Feature: Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Elle!

When Gugu Mbatha-Raw first received the script for Surface, she was in Atlanta, filming the first season of Loki—about to become an enormous hit for the still-building Disney+ platform. It was the late summer of 2020, and she was content, if not exactly challenged, in the iron-pressed shirt collar and necktie of Ravonna Renslayer. She ached for an opportunity to stretch stiff muscles, especially as the pandemic continued the squeeze the television industry.

“I had a great experience on Loki,” she tells me when we meet for lunch in Midtown Manhattan this July. “But I think the Marvel world is a particular genre. So it was very refreshing to me to read Surface at the time, because it was so different to what I was working on.”

She already had a connection to the production company behind Surface: Hello Sunshine, co-founded by Mbatha-Raw’s The Morning Show cast-mate Reese Witherspoon. From Atlanta, she Zoomed with Surface showrunner Veronica West, with Witherspoon herself, and with Hello Sunshine President of Film & TV Lauren Neustadter. Together, they took the pitch to Apple, “and they pretty much bought it right away,” Mbatha-Raw says.

By Thanksgiving of 2020, a writers’ room was at work, and by June 2021, Mbatha-Raw was on set in Vancouver, in the lead role of Sophie, an amnesiac struggling to make sense of her life and relationships after a presumed suicide attempt leaves her without memories. As an executive producer as well as actress for Surface, she’d had a heavy hand in everything from Sophie’s musical tastes to who would play her co-stars, including Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Sophie’s husband, James, and Ari Graynor as her friend Caroline. As such, Mbatha-Raw’s tastes are felt throughout the series; her, as she puts it, “British sensibility” adds gloss and dimension to what might otherwise feel—if you’ll forgive me—a mere surface-level investigation of monied myth-making.

As the series speeds toward its finale, critics have widely deemed Mbatha-Raw as the standout in an otherwise mixed reception. Her face—Sophie’s face—contorts as she learns new details about her past lives, but even more so as she learns how to harness those details. Surface’s protagonist is not innocent, neither before nor after her accident, and the thrill of connecting those two threads is most evident in Mbatha-Raw’s performance, as she spins the wheels of reinvention behind Sophie’s tony exterior.

In a wide-ranging conversation ahead of the Surface premiere, I learned how Mbatha-Raw poured both her practical and artistic skills into Surface, what she hopes for the future of the series, and how her time on Loki has informed her future creative endeavors. [More at Source]

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