The British actress has been prolific in film and television for the past decade, but a new Apple TV+ show is her first time as an executive producer.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is leading and executive producing a major series. “There are amnesia dramas, but I hadn’t seen this with a woman who looks like me at the center,” she said.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times
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By Roslyn Sulcas
LONDON — A few minutes into “Surface,” a new eight-part series from Apple TV+, the central character, Sophie, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, asks her therapist a question:
“If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?”
Sophie, who has amnesia after a suicide attempt, has a handsome, wealthy and devoted husband, a World of Interiors-worthy townhouse with a panoramic view of San Francisco, a fun best-girlfriend and a killer wardrobe. She is also beautiful — obviously, since she is played by Mbatha-Raw, the British actress who rose to prominence playing the title role in Amma Asante’s 2014 feature “Belle.”
Mbatha-Raw, 39, has worked prolifically in film and television over the past decade, withstarring roles in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights,” the Marvel series “Loki” and, most recently, the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show.”
But with “Surface,” which will premiere on Friday, Mbatha-Raw is leading a major series for the first time, and also stepping into new terrain as an executive producer of the show, created and written by Veronica West (“High Fidelity,” 2020).
Sophie’s question is the driving force of the show, which West said was inspired by the 1962 Alain Resnais film “Last Year at Marienbad.” Why did Sophie try to kill herself? Did she try to kill herself?
In a recent interview at a London hotel, Mbatha-Raw said she was drawn to “the fact that Sophie herself is the mystery,” adding, “There are amnesia dramas, but I hadn’t seen this with a woman who looks like me at the center.”
The role, she said, had forced her to abandon her usual scrupulous preparation for playing a character. “She is a blank slate, she is looking for clues, and her information comes from those around her,” Mbatha-Raw said. “It was the opposite of creating a back story; here I was building the character as Sophie is building herself throughout the show.”
It was strange to work on playing a married couple when only one character knows the history of the relationship, said Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays James, Sophie’s husband. “There are so many different versions of Sophie, and so many versions of Sophie and James,” he said in a telephone interview. “But that’s true of our lives.”
Sophie exists in “two realities,” said Ari Graynor, who plays her best friend, Caroline. “The external reality she is interacting with, and her internal reality of trying to put everything together. Gugu has a gift of allowing both these realities to be simultaneously felt with layers of sensitivity and subtlety and precision.”
Mbatha-Raw — who was an associate producer on the HBO Max limited series “The Girl Before” — signed on to “Surface” before it was sold to Apple. West described her as “an exec in all aspects — casting, marketing the vision for the show, helping to shape Sophie’s back story.” She added, “The thing I most admire about Gugu’s approach is that she was always pushing me to go bigger and bolder, let her character be flawed and messy.”
Reese Witherspoon, who worked with Mbatha-Raw on “The Morning Show,” wrote in an email that she had binge-watched “Surface” over two days, “marveling at every twist I did not see coming.” Mbatha-Raw, she wrote, is “vulnerable, defiant, ferocious and determined.”