Gugu Mbatha-Raw is not American, so “Concussion” was really her first exposure to America most popular sport: football. The drama tells the true story of Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith), a Nigerian pathologist who tried to warn the NFL that many former players were developing CTE, a brain disease that drives victims to madness, even violence and suicide. The British actress — and a current “It” girl, thanks to her lead turns in “Belle” and “Beyond the Lights” — plays Prema, Omalu’s wife, who comes from Kenya, falls for him and helps build up his confidence as the NFL tries to destroy his credibility and life. But Mbatha-Raw says Prema is not just your one-note supportive wife.
The movie is very harsh about the NFL and football, but it does try to argue for it, too. What is your take on football, especially as a non-American?
For me the danger is always obvious: You can’t watch the game and not see it’s dangerous. But it was fascinating the way the script constructed this argument. It’s a balanced film. It’s not against football. You get to see and appreciate the beauty in the game and all of the wonderful benefits: the pride it brings out of people, the sense of unity and community.
Prema’s not just The Wife. It’s clear they’re a team.
Absolutely. Before Prema came into his life, Bennet’s world was all science — all autopsies and dead bodies. She comes into his world and brings a real sense of humanity and an emotional support system and a spiritualty. It’s a spiritual film on many levels, in terms of how Bennet and Prema’s faith really guided them to survive the bullying that went on. That combination of science and faith is something you don’t often see.
It’s also a story about immigrants.
I can relate to that. Obviously I’m not coming from Africa directly, but my dad is from Africa, so I understand it from him. He moved to the U.K., and he had that courage you need when you’re enduring a big cultural shift in your life. For me, coming from the U.K. to America, it’s not as dramatic as Kenya-to-America, but I certainly had to adapt to a new culture. I’m familiar with that feeling of being an outsider and having a new perspective on life. You certainly learn what you’re made of when you’re outside your comfort zone.
You can probably relate to the idea of assimilating into new cultures just from being an actor. You’ve been all over the map the last several years.
I’ve been very nomadic. I was just in South Africa last week working, and in New York the next day, and I’m off to London tomorrow. But it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to travel the world with these stories. With something like “Concussion,” it’s about American football on the surface, but I think the other themes of the movie really do transcend culture. When you travel a lot you get to appreciate what we share as humans — those stories about morals and faith and courage and love.
This is one of Will Smith’s serious movies. What’s it like watching him switch things up given how he’s a goofball in real life?
Don’t be fooled by that. He works incredibly hard. Will’s natural personality is very effervescent and playful, but as an actor he shows his range, especially in this movie. He has a great balance, in terms of taking the work seriously but not taking himself seriously.
I want to ask about “Beyond the Lights,” which you starred in and which seems like it will be the biggest movie in the world once a lot of people finally see it.
People constantly mention it to me! I know that Lena Dunham tweeted that it replaced “Clueless” as her favorite chill-out afternoon relax movie. People are definitely talking about it, which is wonderful. Movies are not just about opening weekends. It’s about having a life beyond that. I think it will find its audience.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge