Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Apple TV+ show Surface, her dream role and why she likes to dig into the darkness at work

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Surface (Apple TV)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Surface (Apple TV)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is, she says, “having the time of my life”. In the past few years, the acclaimed actor has starred in Marvel show Loki, glossy thrillers on BBC One and Apple TV+ and is filming a heist movie for Netflix with Kevin Hart. “It feels like a great place to be,” she says. “Keeping all the plates spinning.”

When we talk over Zoom, it is about Surface, the Apple TV+ drama released in the UK today. In it she plays Sophie, who, at the start, has suffered a traumatic head injury that has left her with memory loss. As she tries to piece her life back together, she is forced to question who she actually was and the real motives of those closest to her.

“Surface feels like a project that is so layered. I love the tone of it, the noir element of it,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I read the pilot and thought the quality of the writing was amazing, Veronica West’s script was so good, so mysterious – it totally drew me in, the idea of Sophie and going straight into her brain.”

The show filmed in Vancouver and San Francisco at the height of Covid’s Delta variant, with a strong British contingent in the cast and crew. These included her onscreen husband Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Millie Brady from The Last Kingdom and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as well as director Sam Miller, who co-directed I May Destroy You. “This was our whole social existence. It was a very special time for bonding.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw attends the 65th Evening Standard Theatre Awards in association with Michael Kors at the London Coliseum (Dave Benett)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw attends the 65th Evening Standard Theatre Awards in association with Michael Kors at the London Coliseum (Dave Benett)

The actor has a reputation for being bright and breezy, and as an interviewee she doesn’t disappoint, frequently breaking into laughter during the conversation. So why is she drawn to such complex characters in dark dramas who face themes of manipulation and coercive control – such as Surface’s Sophie and Jane in The Girl Before, the BBC drama screened at the turn of the year? “I don’t know, it’s just human nature as an actor,” she says. “I love meaty roles, complex characters, I love psychology and human relationships.”

Such work doesn’t tend to affect her off set – “I’m very aware it’s an art form and it’s pretend” – and she enjoys grappling with the darker side of humanity as “I find that satisfying as my natural energy is much lighter and brighter. So there is a balance to be found in getting to go to the deeper, darker places for work.”

Surface reunites her with Reece Witherspoon for the third time after the film A Wrinkle in Time and The Morning Show on AppleTV+, though this time the Hollywood star is solely producing rather than performing as well.

And Mbatha-Raw says a large part of Surface’s draw was working with Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine – “I loved the fact they make such female-centred stories and are all about empowering women” – for the project she he came on board as an executive producer for the first time as well to be part of the team pitching the show to Apple.

She adds, “Reece has been such as champion of this show, and obviously I’ve been so inspired by what she’s done with her career and company. It was always great to have her support and inspiration.”

Mbatha-Raw’s performance in the first season of The Morning Show made many sit up, with her character Hannah going through a devastating journey, facing predatory behaviour and coercion at work, then a subsequent cover-up and eventual tragedy.

“There was something about the nature of the story, around MeToo – and specifically abuse of power in the workplace and predatory behaviour – that was very much in the zeitgeist at the time, so it was really satisfying to work on,” she says. The nature of the role, however, did take its toll. She says she is deliberate about letting go of projects, but after the show aired there was a huge response from viewers who saw themselves in Hannah.

“It’s important to put it out there and have the conversation around the work, and it’s gratifying that people were really moved by that storyline and felt impacted by it almost as a healing process, to see a story like that outside of yourself and in the safe space of a TV show.”

Less dark was filming a show that followed, the comic fantasy Loki, “another project in America with a lot of Brits… we get everywhere”. These included Tom Hiddleston, a classmate at her drama school RADA, Sophia Di Martino, Wunmi Mosaku – another RADA graduate ­– as well as director Kate Herron, whose CV includes Sex Education.

In Loki (Disney)
In Loki (Disney)

“We filmed the first season in 2020. It was hard to separate the experience from the onset of the pandemic and how weird the world was at the time,” she says. “It was a surreal time to be doing anything, but it was comforting to be working with Brits and former RADA buddies, when we were all so far away from home… in the apocalypse essentially,” she laughs.

Mbatha-Raw grew up in Oxfordshire, and wanted to be an actor ever since playing Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard of Oz aged 11. After graduating from drama school, she was cast in a series of stage and screen roles including in episodes of Doctor Who, and then as Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet, which went from the West End to Broadway. At the time, its director Michael Grandage called her “one of the most remarkable actresses around”.

But it was the film Belle that brought her to wider prominence. The true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British aristocrat and an enslaved African woman, raised by her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, in Kenwood House in the 18th century, won Mbatha-Raw acclaim and a string of awards.

“It’s very close to my heart,” she says now, almost a decade on. “I feel very grateful for that experience, it was my first lead in a film, it gave me so many opportunities, and just a really special story I had wanted to tell for a long time.”

Back on stage two years after Belle, she played Nell Gwynn in Jessica Swale’s riotous production of the same name at Shakespeare’s Globe. “Every show felt like a rock concert,” she says. “People were on their feet and they’re so vocal, and you can feel the wind and the rain. It’s a very empowering space for an actor. You can see the audience. It’s not like a typical theatre when the house lights go down.”

She continues, “I would love to go back on the stage – we’ll see if something comes along that is exciting to do and the right timing. A lot of that is to do with schedules especially with TV shows that can take up to six months of the year,” before adding, “I love theatre, it’s my first love and I’d love to do more.”

Her dream is to play Cleopatra on stage or screen. “I’ve been dying to play her since I was 17, I just needed to glean the life experience to make it believable. The Shakespeare version or a different interpretation, that would be really interesting. Who knows… I’m putting it out there.” Next up, however is Lift, which involved four months of filming in Belfast – “ever the nomad,” Mbatha-Raw says – a movie about a gold bullion heist on a plane.

Despite her affable demeanour, Mbatha-Raw has not been afraid to speak out when necessary. In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter movement, she was one of the signatories on an open letter addressing the lack of diversity in UK film and TV and demanding the industry tackle systemic racism.

With Stephan James in Surface (Apple TV)
With Stephan James in Surface (Apple TV)

So has anything changed? “It’s always very hard to speak for the industry at large,” she says after considering the question. “I can only speak for myself. For me personally being associate producer on The Girl Before and executive producer on Surface has definitely opened up doors for me to be behind the scenes, having a seat at the table at those producer conversations and being able to shape projects from the inside. That’s a definite personal development, and has been really positive.”

The plight of refugees is another issue she feels strongly about and has supported the UN Refugee Agency since 2018, becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the organisation last year. Through this, she had visited refugees and livelihood projects in Rwanda and Uganda.

Like the UNHCR, she disagrees with the UK government’s policy of sending refugees to Rwanda. “I it feels to me quite heartless,” she says. “I feel, like UNHCR, that asylum is a human right and people should be able to seek asylum wherever they end up. I was very disappointed by that measure. I hope it ends.”

Surface is on AppleTV+ from today