Gugu Mbatha-Raw Finds Catharsis Through Portraiture

by Michel Ghanem

A collage of Gugu with her paintings
Photographs courtesy of Gugu Mbatha-Raw; collage by Ashley Peña

Gugu Mbatha-Raw can’t help but bring her painting supplies everywhere she travels, just in case the world shuts down again. The actress was gifted an easel and a set of paints from Will Smith on the set of Concussion in 2016, but they were barely used until the Covid pandemic in 2020, when she found herself immersed in painting daily—a cathartic art practice from her pre-acting days. As an attempt to stay connected, she started with portraits of her friends, then odes to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Chadwick Boseman, and Desmond Tutu. Recently, she began capturing the energy of fellow actors on canvas, including Stephan James, her co-star on the new Apple TV+ psychological thriller, Surface.

Surface, which premiered on July 29, stars Mbatha-Raw as Sophie, a wealthy San Francisco woman who has lost the entirety of her long-term memory after a traumatic accident. As the show’s title suggests, the mysteries of her pre-accident life begin to emerge as she gets more curious about the woman she once was. Zooming with W from New York, Mbatha-Raw expresses her hope that audiences pick up on the neo-noir elements and “Hitchockian darkness” to the cinematography, as well as the “velvety textures” of the show, which come alive through the San Francisco fog.

After playing numerous supporting characters on television, including Ravonna Renslayer on Marvel’s Loki, Hannah Shoenfeld on The Morning Show, and Kelly Boothe on Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode, Surface brings Mbatha-Raw front and center as the anchor of the series across eight episodes. She was certainly up for the task, explaining in our conversation that she was excited to read underwater scenes in the script (“a whole other level” of acting, she says), in addition to other physical challenges like horseback riding and considerable running montages. Below, the actress discusses working with Reese Witherspoon’s production company, her role as executive producer on the series, and how painting kept her connected to herself and others during peak pandemic isolation.

What drew you to participate in Surface?

Initially, I got the script and I saw Hello Sunshine across it—this got my attention having done The Morning Show with Reese Witherspoon’s company and having such a great experience, and knowing the ethos of that company—which is female-forward stories and all about empowering women.

I read the pilot and it drew me in right away. The fact that this isn’t based on a book like a lot of psychological thrillers that you see on screen…you can’t Google the ending. This is all from [creator] Veronica West’s mind. It really drew me in, this essential mystery of a character who doesn’t know who they are. I’ve seen that in The Bourne Identity and with male protagonists but never with a woman at the center that looks like me, in such a seemingly glamorous world.

What did you learn about yourself working as an executive producer on top of playing Sophie in Surface?

It’s such a juicy role, and being part of something from such an early stage, being able to influence the DNA of the show, is such a privilege. This was a first for me to be able to have directors pitch to us—normally, I’m the one auditioning or meeting them. To be able to hone in on the tone of the show through the vision of the collaborators you’re bringing on board and be part of the writer’s Zoom room and seeing how the scripts get developed and honed, giving notes on scripts, was fascinating.

You do quite a bit of running on the show. What’s your relationship to running in real life?

[Laughs]. Unless it’s for a bus or for my life, I tend not to run that much. I’m not a natural runner, I had to look at it like an acting challenge, not just a physical one. Running is not my chosen form of exercise; I would probably prefer dancing, cycling, yoga, or swimming. I had to get into it from the character’s point of view—she sees it like more of a meditation, to sort out her mind. Running on some of those San Francisco hills…I’m just glad it was a montage.

You sometimes paint your co-stars, and have chosen these works as your One Fun Thing. How long have you been painting and what inspires you to create portraits?

I’ve always loved art. Growing up, I painted a lot of portraits, life drawings, and considered doing art instead of acting for a long time. I ended up choosing acting because I felt like it was more collaborative and would take me outside of myself. The time it takes to paint, the focus and headspace, I didn’t always have when I was expressing myself creatively with acting.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s paintings of her Surface costar, Stephan James (left); and Lift costar, Kevin Hart (right).


How did you get back into painting?

In the first lockdown of 2020, I was cleaning out my apartment (as we all did), and I came across the paints that Will [Smith] gave me. Initially, I did portraits of my friends from pictures on my iPhone. Somehow, just looking at their faces, I felt like I was connecting to them. We were so isolated at the time. I was painting pretty much every day, and then the murder of George Floyd happened. That was such a shocking and emotional time, I painted a portrait of him and posted a timelapse of it on Instagram. Then I painted one of Breonna Taylor. When I went to a Black Lives Matter protest in L.A., I took that painting with me instead of a banner. [Painting] took on another life in that time.

How did that practice then morph into painting your co-stars?

It never really started that way; it came out of trying to find connection in the pandemic and seeking a way to express myself at a time when my usual method of expression was blocked. And then work got busy again, it wasn’t as easy to find the headspace or the bandwidth to paint—but I found moments where I felt compelled to paint. I was filming in Belfast recently with Kevin Hart, an art heist film, actually. I had to have time off because I got Covid for the first time, two years in. Kevin's got such an exuberant spirit, I ended up painting him and having the background exploding in a Pop Art kind of way. If you’re looking for any silver lining to the isolation—if I hadn’t been forced to stop in my normal rhythm of life, maybe I wouldn’t have come back to it.

Gugu Mbatha Raw’s painting of Chadwick Boseman.

Courtesy of Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Is there a painting or artist you love most?

That John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia was one of my favorite paintings growing up, since the age of 12. I bought a print and had it framed up in my apartment. I was standing in front of that painting when I got the call that I had been offered the role of Ophelia, 10 years ago, in London—the role that brought me to America.

What role do you think people tend to remember you by?

It depends on the person and what they’ve been drawn to. I don’t think there’s one particular role: for some people it’s Belle, Beyond the Lights, San Junipero, or Renslayer from Loki. My résumé is relatively eclectic.

You always seem to have a few projects in the works. Are there any roles you’re still hoping to find some day?

Obviously I’m hoping for season two of Surface, so everybody watch it! I would love to play Cleopatra, that’s definitely an iconic character that I longed to play on stage or on screen—or both.