Hollywood hostage! Gugu Mbatha-Raw went to America by accident, now every time the British star of Touch tries to get home an A-lister offers her a job
22:26 GMT, 6 April 2012
Gugu Mbatha-Raw would really, really like to come home. She misses the Oxfordshire countryside where she grew up. She misses her mother and London’s theatre world. She misses her friends and the British sense of humour. The only problem is, America doesn’t seem to have any plans to let this up-and-coming actress go.
She first went there by accident. While she was playing Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet in the West End, the show won a Broadway run in 2009. It was her first time in the States and she was homesick.
But then JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost, offered her a part in his new show Undercovers. Next, Tom Hanks cast her in his film Larry Crowne with Julia Roberts. And now she’s starring opposite Kiefer Sutherland in his first television role since 24.
America doesn't seem to have any plans to let up-and-coming actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, go
The show, Touch, has already been sold to 100 countries and with 23 episodes planned for each series, it doesn’t look like she’s going to get home soon.
‘I’m totally in denial about moving here,’ says Gugu, 28. ‘Every time I get a new contract I rent a new flat. It’s not like I packed my bags and said, “I’m moving to Hollywood”. But the work keeps bringing me back. My most overused word at the moment is surreal. In 2009 I was living in London and getting work I enjoyed.
'But since then I’ve worked with Jude Law, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland. That is surreal. When I first arrived it was a real culture shock. I see LA as a workplace rather than somewhere to live. If I don’t get out I go crazy. If you have a little success people treat you differently, so it’s good to keep a healthy perspective. It’s acting, not rocket science.’
Stepping into the spotlight: Gugu Mbatha-Raw at the premiere of Touch in New York last month
Gugu, whose name means ‘pride’ in Zulu, was a born performer – even though there is no history of showbusiness in her blood; her English mother Anne was a nurse while her South African father Patrick was a doctor. Although she was one of the few mixed-race children at the Henry Box School in Witney, and her parents split up when she was one, she was a happy, extroverted child. ‘From the age of four I loved ballet and tap. I was in the school band, the choir and all my school plays.’
THE AUDITION THAT MADE ME CRY
Kiefer Sutherland on the moment he knew he’d found the right boy to play his son in Touch.
Kiefer Sutherland sat through 35 auditions for the role of his mute son Jake in his latest TV series – but knew the last 34 were a waste of time.
‘I looked into the eyes of the first child who auditioned, David Mazouz, and I cried,’ says Kiefer, 45.
‘There was something about David that reminded me of my daughter Sarah at 11 – the big eyes, the ability to convey emotion without saying a word – which I found so moving. I just knew he was the one.’
The series is, at heart, about the relationship between a father and son.
‘It’s about the guilt a parent feels every day of their lives, to the power of ten,’ says Kiefer.
‘Which parent gets through a day and says, “I did everything perfectly today” I suspect there are few who have.’
From there she moved on to the Oxford Youth Music Theatre and then, at 17, breezed into RADA. She played Juliet to new Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield’s Romeo in Manchester when they were both 22, and had minor roles in Spooks and Doctor Who (where she played Martha’s little sister). Then came Hamlet with Jude in New York – and America fell in love with her.
It helps that she does a very good American accent, so good she even pretended to be an American when she met Tom Hanks to pitch for her role in Larry Crowne. ‘I auditioned with an American accent on Friday morning, then I was told I had to meet Tom Hanks on the Monday. My manager had heard Tom didn’t want the role to go to a Brit because he saw her as quintessentially American and advised me to do the interview with an American accent.
That panicked me because I knew it would fall apart once he asked me which college I went to. So I went in doing an American accent, then cracked after five minutes. I said to him in my English accent, “I hear you only want to cast an American but that isn’t really the case, is it” He looked at me and it was nerve-racking for a moment. But then he laughed and I got the job.’
But it’s Touch that could make her a star. It centres on an autistic, mute boy, Jake Bohm, who communicates only with numbers. His father Martin, played by Kiefer, struggles to control him, and Gugu’s character, social worker Clea Hopkins, tries to help. Martin and Clea realise Jake can see the future and links people around the world via the numbers he writes in a notebook. Though it’s already on Sky1, Gugu and Kiefer are still filming the end of the first series.
All of which leaves little time for romance. She recently split from Game Of Thrones and Robin Hood actor Harry Lloyd, but won’t reveal whether she has a new boyfriend. She lives in West Hollywood ‘which is not as glamorous as it sounds’ and on the rare moments she has off she catches up with old friends, including Andrew Garfield. ‘I’ve got friends from home and some new ones I’ve made here, but mostly I just try to rest.’
And seeing as Gugu can’t get back to Oxford, she’s taken a little bit of Oxford to Hollywood. She’s bought herself an Oxford-made Mini Cooper. A little car in a big place.
Touch, Tuesday, 8pm, Sky1.