Feature: Gugu Mbatha Raw for The Awards Issue

Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s face lights up as Helena Christensen walks into the suite of the Kensington hotel where Bazaar’s photo shoot is set to take place. The actress and the supermodel-turned-photographer have never met but, as fellow Goodwill Ambassadors for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, they have admired each other from afar. So when the opportunity arose for Christensen to travel to London from Copenhagen to capture Mbatha-Raw on camera, honouring her philanthropic contributions, both were eager to make it work. “I wouldn’t have squeezed in this trip for just anyone,” says Christensen, whose diary is booked up months in advance, “but for this woman, and this magazine…”

Mbatha-Raw’s collaboration with UNHCR began five years ago, when she embarked on a trip to Rwanda to see at first-hand the plight of refugees; she was formally named an ambassador in February 2021. She says the opportunity came “out of the blue” for her, since at the time she was concentrating on her flourishing acting career. However, with hindsight, the chance to engage with issues surrounding immigration made sense, given her own family history.

Born in Oxfordshire to two medics – her white British mother worked as a nurse and was a staunch supporter of the NHS, while her Black South African father was a doctor who had come to the UK to flee the apartheid regime – Mbatha-Raw was often exposed to political conversations whose ramifications she did not fully comprehend until later in life. “It’s only since adulthood that I’ve really understood the journey he made and the reasons why he felt persecuted,” she says. “Working with UNHCR has been like coming full circle, helping me put my father’s experience into context now that I have more emotional resilience.”

Growing up, however, it was drama that impassioned her, despite her family having no connections with showbusiness. “I was an only child, so getting into theatre was initially a way of being around fun people,” she says. “I was desperate to move to London and start acting from the age of about 12, but my mum said I had to finish school first – which I think made me even more determined.” When the time came, she successfully auditioned for Rada, graduating in 2004, and soon began to secure roles on television, stage and film, making her breakthrough as the lead in Amma Asante’s 2013 period drama Belle. Her entry into the profession was fairly smooth, partly because she was doing the job for the love of it rather than for the fame, though she was aware of the potential pitfalls. “After you leave drama school, you realise there’s this whole thing called ‘the industry’ that’s different from the art and craft – friends of mine who have been in this world for a long time say they’re still negotiating a balance between why they got into acting in the first place and the business that surrounds it,” says Mbatha-Raw. “It’s about how you protect that fragile, pure part of yourself.” [More at Source]

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