So excited was Gugu Mbatha-Raw about landing the role of Ophelia in Michael Grandage’s new production of Hamlet—which stars Jude Law and opens on Broadway in October—that she loaded her iPod with Danish lessons, visited a psychiatrist to learn about grief and madness, and traveled to Elsinore to feel the freezing winds firsthand. “It was my geeky research trip!” says the Oxford, England–born 26-year-old with a laugh, sinking into a sofa at London’s Covent Garden Hotel. “It sounds a bit much, doesn’t it?”
Mbatha-Raw, the only child of a South African doctor and an English nurse, whose full first name, Gugulethu, means “our pride” in Zulu, won some glowing reviews when Grandage’s slick, fast-paced show debuted earlier this year in London. The Guardian praised her “touchingly bewildered” Ophelia, who “goes quietly mad instead of indulging in a psychiatric cabaret turn.”
“There was never any question that she was coming to Broadway,” says Grandage, adding that he cast her after a “precise, simple and elegant” audition opposite Law.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Mbatha-Raw splits her time between the small screen—Brits know her from supporting roles on Doctor Who, Spooks and Bonekickers—and the stage, where last fall at the National Theatre she appeared in Gethsemane, David Hare’s satire of New Labour politicians.
Playing to a live audience, she says, never fails to excite her: “You get the chance to turn to them and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ to reveal a bit of your soul.”
Still, Mbatha-Raw confesses she’s also hoping for a big-screen break, with Charlie Kaufman topping her list of dream directors. First, however, she’s planning another sort of break when Hamlet ends in December. “A jaunt to the Caribbean would be nice,” she says. “I think that’s definitely the plan.”
Hair by Crystal Li; makeup by Banny NG