Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been close to stardom several times. She played opposite Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne, but the romantic comedy, which Hanks directed, was widely panned, and audiences were scarce. She was Kiefer Sutherland’s co-star in Touch, but the TV series barely lasted two seasons. She appeared as Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet on Broadway, but most of the attention went to Law.
With the release of Belle (which opened in North Texas on Friday), Mbatha-Raw’s time finally may have come. As the title character, she carries the entire movie on her slender shoulders. Critics on the festival circuit have singled out her performance.
It’s a showy role made even more so by the fact that Belle was an actual person. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 18th-century England, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and his slave.
Far from disowning Belle, her father brought her to be cared for by his aristocratic great-uncle and aunt. The film deals with the extent to which Belle enjoys the privileges of aristocracy versus the restrictions that accompanied being a person of color.
Making Belle was an education for Mbatha-Raw, who immersed herself in Jane Austen to get a feel for the period. Like Belle, she is mixed race — her doctor father is a black South African, her mother a white English nurse. Her first name is short for Gugulethu, which in Zulu means “our pride.”
As she answered a few questions, Mbatha-Raw couldn’t contain her excitement about her film opening at last.
1 What was your background leading up to Belle?
My mom sent me to ballet school when I was 5. I was a natural. I loved being onstage. I still love to dance. But I shifted over to theater and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Before I worked in the States, I had worked in the U.K. for six years in theater and TV.
2 Do you feel it was essential to have a mixed-race actress play Belle?
Oh, yes, because the fact that she is mixed race is such a big part of her journey and her discovery of her identity. I don’t think the story would have made sense without an actress who was also of mixed parentage.
3 Did all the responsibility you were given make you nervous at any time during the shoot?
I was so excited to approach the challenge. I think for me what might have been a negative, like a case of nerves, I was able to convert to positive energy. I am a positive person. I trusted the creators of this picture. They gave us a lot of time to rehearse, so I felt very prepared.
4 I understand you wore very little makeup because in 18th-century England there would not have been foundation for a woman of color.
I did wear some, but minimal — just enough to help out with the lighting. I couldn’t have a shiny face. But it wasn’t meant to look like I was wearing makeup.
5 Were the dresses uncomfortable?
They took a little bit of getting used to. The point was to create a silhouette with a tiny waistline. So we had to eat tiny meals instead of big ones. The actresses bonded over that. But those corsets do help with your posture. They change how you walk and move and breathe. By the end of the day I would take off my corset and dance around my trailer.
— Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle