Gugu's crowning achievements

2011-08-02 13:44
Nadia Neophytou
Gugu Mbatha-Raw didn’t just land her first film role opposite one Oscar-winning star, she bagged a role acting alongside two. The Oxford-born daughter of a South African doctor and a British nurse makes her movie debut alongside Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as Talia, a free-spirited, vintage-clothes-wearing student in Larry Crowne. And if the 28-year-old BAFTA-tipped Brit To Watch has her way, Gugu's co-stars from here on are going to keep her in equally good company.

"Larry Crowne is the first film I’d ever done, and the first American film too, so it was really exciting to start off my film career with this movie," she says, on a day off from shooting her next project in New Mexico. Gugu may be a new face to most, but to the UK TV-viewing public, she’s become a firm fixture on their screens over the years, as her acting career has developed.

Mbatha-Raw’s parents separated when she was three years old, and as a young girl, she joined the local acting group in her hometown of Witney, Oxfordshire, where she was brought up by her mother. When she was 18, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London where she gained training that would help spur her on to impressive theatre and TV work. Gugu has appeared on Bonekickers, Doctor Who and MI-5, as well as Undercovers, an action TV series aired on NBC in the US, but it was cancelled after one season due to low ratings. But it was that role that the actress believes helped her make the leap from TV to film, and more specifically, Larry Crowne with its illustrious cast.

BAFTA Brits to Watch

In Larry Crowne, Gugu’s Talia helps Tom Hanks’ lead character fit in with the cool kids when he goes back to college, and takes a class taught by Julia Roberts’ character, Mercedes Tainot. As one would expect from a man who affectionately signs his tweets off as "Hanx", the Forrest Gump star was nothing but encouraging to Gugu. "He’s so inspiring," she says. "He never forgets that it’s all meant to be fun."

Gugu certainly holds her own on screen alongside Tom and Julia, so it’s no wonder the British Academy of Film and Television Arts named her as one of the actresses to watch in a recent function in Hollywood, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton. "It was incredible experience," she says. "I was so honoured to be invited onto such a short list of people. Not only to be recognised and validated by BAFTA, but to share the honour with my peers was lovely. It was also, of course, an honour to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge," she adds. "I’m such a big fan of theirs." Gugu says she found the couple to be relaxed and warm, with Prince William cracking a joke or two. "I suppose he has been training for this his whole life," she says, with a little giggle.

As for Gugu's own life, movies will continue to feature prominently as her Hollywood profile grows . She’s currently filming Odd Thomas, based on the Dean Koontz novel, with Tim Robbins and Willem Dafoe in New Mexico. But she hasn’t turned her back on TV completely, having recently completed the pilot for a TV series with Danny Glover and Kiefer Sutherland, called Touch, created by Tim Kring (Heroes).  

Gugu also hopes to find the time to explore her South African heritage in the near future too. Despite the Xhosa name she’s been given, she has yet to visit South Africa. "My father’s been here in England for 30 years, so I haven’t ever been to South Africa, but I’m dying to go. He’s from Pretoria. I really want to learn more about my heritage."

She is also keen to visit a place where her name is more familiar to people. "It’s so refreshing to hear that it’s a common name there," she says. "I always have to say it two or three times before people get it (abroad). Here, people are always going "Gu-who?" she laughs. But at the rate she’s going, Gugu should make the name a lot more well known to those outside South Africa too.


  • delcelton - 2011-08-04 12:24

    My God she is beautiful...if onyl i could be blessed with such a woman for marriage and family.

  • letswai - 2011-08-04 14:25

    she is pretty in deed.sho.big up girl

  • MDSS - 2011-08-04 23:57

    Make us proud and show the rest of the world what Mzanzi is made of.

      Kuhle - 2011-08-05 06:31

      Well...she's actually English...

  • Kuhle - 2011-08-05 06:30

    Gugu Mbatha is about as Zulu a name as you can get...where did the journalist get Xhosa from?

      mfundiNdaba - 2011-08-05 08:21

      It is also Xhosa. Igugu = pride... Think before you comment.

      Lungi - 2011-08-05 10:21

      Gugu is Zulu, after all it just doesn't matter, she is English.

      smalefane - 2011-08-05 22:11

      Zulu, XHosa or really doesn't matter. She's a sister, that's all that matters.

  • Lyndatjie - 2011-08-08 13:12

    I saw the movie and she was a stunner! Her acting was great and she is proudly South African to boot! You go Gugu!

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