If it seems like you’re seeing Gugu Mbatha-Raw everywhere lately, it isn’t your imagination. This past fall, the actress was on the promotional trail for not just one but two acting projects, which, in the perfect confluence of events, were both released on the same day, November 1.
In Motherless Brooklyn, directed by Edward Norton, she plays Laura, an activist lawyer in 1950s New York City, in an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s detective novel. The film, which stars Norton, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe, was shot in Harlem and has a jazzy, noir sensibility that Mbatha-Raw was eager to sink her teeth into. “It’s a genre that is so cool and isn’t often done,” she says.
The actress related to the contemporary themes of the film and the strong role, which Norton added for her. “Laura is an activist in her community; she’s not your typical 1950s housewife or heroine,” she says. “She’s so layered and a real underdog.” You may remember the 36-year-old Royal Academy of Dramatic Art–trained English actress from the short-lived J.J. Abrams television series Undercovers and the British sci-fi series Black Mirror, but she broke into film five years ago in the period independent movie Belle and played a pop star in Beyond the Lights. And now she’s made the jump into the big leagues with these starring roles.
Her other project, Apple TV+’s first series, The Morning Show, has no shortage of huge stars, either, including Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell. It was Mbatha-Raw’s second time working with Witherspoon in a female-led project. (They briefly worked together in 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Ava DuVernay.)
“It’s so special to work with Reese on this show,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I’m so impressed by what she’s built with her production company and what an amazing group of actors she’s assembled. She’s such a generous artist and is leading the way in terms of female storytelling.”
The actress was in the midst of shooting Misbehaviour (a film that follows the 1970 Miss World pageant in London, which saw the crowning of the first black winner) and jumped right into filming Apple’s television show-within-a-show in New York City. She did, however, have time to jet to Aniston’s cast party, held at her Los Angeles home before they began filming, and bonded with English costar Bel Powley on set. The show, in which she plays Hannah, a booker for a popular morning TV show, focuses on the drama between the anchors and crew behind the scenes, with a #MeToo plotline. “It’s so relatable for our time,” she says. “It really gets under the skin of that conversation.” Her Hannah is ruthless, ambitious, and disciplined. “I really enjoyed exploring the cost of ambition and the wear and tear of the New York media world. Hannah has such an interesting dramatic arc.”
Working so steadily also comes with its perks. She’s enjoying the red carpets in designer creations by Gucci, Miu Miu—she was a guest of the label at Paris Fashion Week—and, for the first time, Chanel. Most of the time, she can be found in low-key black jeans, a black turtleneck, maybe a leopard-print cardigan and boots, and a small Miu Miu handbag for the essentials. She has good genes—and all the boring stuff like water and sleep—to thank for her glowing skin, but she loves an Epsom salt bath and an infrared sauna session to unwind. (She also swears by natural skincare line Dr. Hauschka.)
She’s also a big reader. Currently, she’s reading Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, about his investigation of the Harvey Weinstein case (the irony is not lost on her), and it’s no surprise that both of her new projects are also based on books. “I really admire everything [Farrow has] exposed in our culture,” she says. “We met backstage at Good Morning America recently—very meta.”
For now, she’s off to Santa Barbara to promote the film but hopes to have some time to decompress by the beach and do yoga. “I just want to catch my breath,” she says. But considering the quality of the projects she’s been involved with as of late, that break probably won’t last long.