Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Gun Control Drama ‘Miss Sloane’ and That ‘Black Mirror’ Fan Theory
Gugu Mbatha-Raw first caught the film world’s attention with Amma Asante’s Belle, and quickly became one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood. You’ll recognize her from Black Mirror‘s delightful romance episode “San Junipero,” and soon you’ll see her in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, Bad Robot’s God Particle (which she didn’t know was a Cloverfield movie), and hear her voice in Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast. But before those projects hit theaters, Mbatha-Raw co-stars in Miss Sloane as a stalwart gun-control lobbyist.
The John Madden drama follows Jessica Chastain’s Elizabeth Sloane, a cold Washington D.C. lobbyist whose only aim is to win. Enticed by the challenge, she leaves her powerful firm to fight against them on the gun lobby, working on behalf of a non-profit. Mbatha-Raw plays Esme, a young associate with a secret who becomes the face of the gun-control debate in a story full of twists and turns.
I caught up with the British actress over the phone last month to talk about tackling such a controversial subject matter in the film. Mbatha-Raw told me about meeting with real-life victims of gun violence and how she views the film’s positive message as a sign of hope for American politics – it’s worth nothing this interview was conducted four days before the Presidential election, when the country’s future looked very different. The actress also reacted to one big Black Mirror fan theory and what DuVernay’s Wrinkle in Time means for Hollywood diversity.
Did you base Esme off of any real-life women and did you shadow any lobbyists while preparing for the role?
Yeah, the wonderful thing was before I read this amazing script, I hadn’t been to Washington, I knew nothing about lobbying and I spoke with John Madden and I got the chance to go to Washington with Jessica Chastain. So it was really lovely. We were there at the same time doing our research. And it was a nice way for us to get to know each other. We got to go to Capitol Hill, meet the lobbyists. The film had a lobbying firm that was consulting and they put us through a kind of lobbyist boot camp, which was kind of fun. Also, specifically for Esme I got to meet with some leading members of the Brady Campaign, which was really fascinating to talk to them about their work.
I met with a young woman whose mother was in Sandy Hook. She survived, but the girl, after that experience, was completely inspired and motivated to get into advocacy work for gun violence prevention. So her story really inspired me as well. There was a lot to draw on, really. And just being in Washington, just the place and the energy, walking down those marble corridors at Capitol Hill, feeling those corridors of power and how people operate. It’s fascinating to draw on all of that stuff, and then talk with John Madden about Esme’s backstory and fascinating ways to have a character that has a secret. I think Miss Sloane is so powerful and forthright and I think Esme is more reserved, but you come to see that her vulnerability kind of becomes her strength in the end, which I really liked.
Was there anything about your research and experience making the film that really opened your eyes about the gun control debate?
Yeah, I mean all of it was just fascinating. I felt like I was a sponge, absorbing everything while I was there. And as I say, especially talking to this young woman who had been so directly affected by a mass shooting which you know – spoiler alert. That was something that implicated my character and something that’s almost hard to imagine. That had a profound effect on me on an emotional level because I loved the script. I loved how witty it was, the dialogue, it’s so slick and it’s a real thriller in terms of the pace. But I think what I really connected to the most was the emotion in somebody like Esme, you know when she, as I say without spoiling too much, what we see her go through in the film on an emotional level I was able to connect with that more deeply.
What’s interesting about this film is how it explores the gun safety issue through two female perspectives, especially two women who hold opposing morals. Why do you think that was the best approach to a topic that’s so controversial?
You think on the surface, potentially, that this film, obviously is the backdrop of the gun debate, but also gender politics as well. The cost of power and ambition from a woman’s perspective, I thought was fascinating. I mean this movie would definitely past the Bechdel Test. Seeing my character and Jessica’s character, and how their dynamic starts off as sort of mentor-mentee dynamic. And say Esme is definitely more of a conviction lobbyist because of her past, she is very personally invested and very passionate. Jessica’s character Elizabeth Sloane is equally passionate, but she comes from the corporate world, and for her it’s not so personal, it’s more really about winning. So yeah, it was really great for me to see such dynamic female characters on screen and not talking about a man, not competitive with each other in a sort of old fashioned sense, but real complicated, multi-dimensional, flawed female characters.
I won’t spoil the film, but it does sort of end on a hopeful note regarding the gun control debate. Do you see that as a sign for how things could go in the direction of American politics, or even international politics with the gun debate?
Yeah. I mean, the end of the day this is a film. We’re not making a documentary, but I think it was very thoroughly researched. For me, I think it’s very balanced, I think the arguments are very balanced. Johnny Perera, the screenwriter whose first script this is, by the way, I think he really presents the debate from both sides. There’s so many twists and turns that you wouldn’t see coming. I really hope that people come out of the movie, obviously first and foremost being entertained and feel like they’ve been on a thrilling ride. But I also hope that it provokes conversation, because I think that’s how we can all move forward and hopefully things can evolve in a positive way so that lives aren’t lost needlessly.
I loved you in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.”
Oh! [Laughs] Yes something quite different. A big contrast.
I think a lot of people love that episode because it’s so uplifting compared to the rest of the series. But, there’s a fan theory that Kelly didn’t actually pass over.
That’s so interesting to me. Listen, I think everybody is open to interpret the episode as they will. I kind of love the fact, that’s the beauty of Charlie’s writing. It’s so complex, it forces people to ask all these questions. I definitely see it as a positive ending and I think Charlie Brooker does too. But as they say, it’s great to be a part of something people are talking about and gets you thinking.
That’s so significant and historic just in itself and Ava is so dynamic. I had the privilege of working with her really briefly in the summer. We shot a short film, which went into the opening exhibit of the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington D.C. I’ve been a fan of her work for such a long time and I really loved working with her. to be a part of Wrinkle in Time, such a beloved book and such a phenomenal cast, it’s really exciting.
Do you see Wrinkle in Time as a sign of hope for more diversity in Hollywood’s future as far as getting more females and women of color behind the camera?
Absolutely. I think they’re moving in a real positive direction and I think it’s great to be a part of that change.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Miss Sloane is now playing in select theaters and opens nationwide December 9.