The nominations for Bafta’s TV Awards are in and among the starry likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy and Tom Hollander, one name on the shortlist stood out as less well-known.
Wunmi Mosaku has been nominated for her role as grieving mother and justice campaigner Gloria Taylor, in Damilola, Our Loved Boy, a one-off drama about the 2000 death of the innocent London schoolboy.
It’s the first in a string of eye-catching performances by the 30-year-old, Brixton-based actor, which continues this evening in Sky Atlantic’s much-anticipated new drama, Guerrilla. Written and directed by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, it is the fictional story of a militant activist cell, set within the real historical context of Britain’s early-1970s Black Panther movement.
The characters played by Idris Elba, Freida Pinto and Zawe Ashton are all heroes of the movement — albeit compromised, complicated ones — but Mosaku’s character, Kenya, is a police informant and sometime prostitute who wades in murkier ethical waters.
“I would say she is very focused on her and her son’s survival and she’s turned cold because of that,” explains Mosaku, speaking on the phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she’s currently filming a new TV pilot about a group of Nasa scientists. “Kenya’s not gonna take sides with anyone, she’s only on her own side.”
It’s a source of amusement to Mosaku that she’s been cast as so many emotionally cold or flawlessly professional characters of late. “I don’t know, maybe I’ve got resting bitch face?”
Not at all, actually. Mosaku comes across as warm, down-to-earth and very connected to her family and friends back in Manchester. She grew up as the youngest of three sisters in the suburb of Chorlton, which she describes as “a really hippy area where everyone talks about organic food all the time”.
As a child she regularly visited Nigeria, where her parents had established careers as university professors of chemistry and architecture, before they moved to the UK.
As academics, her parents weren’t exactly thrilled about her decision to become an actor. “My dad was against it. He was coming from the angle of, like, in Nigeria it’s kind of cut-throat, there’s real poverty, so you need security. My mum was very supportive and I don’t really understand why when I think of her humble beginnings. She grew up in one room with my grandma, my grand-dad and her siblings and a fire-pit outside to cook on. Now she’s a homeowner in Manchester and has a business.”
It wasn’t a particularly political family, she says, so, like much of Guerrilla’s potential audience, she knew very little about this period of early-1970s activism. “I’d learned about South African apartheid and the Civil Rights movement in America, but I’ve never learned about the black British story.”
Even when an IRA bomb went off a few miles from her family home in 1996, world events didn’t feature much in the family’s dinner table conversation. “My dad had to go back to Nigeria that year, so we were talking about visas, about, like, my mum being a single mum with three kids on a council estate. There was just so much going on that politics wasn’t really something that was spoken about.”
Times are much easier now, thankfully, and filming Guerrilla has got Mosaku thinking about how attitudes and behaviours have changed. There’s a scene in which Rory Kinnear’s police detective verbally abuses her character, which Mosaku found particularly emotional to shoot. “I feel really lucky that I didn’t grow up in a time when people would drop the N-bomb on me without knowing that there would be some sort of repercussions.”
She’d never had much direct experience of racial abuse in the UK until recently, in London. “The day after Brexit I had a moment when someone said, ‘Don’t you want to go back to your own country?’ I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if he was thinking he was being kind? I was like, ‘Um… this is my home, thank you’.”
Mosaku has been away from her south-east London home for a few months now for work, and is pining after her bike and the regular yoga class she organises with neighbours. “We get a teacher to come to our block of flats. I’m still on the WhatsApp group and they’re all going for cocktails. I wanna join in!”
That cocktails and crow-pose habit aside, Mosaku still has strong links to Manchester. She plans to head up there as soon as her plane lands to join her niece and nephew for an Easter egg hunt. Her closest friendships are still those she forged in the mosh pits of Papa Roach and Red Hot Chili Peppers gigs as a hard-rock loving schoolgirl. “I’m hanging out in the park with Roisin and Helen, or I’m going to Sunday roast with Penny and Georgia and Mairi — that’s how I spend my social life.” So no swanky parties in Hollywood nightclubs, then, although lately she’s started having on-set conversations that go beyond the weather and the catering. “I’ve realised that, y’know, just because they’re not from Manchester, doesn’t mean that we can’t have a deeper relationship!”
One of her new showbiz chums is Helen McCrory, who Mosaku got to know while making Fearless, ITV’s upcoming legal thriller from Homeland writer Patrick Harbinson. “Every morning, on the make-up bus, it was a big hello and a big anecdote. She’s so passionate about her family and her husband and her dog. She’s a really lovely woman. Really lovely.”
Mosaku plays counter-terrorism agent Olivia and says the hardest thing about the role was the power-dressing. “Yeah, I really struggled with that, trying to feel comfortable in those tight skirts and heels.” She laughingly confesses to sewing a lot of her own clothes from scratch. “African print dungarees! I don’t care about structure and shape, I’m like comfort and colour — Olivia is the complete opposite!”
She hasn’t always been this comfortable in her own skin, however. “It’s really hard,” she says of working in an industry which so explicitly judges women according to body shape. “I’m healthy, but I’m not thin. The thinnest I’ve ever been was when I was doing [Channel 4 TV film] I Am Slave. That entailed, like, no carbohydrates and hours of exercise a day — and I was still a size 12 with big boobs.”
With the support of her team of agents and publicists, she’s since decided to ditch the diets. “They’re like, ‘You don’t need to be thin to be an actor. You’re representing real people on camera’.” There’s no better confirmation of this than Mosaku’s recent run of career success — and the offers of interesting work just keep on coming. “I definitely think things are changing… I thought I would never be cast on network TV in America and here I am, cast on network TV — and not skinny!”
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Guerrilla starts on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9pm