While a lot of the focus of Edward Norton’s upcoming Motherless Brooklyn is being put on his character Lionel and the Tourette Syndrome he must deal with while trying to be taken seriously as a private investigator, the real story at the heart of Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel is about the New York housing market of the ‘50s and how corrupt individuals, like Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph is using politics to try and oust African-American families.
That might not sound particularly interesting if you don’t live in New York but what makes it special is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s role as Laura Rose, a Harlem-based lawyer who Lionel encounters on his journey to find out who killed his mentor (played by Bruce Willis).
If you’ve seen any of the 36-year-old Oxford, England native’s work over the past decade or so, you’re bound to be impressed, whether it’s how she scored a role in Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne, or her performance in the title role of Amma Asante’s Belle, and more recent roles in Miss Sloane, Free State of Jones and Disney’s 2018 films Beauty and the Beast and A Wrinkle in Time. Ms. Mbatha-Raw is proving herself to be one of the most underrated up and coming actors working right now, and her role in Norton’s film continues that trend.
The Beat sat down with Ms. Mbatha-Raw at the New York junket for Motherless Brooklyn, and we had a chance to speak to her about other things like actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje‘s own passion project Farming, and the attempts to turn her recent indie superpowers movie Fast Color into an Amazon series.
THE BEAT: When I spoke to Edward Norton, he said some nice things about you and your character but we didn’t really get into how he found you as the film’s only Brit that wasn’t in his normal theater circles. How did you find out about it and meet with him?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: My agent sent me the script, and I was like, “Wow, Edward Norton. I’m such a huge fan of his work, and I have been for such a long time.” I read the script and just thought it was so rich and layered. I loved the noir genre, so I met with Edward. I was in New York for something else, and I met with him in the West Village for a cup of tea. (laughs) We just talked about the film. I hadn’t read the book, and he sort of joked, “Well, don’t read the book. You probably won’t take the role, because the character’s not in the book.” (laughs) Normally, I would be so nerdy about my preparation in terms of research, but since the book is set in the ‘90s and the film is set in the ‘50s. It was more helpful for me to do my research in a different way. We really just talked about acting, talked about theater, talked about Laura as a character. I loved the fact that she wasn’t the cliché. She wasn’t a classic Femme Fatale. She was educated, she was a woman of purpose as an activist in her community. I just thought the unfolding of her involvement in that world was really unexpected.
I don’t know what the rest of Edward’s casting process was like, but I know that he went away and watched a lot of my work, and then I was offered the part a couple weeks later.
THE BEAT: When you met with him, did he tell you about his journey to try to get Motherless Brooklyn made? He’s been trying to get it made since the book came out almost.
Mbatha-Raw:I’ve been hearing more about that now in the press journey. I got to meet Jonathan Lethem. We did a Q n A at the Telluride Film Festival, which was really interesting to her their journey with it. It’s so funny, isn’t it? Especially in the film industry, you get so impatient with how long things take to get made, and various things end up on the shelf. All those various hiccups along the way, but I sort of think everything happens when it’s meant to. Listen, if it happened ten years ago or longer, I wouldn’t be in it, so I’m glad it happened at this moment in time. I think it definitely speaks to the culture right now in terms of the resonances for contemporary America, and all those conversations around abuses of power. I think there’s a lot there. Hopefully, even though it took a while, it came at just the right time.
THE BEAT: As a New Yorker who has spoken to Edward over the past 15 years, I probably have heard more about that. Is this the most time you’ve spent in New York shooting a movie or the most New York movie you’ve made?
Mbatha-Raw: Yes, probably. I did a film called Irreplacable You, which also shot in Brooklyn a couple of years ago, but before that, I’d never shot in New York. In 2009… ten years ago… God, it’s so crazy. I came to New York for the first time to do Hamleton Broadway… Well, Ophelia more specifically. (laughs) I had done theater here, but I had just never got jobs that shot here. I’d shot a lot in L.A. and all over America, so to be able to film in New York has its own challenges, but it’s such an iconic city. It’s just so cinematic. I love it.
THE BEAT: I’m curious to hear what you think of Laura Rose and what she brings to Lionel’s journey but also her as a character proper. I don’t think I realized that she was created just for the movie.
Mbatha-Raw: I love that she’s a woman of purpose in her own right. She’s not just a love interest there to serve the male lead. She really has her own journey. She’s an educated woman. She’s a trained lawyer even though she grew up in the Harlem jazz scene. She also has a law degree and is an activist for her community against racial discrimination in housing. I love the fact that she wasn’t a cliché. I think sometimes we see women in movies set in the ‘50s, especially the noir genre. They’re either the femme fatale or the jazz singer or they’re the ‘50s housewife. There’s nothing in between that has a complexity or an intelligence. I just love that she was articulate, and she has her own life going on. I like the fact that they’re both somewhat outsiders in their own worlds, and that she’s able to shape-shift between these different cultures. She sees something in Lionel, and they’re both underestimated in different ways. People think she’s a secretary. People think he’s a “freakshow.” I think with his Tourette’s Syndrome that they both have more to them than first meets the eye, which I think was really refreshing.
THE BEAT: Edward really could have leaned in on the noir aspects of the movie, so I’m glad you mentioned about your character not being a femme fatale, because he could have really pushed that aspect of the movie.
Mbatha-Raw: And there’s moments in the genre where he’s following her in the blue coat and photographing her. There’s definitely those genre moments there, but I think what was refreshing to me is that she’s revealed to be so much more than that sort of archetype. She’s layered, and she goes through a very deep emotional journey. Even though our first interactions with her are very much from Lionel’s point of view and whatever he’s endowing on her initially, you get to see there’s a lot more depth to her.
THE BEAT: I want to ask about some of the other things you have going on, because November 1, this movie comes out, plus you have a new show on Apple TV+ (Note: Mbatha-Raw is also in The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.)
Mbatha-Raw: I know! It’s too much!
THE BEAT: How has the show been doing this show for Apple? You’ve been doing TV in England for a long time, so was it a very different experience?
Mbatha-Raw: I’ve done American TV, but I hadn’t done a series for several years. I’ve done one-off things like Black Mirror or something like that, but to be able to do ten episodes of something was really intriguing. That’s a whole separate conversation, The Morning Show, but again, another New York set piece and completely contemporary in terms of its themes and an incredible cast, and the writing was so strong on that as well. Yeah, November 1, I’m just preparing… brace, brace… hopefully, everybody goes out and watches Motherless Brooklyn and then comes home and watchesThe Morning Show in their pajamas.
THE BEAT: I also want to ask about this movie you did that just opened in the UK and America…
Mbatha-Raw: Farming, yes.
THE BEAT: I only knew about the movie since I was writing about the cast of Lost, and what they’ve been up, and I noticed that Adewale had directed a movie, and it’s coming out tomorrow… and Gugu is in it!
Mbatha-Raw:It’s so incredible. Adewale is so inspiring. It’s basically based on his own personal life story as a young boy who was fostered from Nigeria into a white working class family. It was known as “farming,” the term, because it was an unregulated foster system. A lot of the children that went into those homes, there was a lot of ignorance, shall we say? And a real unawareness of the culture that they were dealing with and where they’d come from. Having been heavily-bullied, he fell into joining a white skinhead gang. It’s a fascinating journey of identity and self-worth, and I play a teacher who sees a young Adewale at school and helps inspire him to set his life straight. It’s a really intense, harrowing film, but a really inspiring true-life story.
THE BEAT: I also want to ask about Julia Hart’s Fast Color, since I read they’re going to try to make that into a series? Is that something you’d be interested in doing if it goes to series?
Mbatha-Raw: I’m open. Nothing set in stone in the moment. I’m a huge fan of Viola Davis, who is producing the series, and Julia and George, the creators. We had such an amazing journey on the movie, so we’ll see. It’s very early stages of development at the moment, so I don’t know when shooting will begin, so I can’t really say too much more.
Motherless Brooklyn opens across the nation on Friday, November 1 with previews Thursday night. The Morning Show will premiere on Apple TV+ on the same day. You can read my previous interviews with Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe (as well as my review of Motherless Brooklyn) here.