[Interview] Gugu Mbatha-Raw defies cliché in ‘MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has already played a superhero in one film earlier this year (cough, cough. FAST COLOR), and now gets to bring yet another multi-faceted female character to life in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. The amiable actress plays “Laura Rose,” an community activist fighting for justice in a corrupt city when the odds are stacked against her.

At the film’s press day, I spoke with Mbatha-Raw over the phone about everything from the portrayal of women in 1950’s set films, to how the jazz scene influenced her process, to how she’s able to cry on cue.

What was it about this role that resonated with you?

I loved the period and the detective, noir-thriller, which I’ve never done before. In terms of Laura Rose herself. I love that she was able to transition from the different worlds of the Harlem jazz scene and being an educated woman with a law degree, who was an activist for her community. I like the she had many dimensions to her. Many times she’s underestimated, they think she’s a secretary. I liked that inner-strength being underestimated in that society. I loved the fact that there’s a journey between Lionel and Laura and how they meet and are underdogs – outsiders in their own worlds – and how they connect.

In a lot of these movies, she would solely be there as “the love interest.” But it’s not that at all in this film. She’s multi-faceted.

“Yeah. She’s not the femme-fatale. She’s not the 50’s housewife. She’s so much more progressive and multi-faceted than that.

Not sure if we discussed this when we spoke for FAST COLOR, but do you approach your roles at different if you’re doing a period setting versus a modern setting? 

Yeah. For me, it’s always fun to research a specific period. Having never done the ‘50’s before, that was really exciting. To be able to explore the costumes and settings and how women dressed and how that expressed their position in society, in a sense. In movies like BELLE, they have the corset. In the ‘50’s, they still wore girdles and pointy bras and very confining clothes, in a different way. That changes how you move and how you walk.

I also love jazz music. I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and playing the saxophone as a teenager. To be able to explore through the jazz side of things was really cool. The script was so rich. Talking to Edward about his influences, obviously from the novel, which wasn’t set in the ‘50’s at all, but also taking on the themes from THE POWER BROKER and Robert Moses. For me, I studied history at school, so it’s fun to be able to be a student again.

I love that Edward carves out tender moments for not just Lionel, but for Laura too. Is that difficult to crying on cue? Do you do it by sense memory or filter through character exclusively? 

(laughs) I think it’s very much to do with the character. Laura has a very deep journey. She goes through a lot of traumatic events over the course of the film – a lot of revelations of self-discovery. For me, it’s very much about channeling that – what the character would be feeling. I listen to a lot of music on set, in between, to help me focus and stay open emotionally. It helps to be in the company of such actors like Edward, who really understands those moments need their time and space and having a conducive environment on set. It’s not really a mechanical process. It’s more intuitive, I suppose.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

You mentioned the costumes helping you get into the time period. I’d assume that production design helps add a physical texture to your performance?

Mm. Yeah. Beth Mickle, our amazing production designer. When you’re shooting in New York, you get too much for free. When you’re shooting in Fort Green, where you have those fantastic brownstones, there’s so much invisible work that goes on in terms of taking out the modern references in the city. Those gorgeous cars from the ‘50’s where we see Lionel and Laura driving around the city in the blue car. And the jazz bar. It always felt very grounded. There’s a grip to the visuals that’s really cool to have that noir-ish feel. It feels like it’s not glossy in a distracting ‘50’s way. It’s like a grounded ‘50’s, which I appreciate that it is very hard to do.”

Dick Pope’s work in this is beautiful.

Dick was the only fellow Brit on set. So I really, really appreciated his lovely Cockney tones every day and his experience, having done all of Mike Leigh’s films. His body of work is incredible.

How many takes was the dance scene in the jazz club with Lionel? How long did it take to shoot? Was it like a one-and-done?

I didn’t count how many takes we did, but in the movie, it’s just that one long take with the camera moving around us. We did a few days in the jazz bar. For me, the music was really what evoked that mood. To have Thom [Yorke] write that song and the legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis make an arrangement in the style of Miles Davis to perform to, it gave so much emotion to have that playing on set, on the day. It’s a dance, but it’s not really about the dance. It’s really a conversation between the two of them – Laura understanding Lionel’s unique qualities and giving him the space to be who he is. For me, it was never really about thinking how to do dance steps. The music was there, but it was very much a transitional moment in the characters’ relationship.

Then you have the big scene where most of the heavy-hitters are gathered for a town hall meeting. Is that where you felt you could get a broader scope of the cast?

That was so cool for me. It was the first time I got to meet Alec Baldwin. Even though our characters don’t really interact, that was a cool moment. Cherry Jones, who is so ferocious as Gabby Horowitz, I think she’s such a stunning actress. It was epic. At least that one was in the warm.

How did this creatively satisfy you?

For me, there’s so much to this film. It’s a very rich, layered love letter to New York and I’ve always loved New York, growing up watching it in films and TV. To be able to step inside that is a dream come true because it’s so iconic. Also, to work with actors I admire. So that’s really inspiring to work with people you respect. To do a period piece that has so many modern resonances, that’s satisfying. To play a character that defies clichés, hopefully gives people a fresher look at how women are depicted in ‘50’s movies. There’s so much to get my teeth into with this. It feels like a unique privilege to be a part of it.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN opens on November 1.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.