BELLE: Miranda Richardson And Gugu Mbatha-Raw On Exploring A Rarely Seen Part Of History

Here's my chat with the stars of Belle, the Georgian-era biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate child of a British Lord and an African slave, who was raised into nobility and whose influence helped end slavery in the UK. Miranda Richardson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw talked about this rarely explored time in English history.

Miranda Richardson

The Lady Miz Diva:  BELLE brings up the seldom seen subject of slavery in the British Empire, was that part of what brought you to the project?


Miranda Richardson:  Oh, of course.  I just go "What? What is this story? Oh, it's a true story? I don't believe it. Well, why haven't I heard about it? Why isn't it in schools?" Even though I like looking at the odd country house and I've been to Kenwood House, I never knowingly had seen this painting.  And sadly, you can't even now; there's only a facsimile there.  It's up in Scotland.  I'm starting a petition to bring this painting back to London once Belle is released in England, because I think a whole load of people will want to see that.  It's at the end of the movie, it tells you.  I think they should.  I think they have a right to see it.  I think particularly a younger demographic will be really interested in this subject and will respond really well, I think.

What did you make of Lady Ashford when you read her?

MR:  Well, she's kind of irresistible, because on the face of it, you want to call her a bitch, but she's not.  Every character in this movie should be, and is, I think, understandable; their position is understandable within the constraints of the times, the social ethics and mores.  And I think that's what I like; if there's something that has some complexity there.  And also there's an opportunity for humor there, cos she is money-driven; she literally turns on a dime and says, "Oh, well, maybe she's not so black after all?" and words to that effect after having said, "My God, I had no idea she was so black."  It's sort of horrifying, the facility that she has, but also amusing to a modern sensibility in a way, that she can do that.  And you understand, she's a mother, she's trying to get her sons set up in life; her husband's never gonna get very much further than he is now even though it's a good job, they have a nice living, a very nice set up.  And you know, she's ambitious for her sons and she's passed that on to them.  

I love the fact that everybody has a journey in this, even Oliver, the more sympathetic son who is briefly engaged to Dido; I think he is used to having a certain position, but he doesn't abuse that position, he's respectful.  But then he gets the wet towel in the face because suddenly there is somebody who apparently doesn't have any social power saying, 'Well, actually, I don't want to marry you because I have other ideas. I'm moving on.'

You one of a very rare breed of actor - particularly female actors - who is able to command both leading and character roles. However, people seem to really love you to be wicked.  When you are considering playing an unpleasant person, is it important part of your choice for that character to have more to them, as Lady Ashford has?

MR: 
I think what I'm talking about is layers.  I don't think people would ask me just to do something, or they would know why I would be interested to do something that was just very straightforward.  I mean, if it's there, I'll complicate it; that's what I do.  I go, 'Can I make anything of this?'  And the answer might be 'No, this is very straightforward. She is like this.'  Whereas I'm looking for motivations or genes or whatever it is that make a person the way they are, that I like to have something to work on.

Did you do any research in preparation for this film?  I'm fascinated with the subject as it's so unseen.

MR:
  I have to say not through laziness; Amma {director Asante} presented some pretty good production notes since she's been waiting to make this for very long time, and ultimately, you are doing the script.  I didn't have etiquette lessons and all that kind of thing, because I covered that having trained at the Bristol Old Vic school, where you go through the gamut of theatrical history; and that involves restoration comedies, this kind of period, fan work, corsetry, gestures.  It's all fascinating and I didn't feel I needed to.  And ultimately, these are about to be modern people, do you know what I mean?  They still have to be able to move within their confines.  I loved the fact that there was quite a lot of physicality in this film: You see the girls running around and really sort of thrashing around, and of course you don't do that when you're a grown up.  You might be required to get on a horse, or you might be required to dance; you have to be able to do all those things in the gear.

I can't imagine.

MR:
  Well it's quite comforting.  You feel like you wouldn't break your spine, it would be held for you.

You have done some excellent television productions in the UK and there are so many excellent small screen period pieces that were are seeing here.  Does that high quality of TV productions make a film like this a harder sell?  What makes a story like this cinematic?

MR:
  Well, in a way, it's one small story, but it covers so much ground that it's sort of elegiac in its scope.  So I think also that because the period is about the size; it's about big dresses, and show, and big land ownership, big houses.  It sort of begs to be shown on a big screen.  And it points out the discrepancies even more between the haves and the have-nots then in a way if you see all that extraordinary beauty and elegance and luxury and tranquility, and then the threshing harbors and the inns -- it's quite a lovely contrast.  That beneath the calm waters, there's always turmoil going on; there's inner turmoil, there's personal and societal turmoil.  One of the things people it picked up on is the language of this film and I like it because it's neither modern nor is it completely hoity-toity, 18th-century speaky; it's on the cusp of the two.  And everybody's in shifting time, so that was another thing I liked.  It's a very layered movie, I think.

You've worked with some of cinema's greatest directors, but you've also played in films by very new or up-and-coming directors who, like Amma Asante, might not have a large list of feature credits.  Is working with new directors part of the spark of filmmaking for you?

MR: 
Yes, it can be.  I mean, you take certain things on trust, but I think she {Asante} feels trustworthy when you meet her and she's very passionate and has a drive and energy behind this.  And it's good.  Of course you need more than that, but you see on the set she is very trustworthy and you ask her things that she knows the answers to.  That's always comforting.  And then you can branch away from that if you feel the need, you can say, 'Well, how about this?'  It's always good; you always need someone at the helm.  It's like an orchestra, you need a conductor.  You don't ever think you don't need a conductor, you do.  With a vision.

Have you considered being such a conductor yourself? I've wondered why you've never directed a film yourself?  Is that something that doesn't interest you?

MR: 
People ask me a lot about that.  I like the idea of something small, but small things never turn out small.  They always are just as much work as big things.  I don't know what it is; it's just a tiny feeling that's pushed by other people asking.  Maybe I'll do something eventually, I don't know, but I don't know what it will be.

I think many people will be amused by the reunion of yourself and a certain almuni from the Harry Potter films, who you probably met almost a decade ago when he was about 17.  What was it like to have seen him go from a teen to the young man he is today?
MR:
  Oh, Tom {Felton, costarring as her son}!  Yes, but I didn't really know him; I was just aware of him on set, which he turned into the sweetest grown up.  He's terrific. Whoever's done that work, his parents and the Harry Potter company all looked after him very well.  He's just a lovely guy.

What would you like BELLE to say to audiences?

MR:
  Your history is even richer than you knew, than you thought.  And if this is one story - of which there are many - then go out and seek, and keep an open mind, and always know that things can change.


Gugu Mbatha-Raw

The Lady Miz Diva:  How did the role of Dido come to you?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw:
  You know, it's been a long journey for me.  I first met producer Damian Jones almost 7 years ago, and I had a two line role in a film that he was producing.  He mentioned to me about Dido, and said did I know about her?  And he told me about the painting.  Then I went to Kenwood House and got a copy of the postcard from the gift shop.  I asked, where's the painting? And they said we don't have it here anymore it's in Scotland. {Laughs} And I got the postcard and I was just intrigued, and he said that he was thinking about that it would be a great idea for a film and sort of that was that.  Then a few years later, and I had always said, 'What is happening with Belle?'  Initially, it was called Belle and Bette; it was going to be more the story of Dido and Elizabeth.  And then I met Amma for a completely different project, called Where Hands Touch, which was something she was developing and that actually fell apart.  So that didn't work out at that time, but then I found out that Damian had got Amma on board to direct Belle.  So another year or and so went by, and I was working in America and I flew home cos I knew that she was meeting people for the role, and I said I have to go home and make sure that I'm still in the running for this, cause I'd known about it for such a long time.  So I met Amma, and we just chatted about it all and in a few weeks later, I read for her, read some scenes and the little audition and then I found that I got the part.  I was in LA and I was just thrilled.

Did you do any research in preparation for this film?  I'm fascinated with it as the subject is so unexplored.

GM-R: 
Absolutely.  The painting was sort of the inspiration and then the script was starting point, and I'd read up about the Zong case, because I wasn't aware of that, and that was sort of amazing to me and atrocious at the same time.  It was fascinating to find out that that was true. Then the elements in the script which are based in real documents; that she wasn't allowed to dine with the family - that was definitely true - that she had money left to her, that Lord Mansfield left money in his will to her, as did Lady Mary.  So, they obviously held her in great affection.  We know that she married John {Davinier} and they had sons and lived together.  And through those kinds of clues and through the fact that Lord Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice of England at that time, so the debate was as to how much she would've influenced his ruling over the slavery case.  It was all sort of piecing it together with artistic license.  Amma would say, "We're not making a documentary, this isn't like a history book," but to capture everybody's heart with the love story first and foremost and then themes of race, equality, gender, class, identity; those are all kind of brewing underneath and there's the context for what is a very classic love story.

We in the US have slavery very much in our consciousness. Just recently in the news, there've been several controversial Caucasian public figures making terrible racist statements or musing out loud whether blacks were better off as slaves.  Having grown up in London, what would you say is the consciousness of black people in the UK with regard to the subject of slavery?

GM-R:
  It's a very different cultural legacy in the UK.  I'm very aware from the time I spent in the US, as you said; it's very recent, and slavery is actually very close to us here {in the US}.  In the UK, it's very different because I guess London's very multicultural; it's very close to Europe, as well, and just historically, slaves never actually lived and worked on the land in the UK.  Even though the slave trades through the ports came through the UK, London very much benefited financially from the slave trade; it was very much off the shores and swept under the carpet.  It wasn't seen.  The brutality of slavery wasn't seen in the UK. 

I think that's part of the nuances we try and capture in Belle; that even though that is the case, Dido's position was very ambiguous because she was brought up as a lady, but she was the still daughter of the slave, and how is she ever going to reconcile feeling equal in her own heart and how other people perceive her, as well?  So, for me it was essential to tell the story because first and foremost, there is really very little on the British experience.  It's the other side of the coin, I think, of the British experience, it's also the female perspective, which we don't see very often in films, and also a female woman of colour's perspective, who's not been brutalised, who's educated, who's articulate and is able to kind of stand up for herself.  That, to me, was an inspiring role model.

One of the aspects of BELLE that I really loved was the relationship between the two cousins.  You hold your breath when Elizabeth's lashing out at Dido and you're waiting for her to say something horrible about Dido's race, but it doesn't go there.

GM-R: 
No, exactly!  And we talked about that at length with Amma, because that's what we hoped you would feel, like she's going to say something else.  And I think that sisterly bond was something we were very keen to develop, because it's only your sister that can be honest with you - that family bond. And as I say, even though they were cousins, I took inspiration from a lot of Jane Austin, Sense and Sensibility, for example, Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, that sisterhood relationship - and working out, and always switching, with myself and Sara Gadon - we switched around who's the big sister?  Because actually, they were exactly the same age, but in different moments sometimes Dido seems more mature, sometimes Elizabeth seems more mature, and how they big sister each other and look after each other.  So, that was lovely to play with.

When you think there was in Dido that made her refuse to take the easy way out? One could understand if she chose to marry Oliver Ashford even though she doesn't love him, but in her position, one considers it might be her only way out of spinsterhood.

GM-R:
  Well, I don't know if marrying Oliver Ashford would have been the easy way out?  I think that actually, as she says when she finally stands up to Lady Ashford, the idea of a family ultimately carrying her as their shame; that is something that she could never reconcile. And I think that knowing in her own soul that she wanted to marry for love, she didn't want to be a token, she didn't want to be exoticised, and to marry her equal, and that's what she finds.  With John, it's a meeting of minds as well as a meeting of hearts in terms of her political awakening and the Zong case.  I think that was the case that she had the option to marry her equal.

What would you like people to take away from BELLE?

GM-R:
  For me, I feel like it's such an inspiring story and I hope that people kind of are excited to find out there are biracial women in history. {Laughs} that they did exist and they were articulate and intelligent.  And also the idea of being you are and being comfortable in your own skin; I feel like that is something that Dido learns through the process this story.  And I think that that's really a message that I would like people to take away; that it doesn't matter what society labels you as, what is important is how you see yourself and that's how you can change the world.

And I understand there's a very different project coming up for you that I'm not really allowed to ask about {The Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending}...

GM-R: 
Yeah, you're going to have a lot of fun with that.  I have purple hair in that.  I see that you've got purple hair, as well.  The character I play has purple hair. {Laughs}


Belle is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It will roll out to other cities in the U.S. in the coming weeks. Visit the official site for more information. 

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review.  Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.

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