TV: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, 'To have a woman who looks like me at the centre of it is quite refreshing'

Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Executive produced by Reese Witherspoon, dark new Apple TV+ thriller Surface is set to shock and surprise, as Danielle de Wolfe discovers.

Imagine waking up, only to discover you remember nothing of your life. No recollection of the hobbies you once enjoyed, the friendships you dearly cherished or the adoring husband by your side.

The very premise underpinning new Apple TV+ series Surface, this dark yet sultry thriller illustrates that, even for those who appear to have everything, there remain some things that money just can't buy.

"It's so interesting to think of the history of thrillers, because to have a woman who looks like me at the centre of it is relatively unusual - and, I think, quite refreshing," says actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw, 39.

Best known for her starring roles in The Morning Show, Loki and The Girl Before, the Bafta-nominated actress steps into the role of Sophie Ellis as part of the series. An affluent philanthropist who, alongside her strikingly handsome husband James, nestles herself amongst the San Francisco social-elite, Surface examines the individual puzzle pieces that together make up a person's life.

"James and Sophie's house and the world in which they inhabit is based around money essentially," explains Mbatha-Raw. "It's a dichotomy of what they had to do to get that money and the sacrifices they've made morally to have this seemingly shiny, perfect life."

Set six months after Sophie's apparent suicide attempt, it's a time she recalls next-to-nothing of, due to the combination of a head injury and trauma-related amnesia. With the opening episode of the series depicting Sophie floating dramatically beneath the surface of the water, it's a striking introductory image that evokes both a sense of mystery and alarm.

As her recovery continues, we see Sophie rediscover the person she once was with the help of first-hand accounts, splintered memories and therapy. However, she quickly realises the person she used to be is no longer the person staring back at her in the mirror.

"She's not a victim and it disposes with the traditional damsel in distress angle pretty early on... her agency builds and builds as the episodes go on," notes Mbatha-Raw.

Also serving as an executive producer on the eight-part series, Mbatha-Raw joins executive producer Lauren Neustadter and actor-turned-executive producer Reese Witherspoon - whose female-centric media brand Hello Sunshine was charged with bringing the series to life. A story nurtured by series creator and showrunner Veronica West (High Fidelity, Bull), the gripping tale is one that puts female talent - both in front of and behind the camera - firmly at the fore.

With Mbatha-Raw describing her character Sophie as being in "quite a vulnerable state" during the opening episode, we find her high-flying venture capitalist husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) at her side, helping her to navigate both her recovery and the bright, new world around her.

Naturally, though, things aren't all as they appear. As memories begin to return and Sophie starts tugging at the threads making up her world, she starts to question others' accounts of that fateful day on the ferry boat.

"She's starting from scratch in terms of understanding who she is and what happened six months earlier," says Neustadter. "So, what follows is the mystery of her uncovering the truth about herself, about that day and about all the people around her in her life."

Noting that "nobody is telling the whole truth all the time", Mbatha-Raw describes the show's premise, centring around lies, as "very relatable". Quickly pointing out the twists and turns embedded within the series, the actor says viewers will constantly question "which person you should be rooting for", whilst attempting to figure out "where their moral compass really is".

"Those little white lies that you tell or those small things that you omit from the whole of the story can have huge consequences," adds the former Bafta EE Rising Star Award nominee.

Sophie's handsome and charismatic husband is the first to be placed under the microscope, as a series of discoveries lead her to scratch beneath the surface of their supposedly blissful relationship. With co-star Jackson-Cohen emphasising the twists and turns of the show's plot ensure "you don't really know whose side you should be on", his character is but one of Sophie's supposed inner-circle set to face scrutiny.

"I think what's very interesting about the show is that we play with the idea of who you should trust and that oscillates constantly," adds Jackson-Cohen, 35, best known for his roles in The Invisible Man and The Haunting of Bly Manor.

"To a certain extent, we all live double lives," suggests the actor. "The people we are at home when there's no one around and the people we are when we're with others are very different.

"I think there is something inherently human about that - and Veronica has captured it in such a brilliant way. I've never read scripts that are that much of a page turner."

Surface is available to stream on Apple TV+ from Friday.