Gugu Mbatha-Raw Talks Concussion DVD, & Civil War Drama ‘Free State Of Jones’Posted by Brad Balfour
April 6, 2016
Gugu Mbatha-Raw continues to stir up things in a variety of movies on her slate. Gugu — short for Gugulethu which is Zulu for “Our Pride” — has received numerous accolade nominations from critics and widespread praise as the lead in the romantic music-oriented Beyond the Lights and the period drama Belle.
In addition, the British actress ascended to the upper ranks with her appearance in the NFL drama Concussion. Based on a remarkable true story, the critically acclaimed drama is now available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Digital, Blu-ray, DVD and next-generation 4K Ultra HD. It stars Will Smith as Nigerian immigrant and forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. He diagnoses a new brain disease linked to concussion-related injuries in football players. In the film, Mbatha-Raw plays Kenyan born Prema Mutiso who becomes Dr. Omalu’s supportive wife.
Bonus content includes the featurette “Inside the True Story” with viewers meeting the real people who inspired the film. Nine deleted scenes and another featurette, “Crafting Concussion,” where cast and filmmakers share a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film also available.
Since her 2013’s role of Dido Elizabeth Belle in Amma Asante’s Belle and as Noni in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2014’s Beyond the Lights, Mbatha-Raw has captured the spotlight. She’s appeared in everything from a sci-fi adventure — The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending to 2015’s headline grabbing drama Concussion with the courtroom drama The Whole Truth — alongside Keanu Reeves and Renee Zellweger — and the Civil War drama Free State of Jones opposite opposite Matthew McConaughey coming up.
Due next year will be a live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (she play Plumette) and Miss Sloane (which is now filming). This exclusive phoner offers insight in her recent star turns.
What was the toughest thing for you to do in Concussion — learn about what American football is all about [laughs]?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Kind of [laughs]. Coming from the UK and not really growing up in America I had never watched a football game. That was really where I had to start, educating myself on the culture of American football. The script and my character coming from Kenya, working on her accent, building her relationship with Will, getting into that world of Pittsburgh.
We actually got to shoot the film in Pittsburgh, which is not always the case. You don’t always get to shoot where something is set. So getting to feel the energy of the identity of that city and the pride of the Steelers. It was all very informative for me as a Brit getting to understand football culture.
In playing a real person you always have the trepidation of having the real person looking at you and you rendition of them.
GM-R: It’s always a great responsibility. I’ve played real people before, but most of them have been sort of dead. It’s a different set of responsibilities when someone really is around. You don’t want to let them down, you don’t want to embarrass them, you don’t want to misrepresent them. I felt that with Prema.
We didn’t get to meet until closer to the end of the process and I wanted to respect her privacy and personality. I talked in depth with the director, who met her family, about her role in the story. I huge respect for Prema. She’s a wonderful mother and really the pillar of the family and has such a sense of inner strength.
But yeah, I was a little bit nervous. We all wanted to tell this story and spread awareness of the issue of [sports-related] concussion. You think about the bigger picture, and hopefully, that takes [away] any anxiety about your performance.
Do you feel you were able to raise awareness? If so, that’s the biggest award of all.
GM-R: Absolutely. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading in the newspaper how the NFL finally admitted what they really knew and didn’t know. It’s all coming to now and like you say, there’s many ways to get awarded for a movie. You can get a statuette, or there are other ways a movie can have resonance in society. Certainly with this film, so many people come up to me now [about it].
It’s interesting; people have seen Belle, and have seen Beyond the Light… but there are so many people who have seen Concussion and are really inspired and want to learn more. Football is such a beloved sport in America, it’s only fair that people are having this conversation and learning the truth about what it can be to your brain. It’s about having the information, really. Then everybody can make up their own minds.
What’s next for you?
GM-R: I’m actually in Toronto. I’m here about to do my last day of shooting on a project called Miss Sloane, which I’ve been doing here for the last couple of months.
What is the story of Miss Sloane?
GM-R: It’s a political drama thriller set in Washington DC about the gang violence prevention lobyists there. I’m working alongside Jessica Chastain and a wonderful ensemble of actors. It’s directed by the British director, John Madden who did The Debt and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and a bunch of other movies. So we’ve been shooting here in place of Washington DC. It’s been great, it’s gonna be a provocative film.
You’re doing a movie with Beyond The Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood again, right?
GM-R: That’s in the early development stage right now. Gina and Roxane [Gay] are working on the script, based on Roxane’s book, An Untamed State. I’m really excited to work with Gina again. We went on such a journey with Beyond the Lights and I really respect her vision.
Also, I am excited to have the chance to team up with Fox Searchlight, who handled Belle so elegantly. It’s always great to work with people you trust and have a shorthand with.
You seemed to have been so young when you did Belle. Did you expect Belle to grab attention the way it did?
GM-R: I knew I was always in love with the story. I knew about the film Belle for about seven years before it actually got to be made. I was very excited about the story and committed to it emotionally, shall we say, before it was a reality for me. I think sometimes you instinctively respond to something and it was such a refreshing point of view. Audiences have been seeing many period dramas, but never from the perspective of a bi-racial aristocrat. It was such a unique point of view from the film.
That was refreshing and striking to see a woman of color in that context in England. And it was also a very heartfelt story. Amma Asante did a beautiful job of portraying a love story, but also the social-political climate in England at the time. All interwoven in a sweeping romantic, sorta Jane Austen style drama, which people certainly have a soft spot for. I didn’t predict it, but I’m excited it moved people the way it did.
What do we have to look forward to in The Free State of Jones?
GM-R: Free State of Jones is epic. It’s from Gary Ross and it’s certainly a passion project of his. It’s set in America — a completely different world from Belle. It’s a hundred years later and in the Civil War and deals with the fall out of the Civil War. There is a love story there, but people are in much more desperate circumstances.
There’s not really the aristocracy we were talking about. It’s about escaped slaves and runaway soldiers living out in a swamp. Different circumstances about how they rebel for their community in the free states. It was a very different experience. Working in New Orleans was amazing. Getting to work out there amongst the alligators and mosquitoes and the Spanish moss in the plantation. It was a wonderful experience.
Your character was a slave?
GM-R: My character was a house slave at a plantation. In the beginning of the story, she has some freedoms, so she basically takes messages and supplies to a group of escaped slaves in the swamps. She still herself has to work at the plantation but she sorta sneaks out on a regular basis to provide information and is part of a network of slaves that kept the Maroons safe in the swamps.
How have women-centric films changed and changed for you?
GM-R: The more work I do, the more interested I am in film in point of view. The female point of view- and it’s different, having films with women in them is one thing, but having films from a female point of view is quite another. I just identified that difference recently myself. I’m more interested in exploring films from the female perspective.
Like Beyond the Lights. That’s one where you really had the focus on the woman.
GM-R: Absolutely. It’s not always about being the lead role in a movie, though. In a movie like Concussion or Free State of Jones, they’re both very important films and I got to work with very experienced actors. Part of the diversity conversation is also about gender and for me there’s plenty more opportunities to explore stories driven about women.