Gugu Mbatha-Raw Interview: Motherless Brooklyn

Everything is political. There's no escaping the politics of life when people with power see those without as lesser beings, numbers to be moved around on a sheet, rather than human beings with hopes and dreams of their own. Motherless Brooklyn is all about the dynamics between those people, and how the very act of living can be a political act.

Set against the backdrop of New York City circa 1957, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog, a private detective with an aggressive case of Tourrette's Syndrome who doesn't let his personal issues get in the way of his quest for the truth. Gugu Mbatha-Raw co-stars as a mysterious figure who is involved in Essrog's case, and she holds answers that could determine the fate of the city. Of course, to say any more would spoil the whole story, so viewers will just have to see the movie to find out for themselves why Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most powerful, dangerous, and provocative movies of the year.

Related: Motherless Brooklyn – Edward Norton Interview

At a New York City press day for the film, Screen Rant sat down with Mbatha-Raw to discuss her work on the film, from working with writer/director/star Edward Norton to seeing the production team transform New York City into its former self, as well as a particular fashion item from the era she'd like to see more people adopt in the present.

Motherless Brooklyn is in theaters nationwide right now.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

There's a lot in this movie that I want to talk about, but I don't necessarily want to ask about because I don't want to spoil anything.

I know.

I feel like it's a movie that is best served going in completely raw.I do want to ask about the locations you shot in, and how they were transformed. Was there a lot of work done to transform them to 1957? Or was it kind of, like, switching out the cars?

You know, I honestly don't know exactly. I feel like we had such an amazing team, and Edward Norton, our director and writer and lead actor, assembled this amazing group of people to work with. Beth Mickle, the production designer, did an incredible job. Sometimes, we were on set, and yes, you switch out the cars because we were on these gorgeous iconic brownstone streets in Brooklyn. But sometimes you're somewhere like Washington Square Park, you know, for the protest scene. And you think, gosh, all the real protests really happened in that park. It gives you such a grounded sense of history. Yeah, they did an incredible job, and some of the details are just sort of imperceptible, that's how good they were.

I walk through Washington Square Park all the time. It gave me chills. We're kinda trained in the media to be as apolitical as we can, but sometimes, just stepping foot in the city and breathing the air and using the sidewalk is a political act. This movie really dives into that.

It's like my character, Laura, rides the subway, and suffers racial discrimination on a daily basis on her way to work. Those details, like you say, you really think, gosh, we just ride the subway today, and what a different experience.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

Your character is someone who... It's a film noir movie to its core, and so your character evolves as it goes on. You think maybe you're a traditional femme fatale character, but then you wind up being so much more. Can you talk a little about what drew you to the script and that arc of the character?

Exactly. I mean, when I first read it, I was so intrigued by Laura. We first see her from Lionel's point of view, and he's sort of endowing her with all this mystery as he follows her, trying to find out how she's involved in this murder. And the more we get to know her... Like in life, the more you get to know a person, the more layers they have and the more fascinating they become! And just finding out that Laura is a trained lawyer; often, she's underestimated, people assume she's a secretary. She grew up in the Harlem jazz club scene, and she's able to navigate these two worlds. So I love the fact that she's had a purpose, a real sense of integrity, and she sort of jolts Lionel into taking action.

Last question, I actually got to interview the lovely actresses from Godfather of Harlem recently, which is set in 1963. And I wanted to ask you the same question about the fashion, and if there's anything from the era that you got to wear that you felt nostalgic for that you don't have now, or vice versa, something you wish you had...

Well, I don't miss the girdle, that's for sure! That was very confining, and it made lunch a real problem. But what I did love and do miss, was... I had to wear this... Pair of galoshes. These sort of Wellington ankle boots that go over high-heeled shoes. I was like, this is a genius idea! If you've got your heels on and you've got to walk through the streets and it's raining, you just put these boots on over the top and they have room for a heel! I thought it was just a genius idea, I'd want to bring them back.

More: Screen Rant's Motherless Brooklyn Review

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