The British actress, 30, is earning raves for her turn in 'Belle' (now in limited release) as a mixed-race woman raised among the 18th-century British aristocracy

By Nicole Sperling
May 09, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Picture Perfect Gugu Mbatha-Raw wanted to play Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, before there was even a script or a director. She was motivated by a single 235-year-old portrait: Belle painted as an equal beside her white childhood companion, Elizabeth. “Her expression was bright, vivacious, and almost mischievous,” she says. “She [seemed to have] a confident personality. That was refreshing, considering people of color were only depicted then in subservient roles.”

Local Heroine Belle was (partly) shot in the actress’ hometown of Oxford, England, where family and friends watched her don a corset and cape and ride in a horse-drawn carriage. “My [secondary-school] art teacher even came by because he saw my face on one of the monitors,” she says. “It was surreal.”

Change Agent In 2010 Mbatha-Raw starred on NBC’s Undercovers, a sexy action series about married spies, exec-produced by J.J. Abrams. It got the ax after just seven episodes, but it launched her Hollywood career. “I was getting all this experience and exposure, and I got to do an American accent every day for six months,” she says. “Then [when it was canceled] it freed me up to explore other things.”

Star Ascending She’ll appear as a human-deer hybrid in the Wachowskis’ sci-fi adventure Jupiter Ascending (out July 18). She also plays a pop star in the upcoming drama Blackbird, from writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball). “It’s about the psychological effects of fame,” the actress says. “My character is trapped in a sexualized — and packaged — pop image that she can’t really escape.”