Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): Black Mirror star Gugu Mbatha-Raw looks back on 'San Junipero'
Black Mirror, the anthology series from Charlie Brooker exploring the growth of technology and its impact on humanity, launched a highly anticipated third season on Netflix in 2016, with six new episodes taking viewers through the trials of present-day trolling, the pressure of personal five-star ratings in the near future, and the unexpected beauty of achieving heaven on Earth through ones and zeroes. That episode, “San Junipero,” became an instant hit with critics and audiences as an hour of Black Mirror that didn’t veer far into the darkness. EW asked one of its stars, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to look back on her experience.
Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw had no idea what she was getting into when she pulled up the script for Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero” on her cell phone for the first time. Though she’d heard of the series, she’d never watched any of the episodes — “I told Charlie Brooker that a bit sheepishly,” she recalls — and yet, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the tale of two women in an idyllic paradise that turns out to literally be heaven on Earth.
“When I read the script for the first time, I started reading it on my phone, and it was so good and I was enjoying it so much, I read the whole script,” Mbatha-Raw remembers. “I didn’t even pause. I was just going to read a couple of pages and see what it was all about and then I ended up reading the whole thing on my phone, which was really Black Mirror-esque, I guess.”
Like Mbatha-Raw, Black Mirror viewers also had no idea what they were getting into with “San Junipero,” even if they’d seen other episodes. The season 3 standout just wasn’t a “typical” Black Mirror episode: The installment appeared tame in comparison to others, light in shocking moments that illustrated the horrors of being plugged in. Instead, “San Junipero” traced a romance between Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly and her paramour Yorkie (Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis) that was aided, not hindered, by technology. That technology — virtual reality as a form of nostalgia therapy — brought the actually elderly Kelly and Yorkie together as they could use their younger avatars to wander the town of San Junipero in any time period they liked. The only conflict? Whether they’d want to have their consciousnesses uploaded permanently into the town when they die and therefore choose a digital afterlife.
That strangely touching twist drew Mbatha-Raw to the project because it reminded her of Roald Dahl’s quirky Tales of the Unexpected short stories, a personal favorite, and caught her by surprise. “When I read it, I was genuinely moved,” she tells EW. “It’s so hard to come up with original stories these days because audiences are so sophisticated. In this day and age of the internet, with spoilers, I think it’s so hard to achieve an actual authentic reaction to something.”
Moreover, she fell in love with the world of the story: “I think it was one of the most refreshing episodes of television I’d ever read, and it didn’t even feel like television!” She laughs. “Not to say anything bad about television, but the idea was so big, the concept was so big, it felt like it could have been a movie, you know? I loved the scope of it.”
After familiarizing herself with Black Mirror by watching director Owen Harris’ previous Black Mirror episode, “Be Right Back,” Mbatha-Raw headed to London, England and Cape Town, South Africa to film. She recalls the shoot as, simply, “a joy to work on.” “The dialogue, Charlie Brooker’s writing, it just pinged off the page,” she explains. “The music, the costumes… Everything about it made it such a unique and uplifting story.”
And one that helped Mbatha-Raw feel like she was time-traveling herself. “You put on the costumes and you fill that club [set] with people dancing to a type of music… That music really does take you to a place,” she says. “It channels to somewhere in your emotions and in your brain and can take you to a period of time.” It even channeled to Mbatha-Raw’s trailer while the cameras weren’t rolling. “It was nice to put on my ’80s playlist,” she says with a laugh. “I got into the Kelly zone.”