Feature: Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Flaunt

The narrative conceit of a character that awakens from a supposed suicide attempt with no memory or sense of their former identity is a fairly delectable proposition for any actor and one that is evidently particularly well suited to Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The actor’s propensity for subtly nerve-shredded existential angst is amply showcased in Surface—the current Apple TV+ show predicated upon precisely the aforementioned proposition. 

The increasingly celebrated thespian in Mbatha-Raw is properly in her element in the slow-burning psychological thriller. Surface spins upon the central axis of a woman named Sophie (played by Mbatha-Raw) whose seemingly high-end affluent life in San Francisco turns out to be a scattered jigsaw puzzle of deceit, debt, love triangles, and, perhaps even, murder most foul. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Oxfordshire-born actor, who first came to the attention of the world for her sterling performance in the game-changing costume drama Belle, and was most recently on our screens as a sinister time-policing bureaucrat in the surreal Disney+ Marvel spin-off, Loki, jumped at the chance to play such an enticing role. “Surface came to me through the Hello Sunshine company, who I worked with on The Morning Show, and I knew if they were doing it, that it would be quality because an ethos of centering strong female roles in the narrative is in their DNA,” says Mbatha-Raw, with infectious enthusiasm down a crackling phone line from Belfast, Ireland, where she is currently holed-up on-set of new project, Lift. 

“When I read Veronica West’s pilot script [for Surface], it just really drew me in as a mystery. I thought it was so compelling because it placed you right inside my character’s head—a woman who it seems has a perfect life, before the cracks begin to show,” continues the actor of British and South African parentage, whose eye for a good character is inarguably keen, given she has been awarded an MBE for services to drama. “There is this kind of noir element to the story, and I got drawn into the mystery of this love triangle, but also by the fact that I hadn’t really ever seen a woman in a memory story, you know? We have all seen things like The Bourne Identity, and thrillers that have a man at the center of finding out who they are, or what they have done—but I just thought that this being about a woman was intriguing.”

It’s a salient point that memory loss is a pretty well-trodden trope in the history of cinema, having deep roots in the likes of the classic Hitchcock thriller Spellbound and the truly excellent Memento from Christopher Nolan, but it’s fair to say that it is sadly more than a little unusual for the key protagonist to be female (the incomparable Mulholland Drive being the most obvious exception), and, perhaps just as pertinently, it is not a narrative we have seen packaged into the zeitgeist mold of the mini-series before. “There is something about being able to go into an intimate character-driven story like this that you can’t necessarily get on the big screen, because you get to spend eight hours with all these characters and go to deep psychological depths,” says Mbatha-Raw, when I ask her if she has any concerns about the ubiquitous streaming format in general, given that, well, at least in the opinion of this writer, a good deal of shows can sometimes seem just a little too long, and oftentimes unwieldy. “I think there is a comfort in returning episode after episode to a character, and in getting to really explore the nuances of the story,” she continues. “Also, this is just six episodes, so it feels like a tight package. Hopefully, as a viewer, you are on the edge of your seat, and trying to work out the mystery, but there are also some very interesting questions of trust being raised on the way—you can’t always rely on your senses to give you an accurate picture of the outside world, and thereby your inner world.” [More at Source]

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