The energetic Gugu Mbatha-Raw sounds thrilled to be in Pittsburgh. Following a breakout year, in which the 31-year-old British actress dazzled in the lead roles of two somewhat under-the-radar movies, she has become a nomad, going wherever the work is. Now, the work is in Pennsylvania, and it’s on a higher-profile project, starring opposite Will Smith as his wife in a still-untitled movie about the doctor who discovered the long-term effects of concussions on professional football players.
The good fortune has been a long time coming. Mbatha-Raw graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art a decade ago and has been working since, mainly in British television and onstage. A pivotal professional moment was securing the role of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life woman born in 1761 to an enslaved African mother and a white father in the British Navy. Mbatha-Raw took home the best-actress trophy for her work in “Belle,” released in 2013, at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this month. She also starred this year as a pop singer in the little-seen “Beyond the Lights.”
But if you missed those two movies, you’ll have plenty of other opportunities to see Mbatha-Raw.
First up in 2015, she has a role in “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowski siblings’ intergalactic adventure starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum. The part appealed to Mbatha-Raw at a time when nothing else did. She didn’t work for six months after “Belle” wrapped, because the scripts coming her way didn’t feel quite right.
“I was so excited to do something that was the antithesis of period drama,” she said. “It was so unusual and ambitious, and I just thought that was a way to get ‘Belle’ out of my system — do something in a completely different world.”
After two smaller-scale movies, it also gave her a taste of what it’s like to work on a blockbuster.
“It was fascinating after being a big part of an independent movie to then become a very small part of a big studio film,” she said.
Following “Jupiter Ascending,” Mbatha-Raw will appear on-screen alongside Keanu Reeves and Renée Zellweger in “The Whole Truth,” a legal thriller. The actress can’t reveal too much about the movie, but she admits she will be playing “the moral compass of the story.”
Mbatha-Raw is still finalizing her life after Pittsburgh, but she says there are exciting things on the horizon. It looks as if her nomadic life won’t be settling down anytime soon.
“I have a permanently packed suitcase that comes with me everywhere,” she said.