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[This interview contains spoilers for episode one of Loki, as well as non-spoiler allusions to episode two.]
Gugu Mbatha-Raw has had brushes with Marvel in the past, but the stars finally aligned in time for Loki. On Marvel Studios’ third Disney+ series, Mbatha-Raw plays Ravonna Renslayer, who acts as the Time Variance Authority’s (TVA) judge, jury and executioner. She even sentences Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to death (“reset”) in the series premiere until Owen Wilson’s Mobius intervenes. With the series underway, Mbatha-Raw is now teasing what’s to come for Renslayer and Loki.
“She has a lot on her shoulders; she has a lot of responsibility. She has to make some morally ambiguous choices,” Mbatha-Raw tells The Hollywood Reporter. “As a judge, she doesn’t want to compromise the position she’s worked really hard to get to. But when the stakes get high, she has to get out of the office; she has to get out from behind that desk and get into the action as well. So that’s when she has to call upon her military training, and we get to see a whole other side of her. So there’s a lot of secrets. There’s betrayal. There’s lots of layers of Renslayer to come.”
In 2019, Mbatha-Raw and Juila Hart’s “alternative superhero story,” Fast Color, had a paltry opening weekend at the box office, which can largely be chalked up to minimal marketing efforts. But thanks to strong word of mouth, the impossible happened: a TV series was announced with Viola Davis serving as executive producer. While Mbatha-Raw can’t yet say if she’s involved or not, she does appreciate the lesson that Fast Color‘s afterlife retaught her.
“I’ve had many projects that continue to have another life,” Mbatha-Raw says with a laugh. “People are always talking to me about Beyond the Lights, which is something that maybe didn’t get the kind of attention it deserved in terms of box office or marketing. In the world of streaming, box office is one way to judge monetarily, but it’s by no means an adequate way to judge art or storytelling. We now have so many other ways to consume all of this content, so I think it’s just the way the industry is evolving.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Mbatha-Raw also discusses Renslayer’s relationship with Wilson’s Mobius, the hilarity of Loki‘s first courtroom scene and reconnecting with her drama school classmates, Hiddleston and Wunmi Mosaku.
So Kate Herron reached out to you regarding Ravonna Renslayer, but have you had any previous interaction with Marvel over the years?
Oh yes! A few times. There were a few auditions, the odd offer but near misses, really. There was nothing that really worked out until now. So it’s really exciting. Renslayer is definitely one of the most complex, powerful and interesting female Marvel characters that has come my way. For sure.
When we’re introduced to Ravonna, she’s acting as the TVA’s judge, jury and executioner. Would you agree with that description, and what would you add to it?
(Laughs.) Yeah, she is a judge, and yes, there is no real jury. I don’t know about executioner, although she does have the power to delete people. So, potentially. (Laughs.) She’s an interesting character in that she’s worked her way up. She wasn’t born into power. She had a military background as a Hunter like [Hunter] B-15 [Wunmi Mosaku]. She’s incredibly ambitious, and she also has direct access to the Time-Keepers now that she’s in this authoritative position. So it’s a fun dynamic, obviously, when this judge of law and order comes into contact with this king of chaos in terms of Loki. It’s really the ultimate personality clash.
Hollywood is a smaller world than some people might realize, and your drama school ties to Tom Hiddleston and Wunmi Mosaku are further proof of that. Is this something you noticed prior to your reunion on Loki?
Yeah, I’ve definitely encountered it, and I think it’s sort of comforting. When you’re on the right path, you do start to notice the connections in the world. It always fills me with pride to see my peers from drama school succeeding and taking over the world of entertainment. (Laughs.)
Whether it’s their rapport at the bench or sharing a drink in her office, Ravonna seems to be receptive to Owen Wilson’s Mobius in a way that she isn’t with most people. He has her ear as the saying goes. How would you describe the connection between those two?
Well, they’re incredibly old friends, and I think there’s a real warmth and shared history there. Owen Wilson’s character tries to persuade and charm Renslayer into doing things, and she probably wouldn’t have time for that with any other agent. But on the strength of their history and their relationship, it’s a nice rapport, but she also has to stay firm and do her job as well. So it’s been really fun to do those scenes with Owen. He’s such a gifted comedic actor with improv and has such a sharp wit. So he makes those scenes really fun.
“I feel like I’m always looking up to you. I like it. It’s appropriate.” You got to be on the receiving end of Owen’s trademark delivery. Was that a delight to witness up close?
It really was! He makes it look so easy. He has this ease and this charisma that is just really fun to work with, especially with Renslayer, who’s kind of uptight and obsessed with order. (Laughs.) It’s an interesting dynamic because they’re both pulling at different energies, which is really fun.
During the courtroom scene, did everybody enjoy watching Tom thrust his chest to no effect?
(Laughs.) That first scene in the courtroom! Honestly, I was trying not to laugh. When the camera wasn’t on me, it was really, really hard; I was crying with laughter. Obviously, you see what’s in the film, but since we did several takes, he’d do all sorts of different versions. So if I’d catch Wunmi’s eye, we would just be trying not to crack up because it was hilarious and brilliant. (Laughs.)
Ravonna strikes me as someone who’s not revealing all her cards just yet. So what can you tease about Ravonna overall?
Yeah, she has a lot on her shoulders; she has a lot of responsibility. She has to make some morally ambiguous choices. As a judge, she doesn’t want to compromise the position she’s worked really hard to get to. But when the stakes get high, she has to get out of the office; she has to get out from behind that desk and get into the action as well. So that’s when she has to call upon her military training, and we get to see a whole other side of her. So there’s a lot of secrets. There’s betrayal. There’s lots of layers of Renslayer to come.
Is Ravonna’s office one of your favorite sets that’s been devoted to a character of yours?
(Laughs.) Quite possibly, yes. It was amazing to see the concept art and the drawings first. And then to actually walk onto the set and into the drawing like Mary Poppins was fantastic. I loved my drinks cabinet, my reel-to-reel tape player and just putting my feet on the desk and having a moment in this power-pose kind of office. It’s definitely one of the most glorious spaces for any of the characters I’ve played.
Once you signed on, did you feel any pressure to catch up on all 23 MCU films?
I did my bit to try and catch up on the movies that I hadn’t seen, but the liberating thing, as Kate Herron described, is that this is somewhat of an origin story for Renslayer in Loki. So a lot of what we see in this season of Loki predates the comics, and that was kind of nice. It actually gave me a chance to create something new and not feel like I would have to carry a huge amount of stuff with me that has already happened. We were starting before all that.
In 2007, Paul Bettany recorded a voice role for an upcoming movie called Iron Man, and 14 years later, he’s still working for Marvel Studios. So have you prepared yourself for the possibility that you could be playing Ravonna for a very long time?
(Laughs.) Well, what is time? “For all time. Always.” That’s Renslayer’s motto, really. I don’t know; it’s hard to get your head around these kinds of things. Tom, case in point, said earlier that it’s a real privilege if people like the character, and if you’re still enjoying playing the character, that’s really what it’s all about. So we’ll see.
So the majority of the people that are reading this interview have not seen your recent masterpiece, Fast Color. What would your elevator pitch be to those readers at this very moment?
Aww, thank you. That’s so nice that you called it a masterpiece. For me, it’s really an alternative superhero story based on three different generations of women, and it was a real joy to work on it with Julia Hart. It’s certainly a very, very different scale in terms of budget to the Marvel Universe, but there’s no less of a soul to it. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope people continue to discover it.
And despite its minuscule box office, Fast Color is being developed into a TV series, which shows that theatrical performance is not the be-all and end-all in the streaming era. Is your name going to be on that show in some capacity?
Ooh! I don’t know. It’s a bit early days for me to comment. Yeah, I can’t really say at this point in time, but I’ll let you know. (Laughs.)
But through Fast Color, did you appreciate the reminder that box office performance is not necessarily the end of the line?
Oh yes! I’ve had many projects that continue to have another life. (Laughs.) People are always talking to me about Beyond the Lights, which is something that maybe didn’t get the kind of attention it deserved in terms of box office or marketing. But it’s something that people continue to discover and love and watch again and again. In the world of streaming, box office is one way to judge monetarily, but it’s by no means an adequate way to judge art or storytelling. We now have so many other ways to consume all of this content, so I think it’s just the way the industry is evolving.
Streaming services really do give overlooked movies and series an afterlife, which is actually a perfect segue to your beloved episode of Black Mirror. What was on your mind when you finished the last page of “San Junipero”?
The writing and the concept just blew my mind. It was such a beautiful, vivid world, but it was also all about love, joy and eternal life. It was so uplifting, but it was done in such a neon, spectacular, beautiful, ‘80s-themed way. And big questions: does the soul ever die? It’s like some of the questions we raise in Loki about free will. Do we have free will, or is everything predetermined? I love the fact that these pop-culture shows that are really fun, comedic and glittery to look at can also, under the surface, ruminate on some big existential questions.
You mentioned Beyond the Lights earlier, which I also adore. Do you and Gina Prince-Bythewood still share ideas from time to time?
Oh yeah! I love Gina to bits. She’s amazing. We’re in touch as frequently as we can be, and I’m always keeping in touch with all of her projects. So I hope that we can work together again before too long.
Loki is now streaming every Wednesday on Disney+.
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