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Gugu Mbatha-Raw finds her true 'Color'

The actress, who stars in this weekend's 'Fast Color,' aims to bring powerful women to the screen

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Fast Color."

When Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a character, she likes to assign them a scent. 

When she played the lead role in 2013's "Belle," it was rose water; when she was Nell Gwynn, an orange seller during England's Restoration period whom she played on the English stage, it was, well, moldy oranges. 

"It really roots me in the present," says Mbatha-Raw, on the phone last week from Los Angeles, on her connection to her characters' fragrance. "It takes me away from my own center, and it allows me to get myself out of the way and go, 'oh right, I'm her now.' It's a very quick way to click into a person's energy." 

For her new movie "Fast Color," in which Mbatha-Raw plays a young woman struggling with her supernatural abilities, she assigned her La Labo's Santal 33, a "strong, smoky, earthy scent" which she finds striking and powerful. 

"It was about her abilities and this power," says the Oxford-born actress, who turns 36 on Sunday. "I like it, and I thought it felt strong. And I felt strong when I was wearing it." 

Mbatha-Raw — her friends call her "Googs" — has every reason to feel strong these days.

Since breaking through as a troubled pop singer in 2014's "Beyond the Lights," the stage-trained actress has appeared in a number of high-profile projects, including "Miss Sloane," "Beauty and the Beast," "A Wrinkle in Time" and Netflix's "The Cloverfield Project."  

She's likely most recognizable from the "Black Mirror" episode "San Junipero," in which she played the lover of Mackenzie Davis' character in a simulated 1980s-set reality. She says she hears from people about the episode "all the time — that's the joy of Netflix," she says. "People keep discovering it and rediscovering it on a global level."

Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the "Black Mirror" episode "San Junipero."

Mbatha-Raw, the daughter of a South African doctor and an English nurse, grew up an only child in Oxford, England. Her mother enrolled her in ballet class when she was 4, which led her to other forms of dance and eventually to musical theater and acting.

Acting gave her a way to express herself, and it was the root of most of her friendships growing up. "My theater friends were always my most friends, the most adventurous, and they made me laugh," she says. "I found my brothers and sisters in the theater." 

She was "completely obsessed" with musicals as a child; she remembers being mesmerized by the costumes, the singing and the roller skating in "Starlight Express," and a Cat — she can't remember which — sat on her lap during a production of "Cats" she saw when she was 11. 

That same year she debuted on stage at the Oxford Playhouse, and last year the theater made her a patron, where she joins Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkinson and others. "It's kind of come full circle," says Mbatha-Raw. 

She's always leaned more toward theater work than the movies, so winding up in Hollywood came as a surprise.

But she's found success telling stories about women coming into their own. This year, she has Apple TV's "The Morning Show," which deals with morning television in the post-Me Too era, in which she stars alongside Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. Also on deck is "Misbehaviour," which centers on the 1970 Miss World contest, in which her character was crowned the first black Miss World. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Misbehaviour."

"I like stretching myself. I like variety. But I like something that has a solid message that's going to be thought provoking," she says. 

"Art has to be relevant. I think that's how we grow in our culture, we have these conversations through film, through storytelling, and it's how we make peace with where we were and where we're going. I think that's just so integral to a healthy, vibrant culture." 

"Fast Color" is a sideways look at the superhero genre; it's not about special effects or boots or capes but rather about flawed people struggling with their gifts. 

"These people are grounded, their world is grounded, and it's not about destruction or spectacle. It's about family, and three generations of women, and finding the powers they've had in them all along," she says. "I just thought it was so topical, and inspiring to young women. I loved the fact that it was unusual and artistic, and I found that really empowering." 

Mbatha-Raw's favorite Shakespeare quote is "to thine own self be true" — it's a line that even pops up in "Fast Color" — and she's used it to guide her career. Going forward, she looks to keep making choices that make her feel like she's on a path of growth.   

As long as she can keep doing that, Mbatha-Raw will be smelling like success.


'Fast Color'

Rated PG-13: for a scene of violence and brief strong language

Running time: 100 minutes

Opens Friday