AUP S2E7: Beneath the “Surface”

·28 min read


TRANSCRIBED: Albert Parnell

Completed 9/9/22

You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified.

Cortney Wills [00:00:08] Hello and welcome to Acting Up. The podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio. And this week we’re catching up with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Stephan James about their gripping new series, “Surface.” “Surface” is a psychological thriller from Apple TV plus that is really cool and just wrapped its eight episode premiere season on September 2nd. It’s one of those shows that twists and turns so much that you really got to see the whole thing before you can even make sense of what’s happening. And I’m so excited that I got to sit down with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who not only stars in the series but also served as an executive producer for the first time, as well as her costar Stephan James, who does a great job as this sexy, mysterious man that we’re not really sure what to think of him until it’s over.

Cortney Wills [00:01:09] Set in high end San Francisco, “Surface” stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Sophia, a woman who has suffered a traumatic head injury that has left her with extreme memory loss, believed to be a result of a suicide attempt. As Sophie embarks on a quest to put the pieces of her life back together with the help of her husband and friends, she begins to question whether or not the truth, she is told, is, in fact the truth she has lived. Through twists and turns and an unexpected love triangle. The sexy, elevated thriller asks, What have you woke up one day and didn’t know your own secrets? “Surface” is a story of self-discovery which contemplates if we are preprogramed to become who we are or if we choose our own identity. That’s a pretty loaded logline. And like I said, if you watch this series, which you can now in its entirety, it’s a perfect weekend binge. You’ll get what is so kind of twisty and turny and mysterious about it all. But one thing that stuck out to me was just how amazing it was to see Gugu take up so much space in a show like this where race wasn’t really front and center, if anything. It was one of the most colorless series I’ve ever seen that has so many prominent Black people in the main roles. I sat down with Gugu right after I devoured the series from start to finish, so let’s get right to it.

Cortney Wills [00:02:28] Gugu, this is so good.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:02:31] Oh, thank you.

Cortney Wills [00:02:33] It is really. I mean, I devoured it. I started it yesterday, and I’m done.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:02:38] That’s exciting.

Cortney Wills [00:02:40] It’s been such a long time since something made me crave my rewatch of it. It’s just such a pleasant surprise. So great to see you in this starring role, but also as an executive producer of this really interesting and like complex project.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:02:58] Oh, well, thank you. Well, when it came along, you know, and I knew that Hello Sunshine were involved, having worked with them on the morning show, obviously, which is such an incredible experience. And obviously that whole ethos of empowering women and female centered stories, you know, them inviting me to be an EP on this and be able to be on board at such an early stage. You know, I think just just the pilot was written and an outline by Veronica West when I came on board. So. So, yeah, it’s it’s been amazing. There’s a lot of me in this show in terms of, you know, the DNA of the show, that sort of taste and style of it. So thank you. It’s a great challenge.

Cortney Wills [00:03:42] Yes. And I mean, gosh, your character has so many layers. We get to see like so many versions of you. You know, you’re dressed up, you’re dressed down, you’re exercising. You’re you know, there’s it’s a thriller, but there’s kind of a ton of elements. There’s romance and mystery and so much going on. But also, I thought the pacing of it was just so brilliant. And your timing as an actor, you know, when you’re someone’s taking up so much of the screen for so much of a project, I think it’s easy to get bored. And I was never once bored of listening to you, looking at you, trying to figure out, you know, what was really going on.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:04:24] Oh, good. Oh, that’s so great to hear. Yeah. No one wants to be boring.

Cortney Wills [00:04:27] Yeah.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:04:30] Thank you.

Cortney Wills [00:04:31] How do you even attack somebody that. You know, that that is going to present so many versions of themselves in one show?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:04:39] Hmm. Well, I mean, that to me is always what I’m craving, always what I’m looking for. It’s the nuances, the complexity, the multifaceted layers of characters. You know, I’m always trying to build them into characters. You know, sometimes they’re not always there and you have to mine for them. On this one, they really were, you know, part of the identity of the show, the idea of this duality, of identity, of this fragile woman evolving into a sort of fierce, empowered and, you know, person in her world and being able to kind of go from looking to everyone else, you know, to define who she is and actually digging deep within herself and to choose who she’s going to become.

Cortney Wills [00:05:28] Yes. Yes, absolutely. This was also a show very unique element in it is that it’s kind of colorblind. Like this world that we’re in is so minimally, if at all, obviously affected by the race of your character or the race of Stephen James’s character like it just felt inconsequential in a way. Other than loving to see it, loving to see, you know, someone like you taking up so much space, but also presenting different styles, different hair, different clothes. All of those things are fantastic. But race didn’t really come into play, and I always find that so interesting because it almost creates another, another sense of like a fantasy world, like we actually don’t have to think about that. We get to see Black characters just being the hero or the villain or the love interest, you know, minus any of the other things that, you know, often we’re looking for. I think that that too is a step in representation, being allowed to just be a princess or just be whatever it is.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:06:39] And just be a complicated human being. I think that’s not a just I think, you know, we are unlimited. And I think that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to telling one type of story or one type of one type of genre, you know. And for me, even in, you know, as a woman seeing this story about memory loss, about a character finding their identity, I’ve seen it in movies like “The Bourne Identity,” you know, with a male protagonist, but never with somebody that looks like me at the center. And I, you know, I’m all for building in the complexity of the world of a psychological thriller that’s juicy, you know, that that’s aspirational, that’s in a luxurious world and seemingly perfect. So hopefully you’re swept away on the mystery of it all.

Cortney Wills [00:07:28] Yes. What is the biggest difference in, you know, the glass that you’re looking through a project like this? Not when not only you’re the lead, but you’re the executive producer. Like what changes about how you approach it? And what is it like to have a say, you know, after the camera start stops rolling on your part?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:07:47] Mm. Well it’s not just after the cameras stopped rolling, it’s before, it’s, you know, in terms of coming on board at a point when it was myself, Hello Sunshine and Veronica West and Reese Witherspoon and we pitched the show to Apple, you know, so I had never been part of the pitch before at that early stage, you know, and being a part of it, you know, interviewing directors, you know, I’ve been interviewed and auditioned for directors a million times, but being on the other side of the Zoom room as it was, you know, meeting directors, meeting costume designers, composers, being a part of those creative choices, really wrestling to find the core of the DNA of the show in terms of taste, in terms of finding allies and collaborators, that that really represented that taste. And it would challenge it and push it further and create dynamic, creative partners was really, really incredible. And of course, you know, this cast being a part of the casting process with the phenomenal April Webster, who cast me in my first project in the US with JJ Abrams, “Undercovers,” you know, so to be able to work with April Webster again on this as an executive producer was just, you know, one of those full circle moments in life, you know, where where you feel very grateful for the journey that you were on.

Cortney Wills [00:09:09] Yes. So you had a say in the casting. Talk to me about Stephan James. Like, why was he the right person for this role? He is such a phenomenal actor, I think. And I was like.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:09:21] Yes, Stephan, it’s Stephan. Yeah, I mean, you know, I’d been a fan of Stephan since seeing him in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” you know, and I saw him in “Homecoming” with Julia Roberts and, you know, just he brings such a soulful, grounded gravitas to everything that he’s in. You just believe him. He has a strength and an a reality, but also deeply romantic energy, I think, you know, having seen him in “Beale Street,” you know, but it’s always grounded. And I think, you know, without giving too much away, the character of Baden is mysterious. And, you know, the role that he plays in Sophie’s life is is really one that that pushes the story along, you know? And I think he brings such great quality that that’s such a, you know, diametrically opposed to the energy of of James, for example, Sophie’s husband, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. And I was really intrigued by that fact that, yeah, I was really intrigued by the dynamic of this love triangle and what that would bring out and how both men in the story bring out different sides of Sophie’s personality, different energies.

Cortney Wills [00:10:34] Yes. So, Sophie, to you, you know, is she a hero in the story? Is she a villain in this story? Do we have a line between good and bad.

[00:10:44] It’s all up for grabs. Right. He’s the bad guy. Is he the bad guy? Is he the bad? Or is she the bad guy?

Cortney Wills [00:10:48] What is a bad guy?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:10:50] Yeah. And that’s the that’s sort of. The twisty nature of this complex thriller. And it wouldn’t be a thriller if it was easy to define. I think that every episode there are twists and turns in the story that keep you guessing. And I think what I love about the show is you you think you really like someone or you think you’ve decided that somebody can’t be trusted. And then the next episode or the next scene, something happens and it flips your whole preconceptions on their head, you know, and you’re able to kind of see them in a, in a different light. So it really keeps you guessing. And it kept me guessing, reading the scripts and being a part of the process with Veronica, you know? And I hope that that will let the audience lean in, you know, to to the the propulsive nature of this thriller, you know, make you want more.

Cortney Wills [00:11:40] Yes. And this project would not, I don’t think couldn’t have been as strong as it was if it wasn’t paced, you know, so precisely. And things didn’t unfold the way. And then the timing that they did, you knew this story going in to figuring out who this team would be like. What were you looking for in a director, not only knowing the story, but also knowing I’m going to have to carry this as an actor. And like, do you think about this is what I’m going to need from a director to pull this off?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:12:09] Oh, absolutely. And we had a gift of a human being inSam Miller, you know, who co-directed “I May Destroy You” with Mikayla Coel, which I was a huge fan of such a groundbreaking show. And I think I was very aware that playing a British character in an American world that we were shooting in the pandemic in Vancouver and in on the West Coast, that I very much wanted an ally as well as Oliver, you know, but an ally in the in the producer team who was a Brit who understood Sophie’s perspective culturally, which Sam could bring. And he’s just so seasoned as a director. Such an actor’s director really pushed us to bring out the weirdness of the dynamics, really wanted to set the world, you know, the off kilter nature of Sophie’s reality. And I think Sam did a lot to bring out the edge of of this world. You know, as much as it’s glamorous, as much as it’s aspirational and luxurious, I think Sam gave it gave it such a grounded edge and, you know, really was able to bring the point of view this surreal pull out the surreal elements of Sophie’s world.

Cortney Wills [00:13:20] Yes. You know, watching your career kind of evolve has been such such a treat for me, you know, in my own career. I remember Belle, you know, all the lights, which I loved, you know, and now we’ve got, you know, Gina Prince-Bythewood directing “The Woman King,” which is going to be such a huge film. We’ve got you, you know, executive producing projects like these and you’ve all kind of done it during this really big time of transition, I think, in Hollywood, across the board, but especially for Black women. So my question for you now is, as someone who’s been working through so many of these transitions and ongoing transitions, like what are the most palpable? You know, I think benchmarks that we actually have hit, like where have you seen or felt the most progress? And is there a place where still with all of this, all of these amazing things under your belt is still a bit of an uphill climb?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:14:21] Hmm. Yeah. I mean, you know, just listening to you, just put it all in perspective like that. Yeah, it makes me realize how far I’ve come, which is really, you know, always, you know, things go so fast and, you know, with the pandemic, everything just took on another level of surreal, you know, that you forget to look back and, you know, take a moment to to remember the journey. But but for me, I mean, certainly, you know, being an executive producer, I mean, I remember years and years ago when I was at drama school, you know, for the first time watching something like Sex and the City and seeing like Sarah Jessica Parker, executive producer, I was like, oh, my God, how does that happen? How does you know? And and just thinking that was so out of my reach, you know, in a way, and just not really understanding how you get there.

[00:15:10] And obviously having incredible mentors and pioneers like Reese Witherspoon to work with who’ve who’s really, you know, opened so many doors for me and, you know, brought me along alongside in the at the table. But yeah, I think there’s definitely still a long way to come. A long way to go. I think for me, I’m I’m still, you know, finding my voice and finding my feet as a producer. And I feel really thankful that, you know, I’ve been able to grow into this role. And, you know, I just I just hope for more. I think it’s you know, the wonderful thing is once you get to a point of influence to open the door for people coming up behind you, you know, so so that’s that’s what I hope to do. I hope that it inspires people. You know, like when I looked at Sarah Jessica Parker as executive producer, maybe this will inspire somebody to see me. You know, somebody that looks like me as executive producer of a TV show on Apple TV+, you know what that does? Just just to see it in writing, to see it in the show subliminally that it’s possible is is really inspiring. So we’ll see.

Cortney Wills [00:16:20] Thank you so much for your time today and thanks for this project. it was so good.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:16:25] Thank you. Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Cortney Wills [00:16:28] Sure. Take care.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw [00:16:29] Thank you.

Cortney Wills [00:16:33] I also sat down with Stephan James, who is smoldering on this show, to find out what attracted him to the role and what it was like to be part of, you know, this kind of unusual circumstance where race really wasn’t a factor for his character and where the actual character was so hard to pinpoint. Let’s get right to it.

Cortney Wills [00:16:54] Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I’ve been dying to speak to you since I saw all of “Surface”d in like one day a couple of months ago. It had me gripped.

Stephan James [00:17:05] That’s amazing. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.

Cortney Wills [00:17:09] I talked to Gugu a lot about this project, and one thing we talked about was why she felt you were the perfect person to portray this really kind of mysterious character. Tell me, what attracted you most to this part?

Stephan James [00:17:26] Actually, Cortney, I’m curious to hear what you had to say. I’ve never heard answer to that question.

Cortney Wills [00:17:31] You’re going to have to listen to this podcast. No, she said a lot of great things about why you were the right person, but one of them was that you’re just not that easy to read in general, you know, like, there’s a lot behind those eyes. There’s a lot behind that movement, but sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint that. And I think that’s part of what made your character so intriguing, because I was I was guessing about who he was. Is he a good guy or a bad guy the entire time. It wasn’t till it was over. And even maybe still now, I’m not entirely sure.

Stephan James [00:18:13] Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, you know, certainly, you know, honored to hear that. But, you know, for me. I think it was it was some of that. And the fact that I saw this character to be a guy that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. And, you know, that was interesting to me. I like, you know, things that aren’t Black and white and kind of live in sort of like a gray area. And so, you know, the fact that I didn’t completely know this guy after reading the pilot was a good sign that, you know, this guy that I was going to be interested in playing. And then, you know, it’s like, you know, he’s an undercover cop, you know? But is he and I, you know, just the way he moves and, you know, sort of I really dug just his his intellect and I dug, you know, his his his love and his, you know, clear, you know, wanting to care for this this woman. And I didn’t know what that was, obviously, in the beginning. But, you know, as I had further conversations with, you know, our wonderful showrunner, Veronica Weston, and kept reading the scripts, it all started to manifest itself into, you know, into something really great. And so what can I say? I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.

Cortney Wills [00:19:26] I, I thought that these characters were so layered and exactly like you said, were so hard to like, put your finger on. And that’s not something I think that we get to see a lot, especially when we’re talking about Black characters. Like usually there’s so much of the, you know, their race playing a part in the story in one way or another. And this was one of those projects where, you know, like, of course, of course it’s a thing, but it was much less of a of a part of the storyline or part of what like you you all could have been anybody. And I felt like that’s something that other actors get to play with all of the time. And it’s rare to see Black actors get to kind of check that particular piece of baggage at the door and go full throttle at being, you know, deceitful or manipulative or mysterious or an action hero or whatever it is. Independent of race playing a factor. And this was one of those projects and I wondered for you if that’s a draw or if that’s if that’s even conscious.

Stephan James [00:20:36] Absolutely. I mean, you know, it’s it’s what a beautiful thing to play colorless characters, right? Yeah. Where, you know, you’re not having to, you know, discuss your race as a part of the, you know, the make up of the story or, you know, it’s not a driving force, which is just like I mean, the freedom you can only imagine, the freedom that that gives us as artists to be a part of a project, you know? We have, you know, Gugu myself, Maryanne Jean-Baptiste, who plays a therapist, you know, to have, you know, a cast that, you know, you got to get them out of Black people in there. And, you know, for for this to not be labeled a Black show, you know what I what a freeing thing that is that that this can just exist agnostically and be enjoyed by you know, people from all walks of life. I think that’s a beautiful thing and it’s certainly a thing that I look to when I’m deciding, you know, that the roles that I want to play.

Cortney Wills [00:21:39] You have played some other characters whose Blackness was absolutely front and center, paramount to the storyline. Of course, you know, “If Beale Street Could Talk” comes to mind. But actually my colleague Gina just reminded me you actually played her grandpa in a film in “Race.” Her grandpa is Jesse Owens.

Stephan James [00:22:02] Oh, yes, absolutely. One of my one of my proudest moments was being able to play Jesse. So, I mean, you I guess, you know, iconic. How do you say no to playing Jesse Owens? Right. Such an iconic, you know, figure, a man that, you know, of course, his Blackness was central in the story, but as it should be, you know, you know, he was a man that influenced so many people from so many different walks of life. And, you know, that’s the thing is, like, you know, there’s so much that exists within, you know, Black excellence. You know, there’s so many different verticals that make up, you know, what is Black excellence. And so when you look at a man that transcended race through sport, I think it’s a very, very powerful thing in a narrative that, you know, I’m happy to be a part of telling, you know, those inspirational stories to inspire people that look like me, but to inspire everyone, you know, in the way that Jesse has.

Cortney Wills [00:22:58] Yes. Stephan, I feel like I’ve been watching your career for a while now, and you’re just one of those people that kind of came on the scene. And to me. It seemed like you were really about the art. And I looked at you in “If Beale Street” and was like, I can’t wait to see what kind of career this artist cultivates and like the decisions that he makes. And I want to know if those decisions have gotten easier as your as your career has progressed. And do you feel like you have gotten to a place where you’ve accumulated enough agency to be really deliberate about the parts that you play?

Stephan James [00:23:42] That’s a great question. That’s a great question. You know, I I’ve always been a super conscious and super mindful of of the things that I do, the roles I take on, you know, what that means for me, what that means for the rest of the world. And, you know, I’ve always been fond of art imitates life. That speaks to our livelihood, our experiences as human beings, you know, on a spiritual level, sometimes on a political level. But, you know, I try to tap into, you know, to humanity. I think, you know, I’m a humanist, you know, at heart, and I’m an artist at heart. And so I just want to tell great stories. I mean, I grew up on great movies, you know, movies that, you know, really inspired me to be in the place I’m in the day. And so when I think about storytelling, I always just think about something that I would have watched when I was a kid. And and, you know, the stories that have inspired me to be in the position that I’m in today. Do my decisions get harder? Do those decisions get harder? Absolutely they do.

Stephan James [00:25:06] You know, as I continue to grow as a man, you know, having to stand on the things that I say yes to having to stand on the things that I say no to, and, you know, wanting to build something that lasts a long time. And so that makes, you know, decisions harder when you’re not just in it for the moment or in it for the money or in it for the hype, when you want to make something that’s going to stand the test of time. And so, you know, certainly those make my decisions harder, but I don’t want to do anything or be a part of anything that doesn’t excite me in the way that, you know, this art form has always excited me. I don’t want to be a part of anything that is a challenge me or how, you know, put a different perspective of myself out into the world, you know, that can help, you know, lead to other opportunities. And so, you know, for me, I think, you know, if if you care, you know, like I care, you know, those decisions are always going to be hard. But I think that’s what I’ve I’ve banked, you know, for for the majority of my career. I’ve always banked on, you know, my decision, decision making. And so, you know, I changed, you know, that course of action. Now, you know, that’s kind of what I’ve been about and what I continue to be about.

Cortney Wills [00:26:31] Yeah. Do you find yourself to be inspired by, you know, like Gugu? This is her first time executive producing as well as starring in a project. And I was you know, I was talking to her about, gosh, I remember “All of the Lights” and like “Bell” and who would have known that your career would evolve to where it is now? And she still has a ton of aspirations and a ton of things that she would like to do, not only in front of, but behind the camera as well. Is that something that you see for yourself?

Stephan James [00:27:02] Absolutely. I mean, I’ve already started to produce. I have a first look deal with a studio, you know, first look television deal. So we’ve already started to produce content. And I think that,  being a part of, you know, the creation of the art is the biggest thing for us. And it always will be is is not just being, you know, a pawn in the wheel, if you will, and, you know, being a part of making decisions and bringing people together, whether it be different actors, directors, other producers, you know, people that, you know, you can kind of, you know, create the art that you want to put into the world. And it’s not just about saying yes to, you know, different jobs or different people offering you different things, but, you know, to actually manifest those things for yourself. And so that’s very important to me. I think, you know, directing is something that I believe is in my future as well. You know, I’ve been blessed to work with some incredible filmmakers and, you know, I’d be lying if I said that they haven’t piqued my interest in one way or another. And so I think that’ll be a part of my very near future as well.

Cortney Wills [00:28:17] I love I cannot wait to see what is next for me is too fun. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today and it was really enjoyable seeing you in “Surface.” And I know we have a lot more to look forward to.

Stephan James [00:28:28] Appreciate you, Cortney. Thank you very much.

Cortney Wills [00:28:30] You’re welcome. Take care. Bye. Thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of Acting Up. Download theGrio app to listen to Acting Up and other great podcasts. See you soon.

[00:28:51] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified.

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