’m sure you’d love to talk to both of them too. They’re amazing.
Jamie: Thank you Gugu. It was great talking to you.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Thank you. Thank you. Have a great day.
This interview was edited for clarity
Cloverfield Paradox is currently streaming on Netflix. Irreplaceable You will launch on Netflix Feb 16th. Fast Color will make its world premiere at the South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) which runs March 9-18 in Austin, TX. A Wrinkle In Time premieres March 9 in theaters nationwide. Motherless Brooklyn directed by Edward Norton is currently in production.