In Fast Color, British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a troubled young woman making her way across an American landscape that seems to be literally running down. Severe water shortages have brought the country (and perhaps the world) to its knees, and while there is still a semblance of civilization, one quickly gets the sense that the human race is on a slow roll toward chaos and darkness.
Ruth herself is on the run, as we quickly find out, and she finds herself inexorably drawn to the one place where she might still feel safe: home, where her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint from Orange is the New Black) is raising and protecting Ruth’s own daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). As the three of them finally reunite, we also discover that they are each in possession of supernatural abilities of varying degrees — and that one of them may be more powerful than they suspect.
In other words, Fast Color — the second feature directed by Julia Hart, who also co-wrote the film with her husband and producer, Jordan Horowitz — is secretly a kind of superhero origin story (which is not a spoiler). But told in a desert town on the edge of nowhere, in a world just three minutes ahead of our own, and with the protagonists being three women of color and not white guys in capes, Fast Color is unlike any origin story you’ve seen before.
We spoke about Fast Color’s story, the character of Ruth, and what it all means in the larger context of today’s changing cultural landscape when we sat down recently with Mbatha-Raw, whose filmography includes Beauty and the Beast, Concussion, A Wrinkle in Time and the now classic Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.” She’s also got a lot more coming up, as we discuss later in our interview.
Den of Geek: Let’s start with your reaction to seeing this script and getting the sense of what this movie was all about.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, I first read the script, and I actually read it in about an hour and a half. I ripped through it. I think I was at the time filming a movie that was mostly set on a sound stage with a lot of special effects. There was something about this world that was just so liberating in contrast, because it was set in the desert and it was a very stripped down, raw, and grounded world that was very familiar to us, but almost seemed like a sort of parallel universe where water was at short supply, almost a post-apocalyptic feel.
I was really intrigued by the character of Ruth. When we first meet her, she seems like a woman on the run, in desperate circumstances, has this very adrenalized fight or flight energy about her, which I just thought was really exciting, almost like an animal, primal, feral quality to her.
I loved the fact that the story almost starts where many stories end, which is the lead character goes home. The idea that so often we see that and it’s like the end, happy ever after, they made it home, and that was really the jumping off point for this movie, which is that Ruth goes home, and actually that’s when the real work begins and she has to confront her demons. She has to reconnect with her daughter. She has to wrestle with her past.
All three main characters are strongly written.
I love the fact that it was a story about three generations of women, and three generations of women of color, although that wasn’t specified in the script, but that was how it was cast, which was interesting and provided an interesting resonance and amazing actors like Saniyya Sidney and Lorraine Toussaint to work with.
I also loved the fact that even though Ruth has these powers, I mean she’s not a superhero in the conventional sense. There’s no suits or capes or weapons. She has a moment of survival with a gun, but it’s not like she’s hiding behind this kind of paraphernalia. It’s really about tapping into the power within. I like the supernatural element. I like the beauty of the metaphor of the colors. I just thought it was a really refreshing and empowering story for women.
Julia has described it as a superhero origin story, but it does away with the costumes and the super villains and that kind of thing. Also, how does that change the meaning of these stories by not being about the typical white male figure?
We never really discussed this, being the story is not a story about race, but I think certainly optically this being the world we’re in and this being America and we’re used to, like you say, seeing a certain type of predominantly male white superhero, although things are changing, of course, but that’s what we’re saturated with as a culture. I think there is a real power in confronting that and giving an alternative. I think that it will be interesting because I think the audience brings that and endows that iconography with their own story.
I think Julia was very keen to also take that male iconography of the Western and what we see in movies like, I don’t know, No Country for Old Men, or the men in the desert and that surviving, and putting a woman in that space, what does that do to us? I’m in it, so I don’t know what it does to the audience, per se, but I think it’s about this. Imagery is really powerful because it goes into our subconscious, and without discussing it we are told who is powerful. We are told who’s a victim. We are told who has potential just through imagery. I’m really proud of the film for just giving a new platform to women of color with power.
I would say to your mainstream moviegoer, “If you liked Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel why don’t you check this out?” I think that would be an interesting comparison.
Absolutely. I hope so, because I think there’s many types of power. As I say, you don’t have to be destructive or be in an urban environment, or have these fantastical costumes to be a powerful woman. I hope will speak to women of all generations. The power of motherhood as well. I think Julia was very much inspired by having her first child when she wrote this script. I think Julia didn’t become a director until she became a mother. She’s very happy to talk about that being a source of inspiration.
I think traditionally perhaps our culture has conditioned us to believe that motherhood is a point where everything powers down, and slows down. I think for Julia that just wasn’t the case, and she found it a source of inspiration. That’s not to say that she has it all and finds it all easy, but I think that rather than denying that and having a shame about that, she’s using that to feed into her work, so it becomes this cycle of inspiration.
I like the idea that the power channeled through women can be used to restore and create, because we see it so much in these type of stories that men tend to destroy.
Julia often talks about that, that traditional movies in the genre are about men destroying things so that they can therefore save the day. Here this is about how women’s ultimate power is creativity and that bringing new life into the world is a superpower in itself. We have generations and generations of incredible, surviving, pioneering women inside of us, and it’s really about remembering and unlocking that.
The setting is interesting. Instead of ruined cities and things like that, it’s more of a slow rolling catastrophe. Did that help to have it be a more naturalistic setting in that sense?
For sure. We shot in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. I think Albuquerque has a bit of a bad reputation. It’s been depicted in many TV shows, probably most famously Breaking Bad. Actually, the Albuquerque of Fast Color is really out there in the wilderness, and there’s so much power in the desert. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New Mexico, but the light there, I mean the colors of the sunsets are stunning every day. There’s very little light pollution so you really get to see the stars. You’re really more in touch with the natural rhythms of the sunrise and the sunsets.
I mean for me it was so liberating because I’d been filming A Wrinkle in Time, a big Disney movie in LA, and then another film called Irreplaceable You in New York, a very confined urban setting. As an actor, your surroundings really do affect you. I think compared with filming something on a sound stage the whole time, which can create a more claustrophobic element, there was something very liberating about being out there in the wild.
We’ve got a couple of minutes left and you’ve got a lot of other stuff coming up. Beyond Fast Color, what especially are you excited about?
The Morning Show, I’m working on currently, which is a 10-part drama set in the post-#MeToo era of the media world of morning television. Such a treat to work with such established actors like Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carrell, Reese Witherspoon. Amazing writing. I think the show’s really going to get people talking. I love the fact that it’s an all-female team, and it’s dealing with women wrestling with their empowerment, and the history of that certainly in New York, in a very ambitious place. I’m really, really excited to be working on that.
Then coming up, Motherless Brooklyn comes out later this year where I worked with Edward Norton, that’s sort of a noir-ish detective thriller set in the 50s. I also just finished shooting a British film called Misbehavior, which is about the Miss World competition in 1970. That’s a really fun one. It’s got a more comedic element to it, because there’s the kitsch 1970 era and Miss World. It was also the year that the first woman of color won Miss World, so it’s sort of the intersection of the women’s liberation movement on the one hand, and then somewhat a step forward for representation in beauty on the other, but during the year when it’s not really cool to be celebrated for your looks in that way when feminism is breaking out.
You’re also doing voice work for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance for Netflix.
Yeah, on my days off, I’m in a recording studio, which is a long-term dream of mine, because I grew up watching Fraggle Rock. Was obsessed with Miss Piggy. Jim Henson is such a big part of my childhood. I remember watching this show called Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which was John Hurt narrating these Greek myths which were all Henson. There’s something, again, for me that’s so nostalgic. I think nowadays we have so much CGI. You can watch a whole movie that’s all CGI.
For me, growing up with the Jim Henson land of the puppets, there’s a magic to that and it’s something tangible. That’s a real dream come true to be a part of that. The cast of that is amazing. I was one of the first people to sign up, so I didn’t know it was going to become so star studded. Unfortunately the nature of those recordings, you don’t get to meet anybody, so hopefully we’ll get to all be in a room at some point. I’m there with the director and the sound recordist and the engineer. It’s quite a technical process, but one that I am really grateful for because it’s so iconic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fast Color is out in theaters Friday (April 19).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye