The only episode of Netflix anthology series Black Mirror ever to offer a happy ending, “San Junipero” has been widely celebrated by both critics and the viewing public since its release last year, as a socially important and otherwise enrapturing piece of art. Starring Gugu-Mbatha Raw and Mackenzie Davis, the episode—nominated for two Emmys, including Outstanding Television Movie—centers on a budding romantic relationship between two young women in a virtual reality dreamscape.
While the episode’s stars have since gone on to major genre blockbusters—including Blade Runner 2049, A Wrinkle in Time and Cloverfield Movie, “San Junipero” remains a fond memory for the actresses, and a one-of-a-kind television experience. Speaking with Deadline, the pair discuss their first experiences with Black Mirror, the immersive experience of shooting on sci-fi sets, as well as entertainment’s increasing ability to engender societal change.
Can you recall your first experience with Black Mirror, and the feelings it evoked in you?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I had not seen Black Mirror before reading the “San Junipero” script, so that was my first experience. I obviously heard about it, but I just wasn’t cool enough to have watched it. Then, I went and watched “Be Right Back,” because our episode is directed by Owen Harris, who also did that one, and I loved it. That one particularly reminded me of Roald Dahl and Tales of the Unexpected, which I loved when I was a little girl—“Lamb to the Slaughter” and those really dark, twisted short stories. That was how I got into it, but I honestly didn’t know really until later how different our episode was, tonally, to the bulk of the other Black Mirrors.
Mackenzie Davis: Mine was such a Revenant experience that I’ve never had with something else. My friend had pirated it off the internet—nobody had cable, and we watched it in my friend’s living room in Brooklyn, lights out, under blankets.
It was the very first episode, and it was like the first time you watched Twin Peaks, where you were like, “What?!” I didn’t know that TV could be like this. It felt like a totally new form. I think we watched the first two episodes that night, which was the pig fucking episode and The pig fucking one was disturbing—upsetting—but it was great. It felt so correct in so many ways.
“The Entire History of You” felt really unnerving and was that Black Mirror hallmark of it being right on the liminal edge of where we are now.
Given that story clues unfold throughout the episode, what was the experience like, reading the script? How much was broadcast to the reader up front?
Mbatha-Raw: The songs were in the script, I guess in the hope that they would get the rights to use them all. I actually read Charlie’s script for the first time on my iPhone on a bus in London, from Oxford Circus to Brixton. I was going to read the first few pages, and I ended up reading the whole thing. It’s very specific—the dialogue leapt out of the page and seemed so vivacious. I know that I’m reading a good script when I start saying the words out loud to my character. I was trying not to do that on the bus. I just got so drawn into it and I remember instantly thinking, Yeah, this is special.
Davis: All of those clues were in there. I don’t think I picked up on most of them.
Mbatha-Raw: Me neither.
Davis: There’s so much research that’s gone into Black Mirror since all of the episodes have come out, where people uncover stuff and I’m like, “So that’s what that is!”
Mbatha-Raw: There’s a double meaning.
Davis: I don’t know until other people tell me.
How was the experience, shooting in South Africa for the episode?
Mbatha-Raw: Cape Town is just so beautiful. It’s a complex place, South Africa in general, but certainly for what we were doing with “San Junipero,” pretty much everything was shot at night, or dusk. All the exteriors were night, so you get to South Africa and suddenly it’s like, Okay, now you’re just going to be awake all night.
Davis: Remember when we’d be up at like 5 a.m. on that rooftop, and the call to prayer would echo out?
Mbatha-Raw: Oh, that was so magical!
Davis: I remember asking about why they were shooting in South Africa, and they were like, “We wanted someplace that was almost too beautiful to be real.” Remember the day that we did the cliff stuff?
Mbatha-Raw: Oh yeah, in Camps Bay.
Davis: Our trailers were set up along this cliff, and it was still daytime…
Mbatha-Raw: In Camps Bay High School. It was like, How do you live your life if you go to school here with this view?
Davis: You opened your trailer door, and it looked like a green screen. You were like, “That’s fake. That’s not a real thing.”
What stood out to you about Charlie Brooker as a series creator?
Mbatha-Raw: He’s so smart, and I think him and [executive producer] Annabel Jones really create the vision for these stories. I think he trusted Owen, and the script was so complete. I think in the shooting process, I saw Charlie once or twice.
It was sort of done, and he was busy with the rest of the series, but I think he has such a unique point of view and that very sarcastic, dark wit that I think is very British. He has a very familiar energy for me with that sort of style.
Davis: He’s very cool, Charlie. You want to hang out with him and laugh. It’s kind of intimidating, where you’re like, “Oh, the cool guy’s around.”
Mbatha-Raw: He’s a genius best mate, someone you could just hang with.
Davis: He’s got it together. We shot our episode first out of this new run of Black Mirror episodes, so I think when ours started, they had a lot to focus on other than us. He really seemed to step back and let Owen take the reigns, and we saw Annabel quite a bit more. She was in South Africa with us, and they’re quite a crack team.
How did you both find a way into characters whose direct experience is so far removed from your own?
Mbatha-Raw: Certainly for me with Kelly, it was important to not play the ending at the beginning, playing somebody who is really aggressively wanting to have fun, and to not to make her superficial, because you know in the writing that there are layers to come. The shiny stuff actually gives you a bigger arc for the rest of her backstory. I got to read a little bit with Denise Burse, who plays Elder Kelly—Owen got us to read each other’s lines to each other, just to get a feel for each other’s energy.
Beyond that, it really was just tapping into what that might be like. It was always fascinating to me: How old is your soul? You can have somebody who is 100 years old, but has that twinkle in their eye, and you can have somebody who’s 14 and so over life. I think it’s about how old your soul is, and tapping into that was really helpful for me.
Davis: Yorkie had an easier route into her—there’s a physicality and a newness to everything that I found kind of an easy way to get into her. Everything was new, and she was touching things and using parts of her body that she hadn’t felt in a long time. Then, that heightened second level of marveling at the expertise with which this world was captured, so that not only did it look like it was raining, and it felt like it was raining. When she put her foot out, the room would touch her skin, and she could feel it. There was such an unreality to it.
Also, there’s pressure to not be who you were in the past, and to take advantage of this opportunity. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a coma for 40 years—I don’t know a lot of aspects of her thing—but I know certain feelings and physicalities and ways into her that made sense to me.
Is the episode’s sense of nostalgia something that resonates with you personally? There’s quite a lot of nostalgia in television today.
Davis: Because our generation’s making content now, so they’re all looking at their childhoods.
Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, I think so. For me, the music was just such a way in because the songs are so iconic. You still hear those songs all the time, and I think it really does take you to a place. I was really young in the ‘80s, but I still feel like it’s fun to have that fascination with all the superficial things like the clothes, the fashions, the hair.
Davis: Once we got into the ‘90s, where you were dressed like Ciara or something, then I felt really at home. I definitely had those glasses when I was 12—those small ovals that do nothing for a face.
Mbatha-Raw: The combat trousers.
Davis: Oh, and I had a little Nokia that I could play Snake on.
Can you talk a bit about the social relevance of “San Junipero” at our present moment in time?
Mbatha-Raw: I think it’s amazing. I’m really proud to be a part of it. I also think it’s a really optimistic episode, and I think we need optimism and hope, now more than ever. Celebrating love in all its forms is great, and I think it’s the world we’re in. I think it’s great that it’s a positive love story. Its not tragic or problematic, it’s joyful.
Davis: I think it is joyful, but there’s all these little undercurrents communicating that there’s darkness under this joy. The reason these women are in this place, the reason they’re even doing this experiment, is because our culture that wouldn’t accept them. I think that now, more than ever, it feels more relevant to be making movies and television, because it’s this populist opportunity to tell stories about people that don’t get their stories told, to have people be forced to empathize with people they wouldn’t empathize with, just because that’s the main character and you’re following their journey, and it manipulates you into seeing their point of view.
I think there’s many ways that our business can operate—it can be wonderful and frivolous, and it can be awful and put really dark things into the world, but it has this capacity to be this engine for social change. I hope that’s the space that we start to occupy, more and more.
The two of you have upcoming credits including Blade Runner 2049, Cloverfield Movie and A Wrinkle in Time. What has it been like to inhabit these kinds of heightened worlds for more prolonged periods?
Davis: I will say that the most immersive sets I’ve been on have been sci-fi, the sets where you’ve walked in and turned around and not been able to see where the set ends. It’s cool—there’s so much imagining that goes on when you’re an actor. It’s not like you couldn’t do your job unless you’re in an enclosed room where everything is real. It just adds this extra level of immersion that’s really satisfying to play with.
To be able to touch a button or engage with a prop, and it exists, and to walk from one room to the other, I think it does a really good, healthy, immersive mind trick for the whole production where you’re like, “We’re in this thing, we’re in this pod.” It creates a bit more gravity to the thing, and I really love that feeling.
Mbatha-Raw: I think it’s a different challenge, doing those bigger movies with potential green screen and wirework and all of that stuff. I think it takes more of your imagination. When you have those scenarios, it really is taking you back to that childhood thing of, “Let’s pretend.” I love it. It’s only when you’re done that you get to feel more like an audience member, even though you were there. “That wasn’t quite like how it was on the day, but I love it!” That’s fascinating. You realize how epic and collaborative these things are.