It is, perhaps, unlikely that many young actresses at drama school dream of the chance of one day being asked to play an anthropomorphic household cleaning aid, or that said role could become a potential highpoint of their career so far. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, however, is no ordinary actress, and Plumette, her character in Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast live-action remake, is no ordinary feather duster. It is, of course, also unfair to reduce Mbatha-Raw’s career thus far down to a CGI (we presume) supporting role. Despite the clout that a big-budget Disney appearance will more than likely bring, this is an actress who has been working steadily in TV, theatre and film for over a decade – and she is no stranger to Hollywood.
Gugulethu Mbatha was born and raised in Oxfordshire by an English nurse mother and South African doctor father, who separated when she was a toddler. Her first name is a contraction of ‘igugu lethu’, which rather beautifully means ‘our pride’ in Zulu. After being involved in several drama youth groups and performances throughout her childhood, she won a scholarship to study at RADA in 2001.
Upon graduation, Mbatha-Raw (she took her mother’s surname for her professional name, too) appeared in the usual places, such as Holby City, Trial & Retribution and Miss Marple, but she also gained semi-regular roles in British BBC TV institutions Spooks and Doctor Who in its heady David Tennant heyday, where she appeared as Martha’s sister Tish. Meanwhile in theatre land, Mbatha-Raw had worked around the country, from Exeter to Birmingham, and been cast opposite a young Andrew Garfield in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Manchester, for which she was nominated in the Best Actress category at the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards.
TV appearances in the enjoyably frenetic Lost in Austen and as a co-lead in the BBC’s doomed archaeology series Bonekickers followed, amongst other lower-key roles, but it was another theatre performance that would offer Mbatha-Raw the opportunity to launch her career across the pond: She was cast as Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet in Michael Grandage’s 2009/10 Donmar Warehouse production. Producer J.J. Abrams (post-Lost, pre-Star Trek/Wars) caught the show in London and Mbatha-Raw was consequently offered a lead role in his US TV show Undercovers, about a re-activated husband and wife CIA team; she then spring-boarded from that to starring alongside Kiefer Sutherland in the first season of Tim Kring’s (Heroes creator) series Touch. By this point, Hollywood’s heavyweights were also on to her and she appeared opposite Tom Hanks in 2011’s Larry Crowne as the main man’s college pal Talia.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s moment to truly shine, however, was provided back home in Blighty when she took on the role of Dido Elizabeth Belle, subject of an intriguing eighteenth-century portrait hanging in Scone Palace, Perth, in 2013’s historical drama Belle. Based on the fascinating true story of the enigmatic lady’s life, Dido was stuck between two worlds as she lived in great comfort at her family’s home of Kenwood House – but was also the daughter of a former slave. Winner of the Best Actress Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2014, and nominee for Best Newcomer at the Jameson Empire Awards, this role also most likely had a big impact on BAFTA nominating Mbatha-Raw for the EE Rising Star Award the following year (where she lost out to Jack O’Connell). In the meantime though, she had also clocked up the Whitney Huston-esque lead role of Noni in romantic drama Beyond The Lights, alongside Minnie Driver, and screen time in the Wachowskis’ ill-fated, avant-garde Jupiter Ascending.
Things continue to look rosy for Mbatha-Raw as she finished 2015 starring opposite Will Smith in true-life sports drama Concussion and was triumphant onstage at the Globe Theatre in London in the titular role of Jessica Swale’s new play Nell Gwynn (another nomination, this time at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards). She also has two films soon to hit British cinemas – The Whole Truth, a murder trial drama with Keanu Reeves and Renée Zellweger, and Civil War drama Free State of Jones with Matthew McConaughey.
Next year and into 2018, we can expect to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Miss Sloane, where filming has just wrapped, alongside Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong and Alison Pill, and also in another J.J Abrams project – the future-set God Particle, an ensemble drama with the likes of Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo and John Krasinski. So it’s clearly not all about the feather duster – although she will undoubtedly help.