It’s been an incredible month for Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Within the span of five weeks she’ll have starred in three films that will have been released for public consumption (and we’re not even counting “Fast Color” which debuts at SXSW on March 10). A week from Friday she’ll appear in Ava DuVernay’s highly anticipated “A Wrinkle in Time.” Right after Valentine’s Day she starred in the Netflix romantic drama “Irreplaceable You.” Oh, and with little warning Julius Onah‘ “The Cloverfield Paradox” a J.J. Abrams production that Paramount Pictures sold to Netflix who then immediately released it after the Super Bowl in a first of it’s kind stunt. And, according to Mbatha-Raw, despite portraying the movie’s main character she was as surprised as everyone else by its secret distribution plan.
“I sort of went into shock and surprise and [was] sort of gobsmacked. ‘Oh, my god, this is happening and it’s happening right now.’ I don’t know. It was a very unique day I think to be part of that kind of sort of stumped experiment platform launch,” Mbatha-Raw says. “It’s never been done before so there’s no real precedent for that. I had to meditate for a minute. I was like, ‘O.K., this is happening and it’s happening now.’ I think that’s the thing. As an actor you have power over some things. Your performance and what comes out of your mouth in interviews. There are so many things I don’t have control over in terms of distribution and releasing of films. Sometimes you’ve just got to sort of stay sane and roll with the punches.”
The British born actress also had no idea she was starring in a film that took place in the somewhat burgeoning “Cloverfield” universe until long after production had wrapped.
“It was a process. It was a process of discovery,” Mbatha-Raw says with a telling look on her face. “There were different stages in that process. I signed up for a film called ‘God Particle’ which was a stand-alone sci-fi character and sci-fi movie. I think somewhere in the post production process they decided that it might be interesting to make it into a ‘Cloverfield’ movie. But that was certainly not in anyone’s mind except me and the cast while we were shooting.”
Paramount is releasing another “Cloverfield” film this fall currently titled, “Overlord.” According to Mbatha-Raw she’s not “aware” that she’s in it, but her face almost questions her own answer as she responds. Not in the sense that she has specifically filmed something for it and is trying to keep another secret, but more that she might have shot something for “God’s Particle,” er, “Paradox” they will somehow slice in? And, let’s clarify, those were not Mbatha-Raw’s words or thoughts, but just an interpretations of her reaction to a question about it as I sat across from her. Needless to say, she certainly seems to have chalked the entire project up as a unique experience, that’s for certain.
Ponder the possibilities in the context of our interview yesterday about “A Wrinkle In Time,” her incredible track record of working with female directors and a complete transcript of our “Cloverfield Paradox” discussion.
Please note: If you have not seen “The Cloverfield Paradox” this interview contains a spoiler regarding its ending.
Gregory Ellwood: Good to see you again.
Gugu Mbatha Raw: Good to see you to. [Motions to plate of vegetables, guacamole and chips]. Please help yourself. We’re in the snack time club.
Thank you, but I can’t. I’m actually going home and going running after this. Before the sun gets down and it’s too cold.
Oh, you! Yeah, I know. I’ll be jealous.
So, I have an important question. Do I properly refer to you as Dame Gugu?
No, I did not get a Damehood. I’m like three rungs down from a Dame (Laughs.)
My friend said, “You got baby-Damed.”
I didn’t know there was that many. There’s three?
Well, no. I’m an MBE, which stands for Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. And then there’s OBE, which is Order of the British Empire, and then CBE, which is Commander of the British Empire. And then it’s not yet a Dame. But some people go straight to Dame.
You can skip ahead?
You can if you win an Oscar or a gold medal or something. Sometimes people just go straight to Dame. Or if you’re been Judi Dench for long enough then you get to that National Treasure status.
You have a lot of time. You’re on your way to National Treasure.
I’m working on that Damehood.
How did your role in “A Wrinkle In Time” come about? Did Ava just call you up and ask you to be in it?
You know, actually, I was working on “Space Movie,” as I like to call it, and I was working with David Oyelowo who obviously knows Ava very well, and she was putting together a series of short films for the opening of the Smithsonian Museum, the African American Museum of History and Culture, and asked me to be a part of one of them. It was about Katrina. And I said, “Oh, we’re doing ‘Space Movie.’ I’m really, really busy, I don’t have time over the weekend.” And then David actually handed me the phone and it was Ava. I was like, “Oh no, now I’m actually talking to Ava and she’s so cool and charismatic and I really do want to work with her. Maybe we can make this work.” So, I did a short film with her and then about a few weeks later the script came for “Wrinkle.” So, I was like “Oh, maybe she was sussing me out on that short film day. Maybe that was kind of like my audition.” Then when we went to the opening of the Smithsonian we were in Washington, D.C. in the back of a super fancy limo going to some big dinner by the White House and she’s like, “So, what did you think of Wrinkle? Would you play the mom? And I was like, “Wow.” I’ve never played a mom before, I don’t have kids, I don’t know if I’m ready for that. We’ll see, though.” Then I saw Storm [Reid] and I just sort of melted because I saw myself in her and there really were no big Disney stories with little girls that looked like me in Storm when I was growing up. Of course, then I realized Oprah was going to be in it and this incredible cast that Ava was assembling. And I really wanted to work the Ava and support her intention behind the piece. So, yeah, it was kind of a no-brainer after that.
I’m assuming you had not read the book as a kid.
No, I wasn’t really aware of the book. I don’t know if it was such a phenomenon in the U.K. I shouldn’t say that, maybe it obviously will be now. But, yeah, I hadn’t read the book so the first time I was aware of it was when the script came in. I read Jennifer Lee‘s script first and then went back to read the book.
What was your big take-away from reading the script?
I just loved that it was such an empowering journey for Meg [Storm Reid]. And then it was really a story about the power of love and being who you are. That who you are is enough. I just loved the fact that she gets to go on this epic journey and sort of in this role reversal with the parents. The children are the ones to show the parents the light and the truth and get their values straight. And that was really inspiring to me. I loved the sort of spiritual, magical element to it with the Mrs. and the concept of tessering and I just thought it was a very epic, heartfelt journey.
You’ve no doubt worked with some directors who just want to hide behind the monitors, be sort of quiet, and let you do your thing. Other directors want to be right next to the camera. Where does Ava land? How does she sort of interact with the cast?
She’s tactile, she’s warm, she’s got a big laugh, but she’s also very focused and she knows what she wants. And she’s really a natural leader. You know, most of my scenes were in the house, but she really fostered that family energy within the whole crew and that was really lovely to be around.
Especially in this particular era many actors, both male and female, have been talking about the opportunity to work with more female directors, more female screen writers, and you are somebody who’s been walking the walk forever.
I’ve been doing it, I’ve been doing it!
I was looking beforehand and I think over the past two years this is the fourth female director you’ve had?
Yeah, let me see. Ava, Julia Hart, Stephanie Laing...
Did you just shoot something with Jennifer Morrison?
I did a short with Jennifer Morrison. We’re talking about something else as well. Then if you go back to Gina Prince-Bythewood, Amma Assante, Lana Wachowski...
Is it something that you look for? Is it a priority or has it just luckily worked out that way?
I don’t think I’ve ever said to my agent, “This is what I’m looking for.” I think what has happened is that the stories that female directors have been interested in telling have been the most nuanced female characters that I’ve been attracted to. And I think that it’s about point of view. Of course, a man can direct a woman, a lead of a movie, but I think sometimes … I don’t know. I think sometimes it’s about that energy and that certain unique multi-faceted female perspective on a film. I don’t know. It’s my normality. It’s normal for me to work with a female director, so I’m sort of like saying, “Yeah, it’s just a director, we don’t have to keep qualifying female.” We don’t have to keep qualifying African-American or black or women of color director. She’s just a director. To me, anyway. Hopefully, that will become more commonplace for everyone.
Yeah, I was thinking the next time I interview you I hope I don’t even think to ask the question. It shouldn’t even come up. I got to ask this because you just experienced something that no one has really experienced before with “The Cloverfield Paradox.”
Yeah, a.k.a. “Space Movie” because for the longest time I was called “God Particle”and then there was this sort of transition period where it’s not going to be called “God Particle” and it [didn’t] have a title. I had to call it something. I didn’t find out the title until a week before it was dropped on Netflix. I was just calling it “Space Movie” for a year. I just thought that was safer.
But did you know it was tied to the “Cloverfield” universe when you made it?
Was that also something you found out a week before?
It was a process. It was a process of discovery.
There were different stages in that process. I signed up for a film called “God Particle” which was a stand-alone sci-fi character and sci-fi movie. I think somewhere in the post production process they decided that it might be interesting to make it into a “Cloverfield” movie. But that was certainly not in anyone’s mind except me and the cast while we were shooting.
At the end of the film your character goes into an escape shuttle and heads toward earth which, it appears, is overrun by monsters. Was that how it was written? Was there a scene that got cut that you land on earth and everything’s okay?
No, no. Like how do I put this? Because there were so many things that evolved in the movie. I had lots of surprises watching it myself.
O.K., so the follow-up is Paramount says it is making another “Cloverfield” movie that is supposed to be a sequel which is connected to this. Are you in that?
Not that I’m aware of, no.
So, have there been any discussion about keep your character’s story going?
They’ve already shot another…
Publicist: Yeah. But it’s a different [movie]. It was shot a long time ago, I think.
What was your reaction that day watching it with an audience who had no idea it was being released until it was announced during the Super Bowl?
I sort of went into shock and surprise and [was] sort of gobsmacked. “Oh, my god, this is happening and it’s happening right now.” I don’t know. It was a very unique day, I think to be part of that kind of sort of stumped experiment platform launch. It’s never been done before so there’s no real precedent for that. I had to meditate for a minute. I was like, “O.K., this is happening and it’s happening now.” I think that’s the thing. As an actor you have power over some things. Your performance and what comes out of your mouth in interviews. There are so many things I don’t have control over in terms of distribution and releasing of films. Sometimes you’ve just got to sort of stay sane and roll with the punches.
“A Wrinkle In Time” opens nationwide on March 9th. “The Cloverfield Paradox” is available on Netflix.