Tom Hanks directed, co-wrote and produced Larry Crowne, which hits theaters nationwide today. Fans are sure to show up in droves to see screen legends Julia Roberts and Hanks in this comedy-drama. However, many moviegoers will likely walk away asking who was that beautiful and talented actress that played the character named Talia?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a new name to the Hollywood scene, as this is the actress’s first film endeavor. Gugu’s character Talia is a free spirited, scooter riding classmate of Larry Crowne, who is ultimately responsible for teaching him how to have swagger and gain the attention of his on-screen crush, Julia Roberts.
Gugu began her acting career in her native country of the United Kingdom. The actress made her U.S. television debut on NBC in the JJ Abrams series Undercovers, which was canceled two months later.
In an interview with theGrio, Gugu opened up about her transition from being an actress in the U.K. to her role in Larry Crowne, as well as her future career plans.
theGrio: What was your experience like working with Hollywood icons Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts for your first film?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: It was such a treat and adventure, to be able to work with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. The character was vivacious, free-spirited and spiritually drawn.
I love Tom Hanks because he’s got that quality about him where you feel like you already know him from all of these incredible roles that he’s played. The wonderful thing about the way that Tom runs his set is that he is also very aware that he is Tom Hanks. So he works extra hard to make people feel comfortable and at ease. He is an actor, writer, director and producer so he understands an actor’s concerns because he comes from that perspective first. Tom was always cracking jokes on-set and kept the atmosphere very playful and I think it really helped in the performances because the material was very warm and rather comedic.
What was the auditioning process like? How did you get the role?
I just went to regular audition out in L.A. I had just finished the pilot for Undercovers, it hadn’t been picked up yet, it all happened so quickly. I knew that Tom Hanks was directing this film and I knew Julia Roberts was cast in it too. Being that this was my first major film audition I was nervous. I got the script the night before and went in and did an audition. I got a call from my manager an hour later and he said “Tom Hanks wants to meet you.” I knew then that the audition went well. The next thing I knew I was having scooter lessons for my role in the film.
What made you leave the United Kingdom to pursue an acting career in the United States?
I didn’t make a conscious decision to leave London, it just happened with work. I was playing Ophelia in a West End production of Hamlet. Jude Law was playing Hamlet. We had a sell-out run in the West End, and we got a trasfer to perform the show in New York City on Broadway.
Coming to New York City to do Broadway was my first time to the states and that was in the fall of 2009. I stayed for a 3 month run of Hamlet and I stayed an extra week just for auditions. One of them was for the Undercovers pilot. I got flown to LA to meet JJ Abrams and had a testing process with Warner Bros. So it really was a work driven move to the states, I just kept getting work after work and so I stayed here.
Speaking with you now you have a very heavy British accent, but in Larry Crowne you sound like an American girl. How were you able to master the American accent so well?
I don’t know that I’ve mastered the American accent even now. I’m always working on it because America is a big place and there are different characters that come from different places, so a lot of accents. I grew up in the U.K. but we were pretty much surrounded by American television and movies. I grew up watching Friends, Dawson’s Creek and lots of American movies – so subliminally I had the American accent sound in my subconscious. Coming here and spending some time in New York enabled me to open my ears and hear all types of accents. I’ve also worked with some amazing dialect coaches here in the states. In this film, you are playing a supporting role as Tom Hank’s friend, alongside other supporting actors like Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson and Pam Grier. Do you feel black female actresses get the same opportunities to play compelling lead roles in comparison to white actresses?
To be honest, I never really defined myself as a black actress. I am of mixed heritage; my dad is black and from South Africa and my mother is white and British. For me being of mixed race is great because I like to play characters from all different places. Some scripts that you get are written very ethnically specific, a lot of scripts aren’t. For example, the majority of roles that I have done in the United States have been non-race specific roles.
Samantha in Undercovers was not written in any particular ethnicity, neither was Talia in Larry Crowne. I sort of try to go for the character first and then fill the rest in later. That works for me, and it’s less limiting that way. I am willing to play all types of roles, all types of ethnic backgrounds, it just all comes down to the characters.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw…Do you ever get tired of people mispronouncing your name?
I appreciate that I have an unusual name. I usually have to say it about three times when I introduce myself. I had friends in drama school back in London that had to change their names because their names were too common. I am lucky I didn’t have to change my name because no one had it.
Why do you think the NBC show Undercovers was canceled?
I think it was a combination of factors. I heard that it was mainly to do with the ratings not being as high as the network had hoped. But I don’t know the reasoning behind the executive decision to cancel the show. From my experience, working on a network show is quite cut-throat. There is a lot of competition out there and people don’t have to tune-in to watch something at the time when it’s on anymore. People can DVR, TiVo it, or just watch something online later.
What’s next for you Gugu?
I am working on a film called Odd Thomas with Willem Dafoe and 50 Cent, which is based on a novel by Dean Koontz. I am about to start work on another pilot called Touch which will be on Fox. I will be starring opposite of Kiefer Sutherland and Danny Glover. I am a huge fan of Danny Glover and loved him in The Color Purple. I am excited to be apart of something that he is doing.
I am certain a lot of people that see you in this movie are going to say that this is your breakout film role. How would you rate you performance in Larry Crowne?
The character to me is vivacious, free-spirited and fresh. I sort of love her infectious personality. I’d feel too shy to write a bold review of my first film endeavor. I just really enjoyed playing the character Talia. I try to work with experienced, great directors and actors and that is how I have learned to get the best experience, whether it’s on film or on T.V. In Larry Crowne, I believe Tom Hanks brought out the best in me.