Finding Dido: Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Amma Asante went in search of an unusual actress -- someone who could embody the dual
worlds Dido must navigate while trying to understand her own heart. The very name Dido comes
from the African queen in Virgil's Aeneid and the film's Dido needed to have both that regal bearing
and the sensitivity to explore what happens when as a young lady, she tries to enter a world fraught
with intolerant and biased attitudes towards her and all that look like her.
"It wasn't easy to find Dido," Asante admits. "We knew that we were going to have to find a
rising star and we knew that this person would have to carry the weight of an entire film on her
shoulders. There is so much complexity to Dido, and she isn't an easy person to paint. She is
privileged, has a family that loves her and has been whisked away from a life of poverty -- so she
could easily come across as a spoiled little madam for whom nothing is good enough, especially when
considering the lives of other people like her at the time. So it was very important that she be
someone you like, whose predicament you understand."
After a long search, Asante and Jones saw exactly what they were seeking in British actress
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who has been seen on Broadway in Hamlet with Jude Law and on the television
series "Touch" with Kiefer Sutherland.
"The power of Gugu, for me, is that she is able to reach inside the character and allow
anyone to understand Dido's unique experience," says the director. "What she wants is equality. It's
not that nothing is good enough for her, it's that she wants to be seen as equal to Elizabeth and the
other ladies of her status and class at the time. Gugu puts that across fantastically. I knew she would
be a good comrade in the process of recreating this 18th
century black heroine."
Asante was especially moved by Gugu's performance when Dido goes to the mirror after
John asks her why she doesn't dine with her family. "You really see a moment of someone struggling
with her own identity. I got goose bumps when we were shooting that," she remembers, "because I
knew we were going to take Dido from that girl to a point at the end of the film where she is in love
and accepting of who she is. And Gugu was so heartfelt in her performance, she brought real courage
and clarity to the role."
Mbatha-Raw says it was precisely the huge and unique arc of Dido's story that so strongly
lured her. "Dido goes on a massive journey, from a protected young girl to a woman who really takes
control of her own destiny," she says.
"Just the idea that there was this girl who was part of our cultural legacy in England -- a
mixed race woman in the 1780s -- hooked me," Mbatha-Raw continues. "Speaking as a mixed-race
woman in 2013, there aren't many historical stories about people like me. When people think of 'dual
heritage,' they think it's a modern concept, but really it's not. So the fact that Dido was a pioneer of
her time is amazing to me and I wanted to do justice to her. Her story needs to be known."
"Amma's vision really had a heartbeat. It was grounded and witty, but it wasn't banging you
over the head with the politics. She crafted it with a deft, subtle touch -- and a real emotional pulse,"
Despite the enveloping period style of Dido Belle's story, Mbatha-Raw came to see her story
as timeless in its themes. "It's about family, falling in love for the first time and finding your identity
in the world. These are very resonant, contemporary issues," she notes.
Mbatha-Raw felt it was easy to see why Dido would have been drawn not only by romantic
chemistry to John Davinier but by his brash willingness to stand up for what's right. "I think she's
ignited not only by her love for him but by the politics she is learning and how that affects her
directly, how it helps her to see where her mother came from," she says.
The courting scenes between the two, especially the stolen moments after they are forbidden
to see each other, were exhilarating for her. "One of my favorite scenes is in The Pleasure Garden,
when John pulls her aside to apologize to her and they end up pressed up against each other in a
hedge," reveals the actress. "There's so much tension in that scene and it's so romantic."
Throughout portraying Dido Belle, Mbatha-Raw was grateful to collaborate so intimately
with Asante. "Amma is just a force of nature. She really is," summarizes the actress. "She knew this
character so deeply and she was so invested in this story. All the relationships in the story were
personal to her. It was also wonderful to work with a female director. It brings a very different kind
of energy to the set -- and obviously, it's still a rarity."
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