Gugu Mbatha-Raw (‘Motherless Brooklyn’) on playing a ‘woman with purpose’ in Edward Norton’s film [Complete Interview Transcript]

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is having a strong year thanks to her supporting turns in Edward Norton‘s “Motherless Brooklyn” and Apple TV’s “The Morning Show.” In “Motherless Brooklyn,” the actress plays Laura Rose, a lawyer who helps poor families in the wake of gentrification.

Mbatha-Raw recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about having Norton as a co-star, director and writer, what attracted her to “Motherless Brooklyn” and her excitement over being part of “The Morning Show.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: First off, what attracted you to this film when you first heard about it?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, I first read the script and knowing that Edward Norton was the writer, director and starring in it, I was very intrigued because I’ve been such a big fan of Edward’s work such a long time and it’s synonymous with quality so I was very excited about the prospect of working with him, and then reading the script, knowing that it was a detective noir-ish thriller set in the ‘50s, which was a period I’ve never done before, and I just love the character as well. My character, Laura Rose, I just thought she was so refreshing. Usually when you see women in ‘50s movies, the femme fatale if it’s the noir genre or a ‘50s housewife, and she resists all of those stereotypes, as a woman of color lawyer in the ‘50s, an activist for her community. I just thought it was a really refreshing character.

GD: You play Laura Rose in “Motherless Brooklyn,” a savvy community activist in the  New York political world. What did you most like about playing this character?

GMR: It was really intriguing to me reading the script the way that Laura is first presented to us through Lionel’s point of view. We don’t know much about her but I loved how her arc reveals herself. The fact that she’s a woman with purpose, she’s a community activist, as you said, working against racial discrimination in housing. She’s also a woman that grew up in Harlem in the jazz scene, so she straddles these two different worlds, from the jazz club to the activism and being a trained lawyer. I also love the fact that both her and Lionel, who Edward plays, were somewhat outsiders in their own worlds and maybe underestimated. I just loved how much inner strength and dignity she had for the time to deal with those issues.

GD: You mentioned you hadn’t done 1950s period. Not only is this in that period but it’s also really inspired by classic film noir. What was it like getting into that genre? Is that a genre that you’ve been a fan of and that you were excited to play around in?

GMR: Yeah, noir is just so cool. I just love the genre and for me, working with Edward and talking about his intentions for the film, really to peel back the layer of what is shiny American narrative and actually see the darker side underneath of the way society is structured and the power dynamics. And also just to be able to do a film in New York, which is so iconic, and especially a period piece. The challenges of production design and filming in such iconic places, it was a real treat to be able to do something in that genre and of that period.

GD: One interesting aspect of the film is that you’re working with Edward Norton as your co-star. You’re also working with him as the director and as the screenwriter. What’s it like working with a co-star who’s wearing all those different hats in the same you’re in, directing you, acting with you? What was that like?

GMR: It was really awe-inspiring watching Edward literally, as you say, wear all these different hats. We were talking about it earlier today how he had surrounded himself mostly with actors who had a background in theater and I think that that really, really helped. It’s that feeling when you have an actor who’s also your director, that they have been in your shoes, really has the vocabulary as an actor that you know intuitively he understands what you’re going through and what you need. It really did feel like we were all in it together almost as if we were doing a play. Once the rehearsal’s over, the play belongs to the actors. You didn’t have to have multiple conversations back and forth from the monitor. It was a very pure process, obviously because Edward was at the helm with one strong vision. So yeah, it was very fluid.

GD: The film is a mystery, so it felt to me watching the film that reading the script for the first time must’ve been like reading a page-turner beach read novel almost. It’s just like, “What happens next? What happens next? What happens next?” Was that the experience of getting to read it?

GMR: Yeah, ‘cause I hadn’t read the novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” so my first experience was reading the script and it was a beautiful script, a really dense and sophisticated language and everybody’s dialogue, there was New York rhythms and every character when they’re introduced comes in with these big monologues. You definitely felt like it was a real actor’s piece, which was excited and for me, all of the layers, you read it the first time and you get one level. I read it the second and third time, the richness of the world kept on giving, in a sense.

GD: You’re starring in this film about 1950s New York. What kind of preparations or research did you do to play a black woman facing the unique challenges that she would face in this particular era and this political setting that she’s involved in?

GMR: Yeah, it was really fascinating to me. Obviously I had never done anything in the ‘50s before. It was very important for me to research the history of Harlem and I called up my friend Denise Burse, who’s an actress I worked with, who played the older version of me in a “Black Mirror” episode I did, “San Junipero.” She’s lived in Harlem for many, many years and she invited me up and we had lunch and did a tour of a lot of the historic landmarks, appreciating the jazz scene, appreciating the history, visiting Columbia, all of that, understand where Laura might’ve studied, what her life might’ve been like. Also listening to the music of the period. We have this amazing score by Dan Pemberton, original song by Thom Yorke, a very contemporary songwriter, but Wynton Marsalis did this incredible arrangement of a trumpet solo inspired by Miles Davis. Listening to Miles Davis and a lot of Billie Holiday. Edward has done such a deep dive into the research in terms of Robert Moses and epic books like “The Powerbroker” and understanding the history of New York on that level and the city itself. When you’re filming in New York, it gives you so much because we were in the real locations, iconic places.

GD: You have another project coming out this fall that I’d like to talk a bit about, “The Morning Show” on Apple TV. It’s one of the flagship shows on Apple TV. How did that opportunity come about?

GMR: I got sent the first couple of episodes of the script from Kerry Ehrin, the showrunner and Mimi Leder, the key director. I was just blown away by the intelligence and really contemporary and this very juicy Machiavellian world of behind the scenes in morning television, which is always something that has intrigued me. Also, the cast that was attached, Jennifer Aniston’s first TV show since “Friends,” Steve Carell’s first TV show since “The Office,” real titans of television and amazing actors, and Reese Witherspoon, of course, who’s producing. I was just very excited to work with them all.

GD: This show is focused so centrally on the experiences of women in media and it has, as you mentioned, female stars, the showrunner is a woman, it has several women directing. Sadly, it’s not every day that women are so prominent both in front of and behind the camera. What was that like getting to make this show about women’s point of view from women’s point of view?

GMR: It was amazing. Both Reese and Jennifer Aniston are producers of the show, so really, it’s really empowering for women from the top down, and every female character gets their moment. My character has a really fascinating arc. I think the conversation around the show is going to be really, really fascinating so I’m excited for people to watch it.

GD: The approaches the MeToo era directly and its storyline is reminiscent of a couple actual scandals that we’ve seen over the past few years. What were your thoughts on this particular take on the subject when you first read the script?

GMR: [It’s inspired by] a book called “Top of the Morning: The Cutthroat World of Morning TV,” which is a very juicy read but also as you said, inspired by real events. Our show is fiction but it’s set in the modern day and I think it’s always inspiring to work on shows that have a real resonance, as you said, especially post-MeToo era in the media world, and now what? How do we move on from this massive moment that we’ve had culturally? How do we continue to evolve and continue to empower women and continue to keep the conversation moving forward? It addresses those things very directly but it’s also done in a really entertaining way. The characters are just, as I say, so delicious (laughs).

GD: The style of the show reminds me a bit of “Miss Sloane,” which you also appeared in. It was also about a powerful woman in a cutthroat profession. Did that feel like good preparation for jumping into this world in this milieu?

GMR: Oh, that’s so interesting you say that. I loved working on “Miss Sloane” and with Jessica Chastain, such an inspiring figure in the TimesUp movement as well as being a phenomenal actress. Working with John Madden, again, an incredible director. Certainly in terms of the writing, in terms of the fast-talking pace of the scripts and the way that these very ambitious characters sometimes have a very ferocious exterior, but naturally there’s a lot of vulnerability and ego and a lot of damage going on there. Those are always fascinating characters to play, and characters that have secrets. I think that that’s going to be very fascinating as the show evolves as well. I think they’re always interesting characters.

GD: What’s it like being on this show that’s launching this entire platform? Is that quite a different experience from, like when you did “Black Mirror,” Netflix was already pretty established and now you’re kind of a centerpiece for Apple TV, no pressure.

GMR: No pressure! Oh my god. It’s funny. When you mentioned “Black Mirror,” when we did “San Junipero,” that was the first time that “Black Mirror” was on Netflix, so for me, I don’t know. I try not to take on too much pressure, the streaming services. You do your work as an actor and how things are received is somewhat out of your control. But I have to say it is exciting. The amount of people that have iPhones and iPads, the potential for people to be able to consume the show in such a different way is really exciting. So it’s kind of cool to be on the leading edge of this new era for Apple TV.

GD: Congratulations on your work this year. Thank you for joining me.

GMR: Thank you so much for having me.

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