Meet Gugu Mbatha-Raw, star of the historical costume drama ‘Belle’

Gugu Mbatha Raw plays a mixed-race heiress in the historical drama "Belle." Credit: Getty Images
Gugu Mbatha Raw plays a mixed-race heiress in the historical drama “Belle.”
Credit: Getty Images

Where you’ve seen her: An English actress, she’s done a few episodes of “Doctor Who,” plus the American show “Touch” starring Kiefer Sutherland. She played Ophelia in the production of “Hamlet” starring Jude Law, which played both the West End and Broadway.

Where she is now: In the Jane Austen-y “Belle,” playing Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race heiress who lived among 18th century London high society.

Where she’s going: She has a key role in the Wachowskis’ summer film “Jupiter Ascending,” with Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis and Eddie Redmayne. She’ll also star in the rom-com “Blackbird,” with Minnie Driver and Danny Glover.

On playing an obscure historical figure: “There’s a book coming out now, but there wasn’t a lot of information about Dido at the time. Even now you have to use some artistic license. We do know she lived in the house. There was a report of an American businessman who came to visit. We know she wasn’t allowed to sit with them at the dinner table, but she’d come out after dinner. This guy was completely shocked by that. We also know Lord Mansfield left her money in his will, as did Lady Mary. That was pretty unusual at the time, to be held in such affection.”

On using the famous painting of Dido as an influence: “The painting was a big clue, where she’s depicted in a sumptuous gown and she’s looking directly at the viewer. She’s not in a subservient position. She was relatively equal to [her cousin] Elizabeth in the painting. All those little pieces of detective work inspired the story.”

On Dido having to skip out on social events at home: “I think she repressed those daily humiliations. The racism that is depicted in the script is not the brutality we often see on the screen. It’s more about the nuances of society and the subtleties, which can be just as painful, in a different way, on an emotional level. That scene where she’s staring in the mirror after John asks her why she doesn’t dine with the family — all of that inequality that she’s been pushing down explodes.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (center) gets to do the Jane Austen thing in "Belle." Credit: Fox Searchlight
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, center, gets to do the Jane Austen thing in “Belle.”
Credit: Fox Searchlight

On “Belle” as a twist on the Jane Austen film: “We’ve seen all these Jane Austen adaptations, and I’m a huge fan of them all. I grew up watching ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ with Colin Firth, and ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ But what was so great about this is we’ve not seen stories from this perspective before — not only from a woman’s perspective, but also a woman of color. And it’s also a British perspective of the slave experience in the U.K. And though there are no slaves in the movie, it definitely deals with Britain’s experiences of benefiting financially from the slave trade.”

On the film’s portrayal of female struggles: The marriage market in that period was ruthless. And yet Dido was financially secure. She could marry for love, she had an inheritance, unlike her cousin, who needed to find her [own] financial security. I’m glad it’s not as savage today, but this is still something that people deal with in different parts of the world. Arranged marriages and women’s freedom and equality are still questions.

On the costumes: The costumes are so helpful as well. Wearing a corset certainly changes your posture entirely and gives you a whole different way of moving and using your physicality.

On Dido as a role model: I think it’s important for biracial girls growing even now to be able to see themselves in history. I think if you can root yourself in a historical place, then the sky’s the limit, really.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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