When Gugu Mbatha-Raw first received the script for Surface, she was in Atlanta, filming the primary season of Loki—about to change into an unlimited hit for the still-building Disney+ platform. It was the late summer of 2020, and he or she was content, if not exactly challenged, within the iron-pressed shirt collar and necktie of Ravonna Renslayer. She ached for a chance to stretch stiff muscles, especially because the pandemic continued the squeeze the tv industry.
“I had an excellent experience on Loki,” she tells me once we meet for lunch in Midtown Manhattan this July. “But I believe the Marvel world is a selected genre. So it was very refreshing to me to read Surface on the time, since it was so different to what I used to be 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 beautiful much bought it straight away,” Mbatha-Raw says.
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By Thanksgiving of 2020, a writers’ room was at work, and by June 2021, Mbatha-Raw was on set in Vancouver, within 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 in addition to actress for Surface, she’d had a heavy hand in all the things 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—when you’ll forgive me—a mere surface-level investigation of monied myth-making.
Because the series speeds toward its finale, critics have widely deemed Mbatha-Raw because the standout in an otherwise mixed reception. Her face—Sophie’s face—contorts as she learns latest details about her past lives, but much more in order she learns tips on how to harness those details. Surface’s protagonist just isn’t innocent, neither before nor after her accident, and the joys 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 each her practical and artistic skills into Surface, what she hopes for the long run of the series, and the way her time on Loki has informed her future creative endeavors.
You mentioned before that your preparation for this character was different than your previous roles—because Sophie needed to be a “blank slate.” I’m curious the way you balanced that should be a blank slate with the proven fact that you were also executive producing, so that you were deeply immersed in creative selections surrounding her story.
I all the time prefer to know where I’m going. Because I believe it helps you arc [your choices]. And so, for me, although I knew where it was going, it enabled me to then feel like, How far can I stretch this person? What number of nuances can I give her? What number of facets can I find? And make her as messy and flawed and real as possible.
And I used to be really fortunate that, because I used to be moved to executive producer, I used to be very much immersed within the pre-production, but additionally, I’m not the one producer. I mean, there’s full-timers on this who’re rather more experienced than me that I can really trust once I’m on set. I don’t must micromanage. We’ve done the preparation, then I’m Sophie. After which, in [post-production] or other conversations not across the set, I can still have a voice in, but I don’t feel like I actually have to hold all the things.
What did you discover was most difficult to make authentic about Sophie, given her “blank slate” status?
Once you’re coping with a glamorous world, I’m all the time looking to seek out the grounded things inside it. I believe from the get-go, this show goes to look gorgeous, stylish, and noir. And plenty of the inspirations for the show, visually, got here not only from things like Vertigo or Last 12 months at Marienbad, but even Sam Miller, our director, brought in images from Eyes Wide Shut. So it was all the time going to look seductive, and I believe with that, I all the time desired to be sure that there was still a grit. And that Sophie is genuinely running with no makeup on. When she’s genuinely sweating, when she’s running up those hills in San Francisco. Although it’s a glamorous world, we want to kind of feel like we will find the human chinks.
It was interesting, for somebody whose life is so painted-on, to point out the moments where she’s raw. After which for even those moments to feel disorienting, like possibly they are not real.
We also talked about rather a lot, the concept, genuinely, when you can’t remember who you’re, it’s like, “Well, what do I do?” You go into your closet, and also you’re like, “Wow. What’s all these things on the counter? And what do I do with all of this makeup? How do I do my makeup?” It’s form of liberating in a way, since you’re not having to color on the social convention.
I believe it was vital to begin from an accessible place of anyone who’s open-eyed and never polished. Because she’s not a cultured person, although she lives in a really affluent world. She’s still determining, what is that this polish even for? Why are people doing this?
It jogs my memory of the primary episode of her along with her friends at lunch. “Are these my friends? Why would these be my friends?”
“What is that this small talk? And is that basically funny? Do I like them? And was that a backhanded compliment?”
After which there’s the scene in episode 1 where she’s rediscovering the music she loves. That was such a unbelievable montage. What went into the choice of those songs specifically?
Some were within the script. So things like “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane, Radiohead, Pablo Honey, those definitely, [showrunner Veronica West] wrote those in very early on. [Director] Sam Miller has amazing taste in music as well. And so it became a conversation, because they said, “You’re the one which’s got to bop to those records, so what are you going to bop to? And what’s going to unlock something in you?”
They simply set the camera rolling, two cameras rolling, about 45 minutes. We didn’t cut, and I just improvised. It’s really condensed within the show. But it surely felt like we were liberated from the script, and I could just be Sophie. That sense of discovery and newness. What when you had never heard Radiohead? What when you’d never heard one in every of the best saxophonists of all time, and also you hear them for the primary time as an adult? What’s that like?
[In episode 6], then, it intersects with James and their backstory a bit more.
Mbatha-Raw and Jackson-Cohen in Surface.
Assuming that you ought to proceed executive producing in other projects, what about this experience showed you what you ought to do in the long run?
I mean, it made me value…you mostly know this, but how collaborative this process is, and I believe how vital it’s to surround yourself with those that stretch you. Not only your doppelgängers. It’s great to have people to share your taste, but I believe it’s also good to have a creative dynamic. A superb creative dynamic comes from stretch and opposing views.
And culturally—I believe there is a difference, in a British sense of it. As global because the world is, there’s still a sensibility, a British sensibility and an American sensibility. I’ve worked and spent plenty of time within the U.S., so it’s not latest to me. But, by way of visually, by way of what individuals are used to culturally seeing on TV—bringing my very own personal taste into that conversation as well.
So we’ll see. Fingers crossed for a season 2. But yeah, I mean, I feel like I’m still digesting what I’ve learned.
You mentioned hoping for a season 2. Is that this something where you’ve a multi-season arc planned out?
[Smiles.] I could not possibly say.
But is that this the kind of thing where there’s a plan for it? Or is it more, like, If we get lucky, then we’ll do a season 2?
Well, Veronica West may be very smart and has an actual vision. And whenever you get to the tip of the show, you tell me when you’re like, “Is that this the tip, or is that this the tip?”
Alright. I trust you.
And never that I pay an excessive amount of attention, but I don’t know the way the show’s going to be received, and the way much that influences what you do or not. But I do know—things are already, kind of…there’s a vision, that’s all I’m saying.
Do you are feeling like, as your profession expands and you’re taking on latest roles in a literal and figurative sense, that you simply—as an artist—are being seen in a latest and maybe more all-encompassing way?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s very hard to spend an excessive amount of time serious about other people’s perceptions of you, right? I’m unsure.
I mean, some people just assertive or grew up within the business, or are capable of articulate what they need. But I believe, for me, it definitely takes a little bit of time to feel such as you’ve got the experience to back up what possibly you’ve all the time thought or all the time had the instinct to do. But never wanted to come back across as like, “Oh, here’s that little whippersnapper. What do they know?” Now I feel okay. Call it confidence or experience, or a mixture of just settling into yourself…You’re just more in contact with yourself as an individual, and subsequently, capable of express yourself more freely, I believe, with the arrogance and experience to back you up.
Do you see yourself moving away from acting and more toward work behind the camera? Or do you ought to remain firmly planted within the acting world?
Oh, no. I mean, acting, I like. Acting’s the most effective.
And I believe, I don’t know, I’m growing as an individual and it’s an excellent solution to express yourself emotionally and artistically. I’m definitely an artist at heart. As much as you learn concerning the business and also you grow, you change into that to support the art. I don’t ever really need to walk away from the artistic side. It’s just, you get a bit of more autonomy, possibly a bit of more power to steer the gaze of the show, or the gaze of the story, or the vision. But it surely’s all form of feeding in to lift up the art and make it more authentic and progressive and push the culture forward.
I do must ask about Loki. You mentioned, whenever you’re coping with Marvel, it’s routinely a really different kind of project.
What do you want about that? What excites you about returning to that now?
Well, it’s really exciting to be a component of something that could be a big hit. I’d never gone back to a second season of anything before. I’ve done only one and done, and quite deliberately never really signed up for very long-running things. The couple that I did got canceled. [Laughs.]
I’ve never done something before where you walk on the set, and even the crew and the background artists know who your characters are. That’s a special energy for me. I believe more people have seen me play Ravonna Renslayer than have potentially seen me play anything. Which is weird to think, whenever you just think sheer numbers.
It’s also form of fun to have different levels of attachment to various things. There’s some things where you’re executive producer; you are in from the bottom up. After which there’s some things where, I believe, you relinquish control to the greater machine.
But that doesn’t mean you could’t find fun inside it. And I believe it’s refreshing, in a way, to come back from something where I’ve had an enormous amount of responsibility to something where I’m not the lead, but I can just are available and do my thing and rejoice with it. And I don’t have to observe the cuts; I don’t have to offer notes on the rating. I believe it’s a balance. It’s knowing that it’s an excellent ride, however it’s not my baby. And truly, that’s healthy as well.
In our earlier chat, you mentioned the problem of the past couple years. I believe, especially as an artist, it could possibly be strange to leap between the problem of reality, to whatever world you’re creating within the moment. How do you make those jumps?
I mean, I much prefer to be in imaginary worlds. So it’s not hard for me to place down the news. It’s a relief, this. It’s a relief to have a script. It’s a privilege, so I don’t find it hard. I actually must make myself engage with the actual world sometimes, because I find so rather more joy and sustenance from creating. And the intensity of filming, you’re in a bubble, and so I actually must be actually more disciplined about checking in.
Weirdly, you may sometimes tell the reality—it’s easier to inform the reality in a fictional setting. With the main focus of sustained eye contact and silence, and everybody working toward one creative goal, you may be bolder with the reality, and you may be more daring than you would possibly dare to be.
You may be more intimate.
The character could be more kind of messy than you would possibly allow yourself to be. You may really find truth in those moments. And that, to me, could be really exciting.
Are you completely satisfied with the direction your profession is taking?
I mean, truthfully, I feel like I’m just hitting my stride and attending to do the work that I dreamed of. I feel like, although there’s those moments where all the things’s happening, all the things’s coming out [at once]—I actually have modulation within the pace of how I work and rest, and I’m quite good at resting and relaxing.
I just hope to construct on what I’ve done up to now. It’s exciting, I believe, to have enough momentum you could connect the dots. Previously, possibly things have been further apart or so different that individuals haven’t realized that the one who was in Belle was the identical person who was in Beyond the Lights. And here it’s like, Oh, I can speak about Loki, and Surface, and Lift in the identical breath. And it’s still recognizably me, although they’re a broad spectrum of genres.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.