Gugu Mbatha-Raw is one of those facinating actors who completely draws you in. Every scene she features in, she steals with an unexplainable quality that makes it almost impossible to look away. It’s not just her face – which is stunningly beautiful – or even her acting ability – her episode of Black Mirror, San Junipero, is widely thought to be the show’s best to date – but something that can only be explained as an It factor.
In person, Mbatha-Raw’s star quality is just as alluring. We meet on a rainy day in London, before COVID had accelerated to a global, world-altering pandemic, and just as film companies were trying to figure out what to do with their upcoming releases should cinemas close completely. In the past few years, Mbatha-Raw has become somewhat of a fashion darling and today is no exception: the 37-year-old is wearing a floral Versace dress, stilettos and bright pink lipstick. She comments on my outfit as we’re introduced and immediately, the woes of wearing white pants on a muddy winter’s day are forgotten.
Since her breakout role in 2013’s Belle, the true story of a mixed-raced girl who was born into slavery but raised by the aristocracy in 18th-century England, Mbatha-Raw has continued to choose projects that will not only provoke conversation, but that will push forward important movements. There was her aforementioned part in Black Mirror, in which she was acclaimed for treating the episode’s same-sex relationship with care and lightness of touch; her role on The Morning Show, which examines the grey areas of consent and sexual assault in a way not often depicted quite so eloquently in a TV drama; her part on Motherless Brooklyn, playing a lawyer and community activist campaigning against racial discrimination; and, of course, her role on the new film, Misbehaviour, set around 1970’s Miss World competition and women’s liberation movement in England, in which she plays Jennifer Hosten, the first woman of colour to ever win the event.
Take one look at her IMDb and you’ll see that Mbatha-Raw also walks the walk behind-the-scenes too: opting to work with women directors and producers and always choosing roles with a feminist narrative. “I think that I have always made feminist choices in my work and the stories I’m drawn to, consciously or not,” she muses when the topic of her acting portfolio comes up. “Obviously, in Misbehaviour, it’s very front and centre, but it’s about celebrating other women, working with women directors, telling female-driven stories off-screen, too.”
“I think that i have always made feminist choices in my work and the stories I’m drawn to, consciously or not”
Just a few months prior to meeting Mbatha-Raw, I’d watched her standout performance as Hannah on The Morning Show, a young woman who was sexually assaulted by a powerful and famous news anchor who she worked underneath. Though she was starring alongside Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, both of whom gave standout performances – Aniston’s so great that it won her a SAG Award – it was Mbatha-Raw who made me sob uncontrollably. “It had a huge impact on me when I first heard [Hannah’s] storyline,” she says. “I thought it was incredibly powerful. It gave me chills and it was daunting, but it was a responsibility and something that I felt I had to do. Even though it’s a TV show, these issues are very real and there’s a real potential for healing when you get to see those stories. If you’ve been through something like that, you get to see something outside of yourself and maybe have a perspective on it that allows you to talk about it with somebody or digest it in a certain way.”
Following the show’s release, Mbatha-Raw says her DMs were filled with women telling her how impactful her portrayal was. “Many women who have experienced sexual assault told me that they felt seen for the first time in a TV drama,” she explains. “You can’t really underestimate the power of that to make people feel less alone or to help in the healing process.”
When I comment on how nuanced the show’s depictions of the grey areas of sexual assault were, Mbatha-Raw agrees, saying she doesn’t think she’s seen this element of the Me Too movement explored quite so well on TV before. “That’s what life is like: it’s never black and white. I think so often drama sort of glosses over the difficulty of these situations. We want a happy ending, we want to tie things up in a bow and I think that the fact that a show like The Morning Show doesn’t do that really helps to raise a lot of questions about who’s accountable and our culture. Hopefully it will generate more conversations.”
“Many women who have experienced sexual assault told me that they felt seen for the first time in a TV drama”
Mbatha-Raw was drawn to Misbehaviour because of the “gripping, fun, rebellious and spirited” script and when she found out that it was a true story, she was sold. The plot follows the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant and the plans by the women’s liberation movement to thwart the sexist competition, which was viewed worldwide by more than 18 million people at the time.
Mbatha-Raw’s first experience watching beauty pageants was in research for the film and she admits that prior to her research, she felt judgemental towards the whole process. “I just thought they were a bit superfluous and superficial,” she says. ” But I’ve had a bit of a journey, in terms of meeting Jennifer and learning about the significance of what she did in terms of representation and perceptions of beauty. The question with beauty pageants is what your background is, what your motivation is and whether that can represent freedom for you or others, or represent a stepping stone to a bigger life.”
During her research for Misbehaviour, Mbatha-Raw visited Grenada to talk to Hosten in person, saying that winning the competition all those years ago – becoming the first women of colour to do so on the night the women’s liberation movement coordinated their strike – was “complex” for the now 73-year-old. “It’s tricky to be thrust in as a poster child for all of these issues,” Mbatha-Raw explains.
The movie depicts what happened in real-life – the women’s liberation movement, led in the film by Sally (Kiera Knightly), sneak into the Royal Albert Hall and, as presenter Bob Hope throws out sexist, misogynistic jokes to the audience, invade the stage, hurling flour and stink bombs and completely derailing the show, which is being live-streamed to millions. The event became a watershed moment for feminism.
In one of its most important narratives, Misbehaviour also examines intersectional feminism, showing that though she’s part of a system that exploits women, Hosten is, in her own way, breaking huge barriers herself. There’s a powerful scene in the movie – which didn’t happen in real-life – between Knightley and Mbatha-Raw which shows Knightley’s character, Sally, after storming the show and ruining the broadcast, finding a newly crowned Jennifer in the bathroom. There, the two women have a frank conversation about the optics of feminism.
“I think that the beauty of that scene and why it’s so important in the film is that it’s all about who got to be included in feminism at that time,” Mbatha-Raw says. “It really highlights in a very relatable way exactly what intersectional feminism is. That it’s about your own journey and everyone’s different identity. That not everyone has the same background or opportunities, so it’s essential to be inclusive about who is able to be part of the movement.”
“This film isn’t about activists vs beauty queens,” Mbatha-Raw continues. “The women weren’t against the other women. The activists were against the patriarchy and the organisers, so to have that very intimate scene, to have something really brought down to two women in a bathroom, we can all relate to that intimacy. I think sometimes when you bring down big complex issues and big conflicts to just two people in a room, people start to understand each other.”
When musing about the takeaways from Misbehaviour, the time we’re living in and the roles she’s chosen, the woman who’s impossible to look away from says, “There’s a long way to go before we have complete equality and we need films like this to push us along and to remind us of the legacy of the women who came before us. Hopefully, it will inspire young women to keep fighting for a better future.”
Misbehaviour is out in cinemas in Australia now. Those in the UK and USA can watch it via Amazon Prime.