Sometimes it seems like Gugu Mbatha-Raw is playing some crazy version of showbiz Bingo.
This is a woman who has assembled an astonishing variety of roles in her 36 years. Big-budget Hollywood blockbuster? Sure, “A Wrinkle in Time.” What about an 18th-century English drama? Of course, “Belle.” Any romantic comedies? Check out “Larry Crowne.”
She’s been on Broadway, in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” no less. And a classic Disney musical with “Beauty and the Beast.” Sci-fi? Of course, look at “Cloverfield Paradox.” Voicing a puppet? Check out “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.”
“I always like the idea of being a chameleon,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I always like to feel like I’m stretching myself and doing something opposite to what I did before. Because that keeps me interested and hopefully keeps other people interested.”
The actress has a clutch of projects coming out this fall and they’re typically diverse: the film noir feature “Motherless Brooklyn,” the flagship Apple TV Plus streaming drama “The Morning Show” and the searing indie film “Farming.”
Mbatha-Raw plays a love interest opposite Edward Norton in the actor-director’s adaption of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel “Motherless Brooklyn” about a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome.
Norton went back in time to plunk the story in 1959 and created Mbatha-Raw’s character, a community activist from Harlem who forges an unexpected bond with the detective.
“They’re both overlooked in different ways,” she says. “I think they see something in each other where no one else sort of sees them, which I thought was really beautiful.”
Mbatha-Raw is an actress who does her research. For “A Wrinkle in Time,” she visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so naturally she went to great lengths to get the tone right — walking around Harlem, listening to Miles Davis and Billie Holiday.
“When you’re filming in New York, the history is all around you,” she says. “And it’s such a treat because it really grounds you in a sense of place and time,” she said.
Mbatha-Raw goes from the ’50s to the present day for “The Morning Show,” a series about the cutthroat off-camera world of a morning TV show that stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.
She plays an ambitious talent booker and says the show is deeply influenced by our post-#MeToo era media landscape. “It goes to some really interesting dark places,” she says. “It’s quite juicy and Machiavellian.”
Mbatha-Raw graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and soon found parts on TV and the stage, like on “Doctor Who” and opposite Jude Law in “Hamlet.” Subsequent highlights include the Emmy-winning “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero” and her first starring film role in “Belle.”
Her work often explores race — as she did playing a biracial aristocrat in “Belle” — but she’s also appeared in work in which her own race is not commented on, like in the multicultural cast of “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Mbatha-Raw’s father grew up under apartheid in South Africa and her mother is white and British. “Identity interests me,” she says. “I like the freedom to be a three-dimensional artist that can explore all sides of humanity.”
She has steered sharply into the topic of racial identity in one current project — “Farming,” the harrowing, real-life tale of an African immigrant to England in the 1970s who somehow became a skinhead. It’s based on the life of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who directs, co-stars and wrote the screenplay.
Mbatha-Raw plays a kindly teacher, an amalgam of three or four real people who helped get Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s life back on track. The film is a terrifying look at identity and belonging.
“When I first read the script, I thought, ‘Oh, this is brutal. This is really harrowing.’ But I think you have to go on that journey. And I think it’s one of those ugly parts of our British history that we need to heal from. I think you have to sort of acknowledge these parts of history.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje had worked with Mbatha-Raw before — notable on the film “Concussion” — and needed an actress who exuded benevolence and purity. “While she’s an amazing talent as an actress, she has that as a human being,” he says. “It’s just so effortless for her.”
Mbatha-Raw, who in 2017 became a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her services to drama, makes her home in Los Angeles these days. This year marks the 10th anniversary of her first visit to America.
“I definitely consider myself British still, but I love America. I just love the spirit here. I love the work that gets made here. I think it’s a fascinating bundle of contradictions and it’s a dynamic place to live and work.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits