Plus: Watch an exclusive clip of the actress in the period drama directed by Jessica Swale.
When Gugu Mbatha-Raw first broke out, it was in the back-to-back acclaimed films Belle and Beyond the Lights, both directed by women (Amma Asante and Gina Prince-Bythewood). And since then, she’s largely starred in films helmed by female directors, including 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time by Ava DuVernay and the lush World War II drama Summerland, written and directed by Jessica Swale.
“I’m very interested in the female gaze and working on films by women, just because of my interests in the stories and nuances of the way that the female characters are often portrayed from that point of view,” Mbatha-Raw tells ET, adding that those experiences have often been “richer” for the actress. “My first leading roles were given to me by female directors of color,” she adds.
And when it comes to Summerland, which sees Mbatha-Raw playing a young woman named Vera who falls in love with the reclusive writer Alice (Gemma Arterton), it was also an opportunity for the actress to support her friend, Swale, in making her feature directorial debut. “I wanted to really be a part of her ascendancy in film,” she says, adding that it was “really empowering to be a part of telling this very unique female-driven story with Jess at the helm.”
The actress clarifies that what initially came out of her “selfishly getting a part” at the beginning of her career has turned into “making more conscious choices,” like when it came to joining the Apple TV+ original series The Morning Show, which is executive produced by Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, director Mimi Leder and showrunner Kerry Ehrin.
“For me, it’s more about points of view if I’m honest,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I want to be part of something [where] the female point of view is multidimensional and fleshed out and not to serve a male character and all those things that feel antiquated these days. But also a point of view that feels like we’re getting a fresh take on a period or world we thought we knew.”
When it comes to playing Hannah, the head talent booker at the morning talk show who is sexually assaulted by lead anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), the role was a gift to the actress in many ways. “I really love being a part of such a female-driven show,” she says. “I felt like it was the first time I’d really seen -- as much as we’ve had these conversations about sexual practices in the workplace and abuse of power for so long over the last few years, culturally -- it was really the first time I saw a TV show tackle it head-on in a nuanced way and really show the complexities of those moments.”
She notes that people were genuinely moved by Hannah’s story and it’s been interesting to see how it’s become part of the conversation around the Time’s Up movement. “Hopefully it’s part of the healing process we’re having culturally, you know, all the cultural reckonings we’re having at the moment,” Mbatha-Raw says, adding that the moment she first learned about where things were going for her character, it would be “a very impactful storyline.”
Summerland is available in select theaters and on VOD/digital on Friday, July 31.