“Belle” is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is taken in by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son (Sam Reid) bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.
Gugu is on our list of new actresses to watch. She makes a stunning major film debut in “Belle.” Read our exclusive interview with her below:
Q: Tell me about Belle’s journey in the film.
For me, it’s really a coming of age story. Dido goes from being this very obedient, quite girlish child in the household … to becoming a woman and falling in love for the first time and having her political awakening and then finally getting to challenge her father figure played by Tom Wilkinson in the film. So, really it’s a sweeping love story and she sort of goes from a girl who’s kind of uncomfortable in her own skin to a woman who tries to change her own Destiny.
Q: Can you tell me about working with Tom Wilkinson and developing that relationship?
I adore Tom Wilkinson. He’s amazing and I’d been a big fan of his for a very long time, I’ve seen him in so many films. I was sort of apprehensive about working with him because I just admired him so much, but he is a delight and he’s so honest and has such an innate warmth about him. He has this relatively sort of gruff exterior and once you get to know him, he’s so has a twinkle in his eye and is just a very great person to work with. You really have to up your game because he’s just very truthful and says it like it is.
Q: Can you tell me about your preparation and research for the role?
When I first got the job, I was actually in L.A. I’d known about the story for a long time and I’d read all the Jane Austen books, seen “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” So I was aware of that world. In fact, Amma asked me to re-watch Emma Thompson’s “Sense and Sensibility” and also “Dangerous Liaisons” with Glenn Close to get a sense of the period. I also took piano lessons. That’s because I was in L.A and I felt very far away from the Englishness of that world, so I thought, “What physical thing can I do to get into the character,” so I started to learn the piano because I have that elaborate Handel piece to play. I tried my best. We also had these etiquette sort of posture lessons and etiquette coaching where we learnt all about the bows and the courtesies of the period. We had some rehearsals with other actors and we got to talk about the character’s relationships with Amma and finesse the arc of those journey’s. I also went to Hampstead Heath, I went to Kenwood House. I spent a lot of time on Hampstead Heath walking and exploring that area. And then the script of course, just kind of absorbing that, so there were lots of facets to the research and the costumes gave me a lot.
Q: Was the legal story something you had heard of?
I had never heard of the Zong case. I was pretty appalled actually when I heard the idea of drowning 130 slaves on purpose for money. It was such a hideous and ugly part of history, which I think has been swept under the carpet. For me that story was so integral to have that as part of our romantic story because it really grounds it in a gritty reality of the time. I think that having that in Tom Wilkinson’s journey with the idea of how much Dido might have influenced a decision on a conscious or subconscious level I think was really a fascinating idea.
Q: You and Sam also bring together a beautiful love story to the screen. Could you tell me about working with him?
Sam is such an amazing actor. He is Australian first and foremost and Sarah Gadon is actually Canadian. So I was working with actors not in their natural accents and the love story is so beautiful and Amma was really able to bring out so much heart. I think that she is a romantic herself. So to bring out the nuances of that journey, and also the period nature, that there’s so much restraint in that period of time. Not only in the clothes, but in the social interactions. So I really enjoyed working with Sam. He’s such a terrific actor and yeah it was great fun.
Q: Is the story more personal to you because of your personal background?
Of course it means something because this is the very first time I’ve seen myself or someone that looks like me in a historical piece where the character is not a slave, is not being brutalized, is not in a subservient role. She is an educated, articulate woman and I think that is important because it is part of our cultural heritage. I think it is just important to have that voice seen and heard. For me, yes of course. It was important. But equally, it’s still a very universal story, so I like to think that it has both sides and that everybody can relate to it irrespective of their race.
Q: Can you speak about working with Director Amma Asante and what you admire about her?
Amma is such a wonderful, elegant and articulate and intelligent woman and a continually inspiring person to be around. I love listening to her talk. She constantly would pepper her direction with stories from her own life, give us inspiration and heart and you know, she’s very determined. She has this beautiful, aesthetic sense of elegance and grace, which I think is in her personally and also comes through in her choices in the film. She is always very specific and very detailed about what she wanted. The film is really a testament to the strength of her vision. When I read the script, when I worked on the film, when I saw the final product, everything came together and she was just single minded in her approach to getting that vision on the screen.
Q: I also thought your character had a very interesting relationship with her cousin. Belle ends up being the wealthier one even though her cousin is white. Can you talk about that?
It was just so refreshing to me. It’s surprising to see a biracial woman who you would think stereotypically normally would be less financially well off, less educated and all of those things and actually, Belle has her own inheritance and it’s Elizabeth that has to marry for money and Belle can actually marry for love. That was very just interesting and unusual I thought. Also, to have that scene with Sarah Gadon where they do really butt heads as sisters cause Dido is still illegitimate so that semi competitive element that sisters do always have as well and that only your sister and you can really tell it like it is. I loved working with Sarah Gadon. She is so talented and beautiful and we are best of friends now since doing that project.
Q: There are some fun scenes where you’re getting matched and there’s Tom Felton in the mix and Miranda Richardson. Can you tell me about playing out those scenes?
The marriage market at that time was so ruthless and I am so relieved that it’s not like that anymore. Miranda Richardson is just so wonderful in her depiction of that pushy mom trying to get her sons married off for their financial security and it’s kind of flipped on its head in a way because Dido is financially secure, but those boys need Dido. I find that kind of ironic and funny and also, the comedy is really brought out through Penelope Wilton’s performance as well as Lady Mary. She brings such a lightness of touch and humor to it and again, Tom Felton as you said is really a character struggling with his instinct versus his social conditioning of the lustful feelings that he has for Dido, but also the confusion of “that’s not how it should be” in the order of things. Such a nasty moment that we have in that scene together and I have to say Tom Felton, although he can play the villain incredibly well, he is the nicest person to work with and such a nice guy, so it’s a testament to his skills as an actor.
Q: There are gorgeous sceneries, sets and clothing in the film. Can you speak about being in that environment and how that lent itself to your performance?
It was wonderful for me because we shot at all these amazing locations all around in the Isle of Man and also, these beautiful country houses, which really give you a sense of the period because it’s just so much better than working on a set or a sound stage because it’s real and you can take so much from that environment. We shot in my hometown of Oxford as well which was really special to me to be sitting in a carriage trotting through a street that I’ve known since I was a little girl. It really was a full circle moment because I’d actually said to my mom when I was younger, “Wouldn’t this be a lovely setting for a period drama?” and then there I was. It was almost like being a time traveler. It was really really really fun. The costumes give you so much as well. A sense of what it must have been like on a physical level to exist at that time.
Q: You held on to this story for seven years. Tell me why it was so special to you?
I think just because it was so unusual to me and so special. Being British and being biracial and not having seen a story like this at all and seeing myself represented in history. And having gone to RADA and having classical training, many of my friends were doing period dramas like “Downton Abbey,” “Jane Austen,” Dickens adaptations and I never got the opportunity to audition for those projects even though I had had the training and the classical theatre experience. So for me, it was something I felt needed to be told and I just felt such a personal connection to her.
Q: You are well trained classical theater actress, can you speak about how that training helped you in this film?
The theatre helped me. And the Shakespeare that I have done helped me with the size of the language because when you’re dealing with period drama language, sometimes depending on how it’s done, it can sound a little heightened and clunky in your mouth and I think that the theatre training definitely equipped me with the skills to try and make that sound more naturalistic and real. Working with theatre actors again like Penelope Wilton who I had worked with on “Hamlet” already, you realize that you can kind of take elements from all of those jobs and put them together, so I was really lucky to have my first leading role be something with that heightened dialogue, too.
Q: You also star in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Blackbird,” out Fall 2014. What will that be like?
Completely different I mean get ready cause really it could not be more different to “Belle,” and I’m really glad to have them as coming out in the same year because they are so contrasting it’s very contemporary. I play a pop star who in the beginning of the film basically wins a grammy award and then tries to throw herself off her hotel balcony, so it’s sort of dealing with the psychological implications of fame and the toxic nature of the music industry and how that can be exploitative for young women when they’re packaged from a very young age so it’s all issues that I thought were really worth exploring and very contemporary and unlike “Belle,” with the sort of father daughter dynamic, I have a mother daughter dynamic with the momager character played by Minnie Driver in that and like “Belle” as well even though it’s a completely different setting, it definitely explores the issues of identity you know this girl … had her identity in the industry shaped for her and she is able to break free during the course of the film and sort of find her authentic self and so it’s definitely a theme that seems to be running through my work at the moment.