Gugu Mbatha-Raw On Her Role In Surface, The Morning Show, And Loki - Exclusive Interview

This article contains discussions of attempted suicide and sexual assault.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has stunned audiences with her gut-wrenching portrayal of Hannah Shoenfeld in the "The Morning Show" and her compelling, nuanced version of Marvel's Judge Ravonna Renslayer in "Loki." Now, she's back with another character who shows audiences that nobody is all good or all bad and nothing is strictly black and white. 

In the new Apple TV+ thriller "Surface," produced by Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine, Mbatha-Raw takes on Sophie, a woman who lost her memory after a suicide attempt. As she tries to solve the mystery of who she was before she tried to end her life by jumping off a ferry in the middle of the ocean, Sophie begins to realize that the people closest to her aren't telling the whole truth. The deeper she digs, the more Sophie discovers that everyone has harrowing secrets, including her former self. 

In an exclusive interview with The List, Mbatha-Raw dished about "Surface," why she loves morally ambiguous characters, what it was like to work with Reese Witherspoon again, and her unique take on Judge Renslayer.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Producing and acting at the same time

"Surface" is your first credit as a producer. What was it like producing and acting? Did it change the experience for you?

I was actually associate producer on "The Girl Before," which I did earlier this year, but "Surface" is the first role I've had as actor and executive producer. I was involved from an incredibly early stage. It was such a treat [and] such an incredible, stimulating experience. The role alone would've been enough to get my teeth into because Sophie is such a complex character and roles like this don't come along every day.

It was such a treat to read the script, and I was so drawn in by Veronica West's writing initially, and then, knowing that Hello Sunshine were on board to produce, who I'd worked with on "The Morning Show" with Reese Witherspoon. I knew that they do great quality projects that really empower and uplift women both in front and behind the camera. It was really a great collaborative team to work with.

Discovering Sophie's secrets

Your character in "Surface," Sophie, says in the trailer that she doesn't know her own secrets. What was it like playing a character who knows so little about themselves?

It was interesting because usually, when you build a character, you make choices about their backstory. You create who they are, their likes, their dislikes, their experiences, but it was the reverse on this one. It was all about stripping away, initially. I knew where the series was going because I'd read the scripts and I'd been involved in it for such a long time, but to be able to start from this wide-eyed, almost childlike innocence of looking to the outside world to bring you your reality was liberating in a way.

It made the experience of the show more visceral because you're very much then dealing with Sophie's senses and her muscle memory and her sense memory, sights and sounds, and touch and taste and all of those things become that much more heightened and visceral ... Credit [goes] to Sam Miller, our lead director. It really influenced the style of the show as well, the fact that she was really taking everything in.

You had information about your character that she didn't have at different points in filming. What was that like for you as the actor bringing Sophie to life?

Luckily, we filmed it chronologically, so it was nice ... Sophie is building who she is at the same time as the audience are discovering who she is. Luckily, as I said, most of it was in order.

That's where the acting comes in as well because [I], Gugu, know a lot more about what's going on with Sophie's world than Sophie does. Sometimes, we'd have to like powwow with Veronica ... and be like, "Wait, what do I know at this point? Hang on. Can I check? Do I know this yet? Do I not know this? Have I met this person yet?" Filming days are long, as we know, and when you're learning lines and in intense scenes, you want to check that you are not playing something that you don't already know. It's a complex roller coaster.

Characters who explore the gray areas

Your character Jane in "The Girl Before" was also uncovering a lot of secrets throughout the series. Did you draw in your experience with Jane to get into Sophie's head?

No. I approached this in a very different way. I was already working on "Surface" while I was shooting "The Girl Before." I approached them very differently. The wonderful thing about this show, "Surface," unlike "The Girl Before," is it's not based on a book. It's very much created from Veronica's imagination, it's a completely original idea. 

She's come up with this incredibly complex nuanced world, all the twists and turns of this story are incredible, how her mind works to layer it and put it all together. I was very much starting fresh with Sophie, as I do with all my characters in creating who she is.

Having this incredible cast to work with was such a treat. Actors that I've admired for such a long time, like Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Stefan James, and Ari Graynor, [make up] an incredible team. Everyone is so well cast. Everyone brings such unique qualities and intensity to their role. It was great to be surrounded by that energy.

You've said before that you really love playing characters that explore the gray areas and show that not everything is black and white. So, how is Sophie exploring the gray areas of humanity?

When we first meet Sophie, she seems like this innocent fragile person. As we go on, she starts to uncover secrets from her past that maybe, morally, don't paint her in the best light. I don't want to give too much away, but I suppose what I find interesting in terms of the gray area of this show is that sometimes, are secrets always bad? Sometimes, are secrets necessary? 

What do you tell somebody for their protection, or is it to control them? Are these choices of these secrets done and made out of love or out of selfishness? There's a lot of gray areas there in terms of what you choose to reveal to somebody.

The idea of, if you have done bad things in your past or morally ambiguous choices — is that really who you are? If you had a blank slate, would you make the same choices again? Would you be the same person? With that knowledge, can we evolve, can we make different choices, or are we destined to sort of be fundamentally the same person, always?

Creating conversation with The Morning Show

Your character in "The Morning Show," Hannah, really explored gray areas, especially with sexual assault. What was it like to play a character who tells a completely different kind of #MeToo story?

That was an incredible experience and a very meaty storyline, and working with Hello Sunshine for the first time, working with amazing actors like Steve Carell, Jennifer Aniston, and Reese Witherspoon on such a topical story was a real privilege because the world is experiencing all of these conversations.

One of the most satisfying things is when the work that you are doing also creates not just a conversation, but potentially can create a healing place for people to be seen and maybe see an experience in the safe confines of a screen to be able to view it with a different perspective. That gives you a chance to take a step back from something that is traumatic to be able to reframe it and understand why people make choices that they make and how it's possible to heal and recover from them.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Her take on Judge Renslayer

Your character in "Loki" is also pretty morally ambiguous and right now is painted as a villain. Do you see her as the villain or do you think it's more complicated than that?

[Laughs] Of course, I see it as more complicated! That's how I see the world. I genuinely feel like,  when you're dealing in the world of comic book characters, there are the tropes of the villain and the anti hero and the superhero. As an actor and certainly in terms of Renslayer, you have to get behind your character, you have to find the humanity in them. You have to see them as a person and understand them. 

If you can understand somebody, then nobody is ever completely villainous. Everybody makes choices for a reason. They may be traumatized reasons, [or] they may be reasons that are messed up from a perspective that a more grounded person might not understand. When you're playing those kind of characters that make seemingly bad choices, you have to dig a little deeper because you've got to play them. 

Nobody is intentionally ... very few people, the few exceptions are intentionally bad. A lot of people are doing the best they can in really difficult circumstances.

"Surface" premieres on Friday, July 29th on Apple TV+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.