Gugu Mbatha-Raw on her role in period drama Belle

Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle. Picture: PA
Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle. Picture: PA
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AS a classically trained actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw was itching for a part in a period drama, but mixed race roles were rare. Now she’s starring in Belle, the tale of a young girl raised in an aristocratic family, set against the backdrop of slavery.

The gaze is direct, playful, intriguing. Two young women, one behind the other. In the foreground, a girl in a pink dress, demure, smiling. Behind her another girl, leaning forward, a bowl of fruit in one hand, she looks playful. The women look like friends, equals, there’s a genuine sense of affection between them as one touches the other’s elbow. What makes this painting, created sometime around 1778 according to estimates, extraordinary is that the women are of different ethnicities – one black, one white.

The women are Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle and the portrait by Zoffany, the only known representation of Dido, hangs in the Ambassador’s Room at Scone Palace. The story of how they came to be painted together is as fascinating as the canvas itself.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was the child of British naval officer, Captain Sir John Lindsay, and a Jamaican slave, Maria Belle, about whom little is known since she died when her daughter was a young child. A serving naval officer left with a child to look after, Sir John made the decision to ask his uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield, England’s Lord Chief Justice at the time, to raise her.

In an arrangement that was unheard of at the time, Belle was brought up by Lord and Lady Mansfield in Kenwood House, Hampstead. As to how Dido lived, it’s complicated. In many respects, she was treated as a lady; she was educated and she was raised as almost a sister to Lady Elizabeth Murray, the daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, the ambassador in Vienna and Paris, whose mother had died. But there were significant differences. Although Dido dined with her family privately, as soon as guests were in attendance she had to eat separately. Similarly, she was not expected to marry (although she did later in life) – she was a lady but she was mixed race at a time when slavery was booming.

With even a cursory outline of Belle’s life, her story seems perfect for a cinematic adaptation. And in Belle, a film from director Amma Asante, starring British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw, that is what it’s become. For Mbatha-Raw, 30, the role of Dido was “a gift”. And it was a long time coming too.

“I first met the producer about seven years ago but about something else,” she says. “He mentioned Belle in that meeting and that he was thinking about making a film about her life. I was like wow this is amazing, she’s so cool.”

Mbatha-Raw immediately visited Kenwood House and got a postcard of the painting of Dido and Elizabeth.

“I did a bit of research but there wasn’t much to find out about her. Then a bit of time went by and I thought oh that’s probably not going to come to anything.” Mbatha-Raw then met Asante about a different project and after several years passed, she learned that he was to direct the film of Belle.

“I’d kept it on my radar the whole time because I knew I really wanted the role. It was totally refreshing to me – I love period dramas, love Jane Austen, but I’d never seen it told from this perspective before – a female perspective, a girl of mixed race. Dido is incongruous in a period setting because she’s not a slave, she’s not in a subservient role although it is somewhat ambiguous because although she doesn’t have complete equality in the house she is certainly privileged. To know that she was a real person was amazing to me.”

Mbatha-Raw is stunningly beautiful. Leaning forward, she speaks fast, smiles easily and seems genuinely excited by this story as well as the opportunity it gave her to act alongside a stellar cast including Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton. Perhaps, too, her enthusiasm derives from the fact that there is a personal dimension for Mbatha-Raw in the story. In one scene, Dido is reading a novel when Lord Mansfield happens upon her. He asks her if she “finds herself” in the book and she replies that she doesn’t find herself anywhere.“I thoroughly related to that line,” Mbatha-Raw says. “I’m getting goosepimples just thinking about it. It was one of the things that Amma spoke about while we were making the film – how we see ourselves rather than how other people see us. For me as a mixed race woman in 2014, I’ve certainly wrestled with identity issues – not that I don’t know my own identity, but that people perceive me in different ways. I see myself as me, an individual, but you can come across people who endow you with certain things that aren’t really even part of your culture but it’s because of how you look. I can’t speak for everyone of mixed heritage but certainly I think you learn that being other equips you with the skill of fitting in everywhere and anywhere, but maybe not always feeling fully at home anywhere. You learn to be socially and culturally flexible.”

Born in Oxfordshire, Mbatha-Raw got a scholarship to RADA and has forged a successful career since graduating. There have been various roles for TV and film but her first break was playing opposite Jude Law in Hamlet, first in the West End and then on Broadway. Shakespeare hasn’t been an issue, but until the role of Dido emerged, no period role had come Mbatha-Raw’s way. A mixed race actor in Cranford, or as Elizabeth Bennett is still unimaginable.

“I had all this classical training but I had never done a period drama before so I was itching to do it,” she says. “So many of my peers are in Downtown Abbey and Jane Austen and Dickens adaptations you do think, when am I going to get cast?

“In the theatre people suspend their disbelief a bit more. And with Shakespeare it’s long enough ago, 400 years, that it doesn’t matter if Laertes is white and Ophelia is brown – we get it because it’s a classic and it’s been done hundreds of times.” With film and TV, though, it hasn’t worked that way. “I think there are so many more stories to be told,” Mbatha-Raw says. “So many period dramas are still made – they are still relevant to us in some way or other.”

Already released in the United States, Belle has been received rapturously and so too has Mbatha-Raw. Perhaps the clearest sign of the buzz around her is that Oprah Winfrey has hosted a lunch in her honour. It helps too, that the subject matter of Belle taps into a period of history so recently and brilliantly explored in cinema – slavery.

The action of Belle is set against a period in history when the nascent abolitionist movement was taking shape. Britain’s economy was dependent on the slave trade but a particular scandal, the Zong massacre, was being heard in court and was galvanising those who objected to the slave trade. The case focused on an insurance claim made for slaves who, while being transported from Africa to Jamaica on the ship, Zong, had been thrown overboard. The captain of the ship claimed that they had to throw them overboard because supplies of water were running dangerously low and the lives of the crew would have been in jeopardy had they been kept alive and so claimed insurance money on their lives (£30 for each life). When it was discovered there was no water shortage, the insurers refused to pay up and case came to court.

It’s not difficult to imagine the impact that the case might have had on Dido. Living with the Lord Chief Justice who would rule on the case, it prompted not only soul-searching for herself but also changed the dynamic of the relationship between Dido and the man who was, to all intents and purposes, her adoptive father. In terms of historical proof, it’s impossible to know whether Dido influenced Lord Mansfield as he deliberated over his ruling, but it would have been extraordinary if she had no impact. Dido was educated, she acted as his secretary, reading his materials, writing his correspondence.

For Mbatha-Raw, what fascinated her about Dido was her transition from being a young girl, entirely accepting of her place in the world to a self-possessed woman. “She starts off as this very obedient daughter,” says Mbatha-Raw, “accepting everything, never questioning and then suddenly she begins to question her place in the world with Lord Mansfield, her adoptive father. To earn his respect and challenge him, getting the gumption to challenge him, that’s her transition. I felt so much responsibility to give Dido a three dimensional living breathing quality because there’s not much known about her. I wanted her to feel really fully rounded.”

In recent years, much of Mbatha-Raw’s work has been in the US. There’s a joke that she went to America to act in the Broadway version of Hamlet, but one job offer after another has kept her there ever since. First there was the lead in a JJ Abrams show, Undercovers. Then she was cast by Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne with Julia Roberts and after that came a starring role opposite Kiefer Sutherland in a short-lived drama, Touch.

“It’s been a challenge working in the States, working in a different culture again. They have a very different cultural relationship to race so negotiating that is complicated.” On the one hand Mbatha-Raw has access to more opportunities but then again, African American culture is not her culture either.

“It’s not my culture at all. When I first went and I did a TV pilot there it was quite a shock to the system for me. I was doing press and people kept saying oh it’s so amazing it’s the first time we’ve ever seen two African American leads in a TV show. And I was like well hang on neither of us are actually African American – he is German, his father is Ghanaian, his mother white and German and my dad is black South African my mum is white and English.

“It was funny because again it’s about how you see yourself and how others endow you with a cultural legacy which really isn’t your own. It’s no disrespect but you have to be clear that it’s not your own. As an actor I think that outsider perspective heightens your observational skills. It’s been an interesting one, negotiating it.”

Variety is what Mbatha-Raw wants from her career. That’s what will, she says, stop her from “getting bored”. And she’s doing a pretty good job of it, if the project after Belle, is anything to go by. Blackbird, out in November, is the story of a troubled pop star and her toxic relationship with her ‘momager’ played by Minnie Driver. “I’m playing a pop star so no corset, or at least not that kind of corset – more a Lady Gaga style thing,” she says. “And a lot of latex.” The role gave Mbatha-Raw the chance to sing and dance, something that she loves. “I grew up on musical theatre really. I went to ballet from the age of four and did jazz and tap and all of that National Youth Music Theatre stuff. As I got into my later teens I veered off towards English Literature and classical acting, but singing and dancing was my first love.”

The project after that didn’t require singing or dancing, but it did give Mbatha-Raw the chance to star alongside Daniel Craig. She rolls her eyes and grins when she says the Bond actor’s name. “It’s a legal drama called The Whole Truth. I’m playing a junior defence lawyer so again, very different.”

Making Belle has changed Mbatha-Raw’s sense of her own career. It was, she says, a rhythm shift, it raised the bar. It’s made her more choosy but also ready to really go for the projects that she wants. The role in The Whole Truth was one that she really wanted and so she did everything she could to get it. “I sent a tape to the director, I flew to New York to audition. I did another audition in LA.” She beams a smile, still pleased and perhaps a bit incredulous about her efforts. “Those roles are few and far between so I think when you see what you want you have to give it your best shot. You win some you lose some but I like to feel no regrets. I can sleep easy if I know I’ve given it my best.”

• Belle (12A) is released on 13 June.

• An exhibition, Dido Belle: Her Story, is being held at Scone Palace, which was the first Earl of Mansfield’s family home,