Gugu Mbatha-Raw knew her role on The Morning Show would be a challenge. As Hannah Shoenfeld, the talent booker who survives a sexual assault, she provided a crucial turning point in the Apple TV+ series that centers on the sexual misconduct that plagued a news organization. It was her story, and ultimately, her tragic fate, that put a spotlight on unchecked abuses of power. Mbatha-Raw tapped into a gamut of emotions to showcase a trauma that so many women are only too familiar with, and hopes that Hannah’s tragic ending can serve as a cautionary tale, showing the value in not staying silent.
DEADLINE: First off, I have to ask, how are you doing? The world is super unsettling right now. How are you holding on?
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: I’m doing well today. There are ups and downs. It’s sort of a day-by-day, week-by-week process. But today I’m doing well. I think it has been an incredible time and I’m inspired. I’m inspired to think that even though we’re going through so many challenges that hopefully positive things are going to come from everything.
DEADLINE: Your character Hannah was an impetus for change, which fits very well with the times we’re in. It seems like something has to happen, like what happened with George Floyd, for people to actually take notice and see what people have been experiencing for years.
MBATHA-RAW: I know. It’s very sad that there was a sacrifice in that way that it becomes a catalyst. Certainly, in terms of The Morning Show, not to say it had to be that way, but I think sometimes when you’re dealing with institutions, and you’re dealing with cultures that are very slow-moving and set in their ways that unfortunately, like you say, sometimes there has to be something so jolting and so shocking and so sad that it awakens people. Both in the culture that we’re in now, but certainly in terms of the show, what happens in Episode 10 of The Morning Show is an awakening. Hopefully, the emotional trigger of that moment will sustain the evolution of the culture.
DEADLINE: You’re very vocal about Black Lives Matter and what’s going on with racial injustices, with police brutality.
MBATHA-RAW: I think it’s a fascinating moment in history we’re in on many, many levels. It’s really a seismic shift and a catalyst and an awakening culturally. I’ve always believed that Black lives matter, that’s not something new to me, but I think what is fascinating is when the culture also simultaneously awakens, and there is a sense of momentum and I think that that’s when real change can actually happen.
Beyond anything that feels like activism on the fringe, this is activism in the front and center of our culture, and it’s an international conversation that is happening now. So that, to me, as much as it’s like giving birth, there’s so much pain that needs to happen, but then for a new system and hopefully a more equal way of living. There has to be a reckoning and there has to be discomfort. I think it’s part of the process.
DEADLINE: Hannah’s journey is just so vital to exposing abuses of power in The Morning Show. What were your initial thoughts when you first read the script?
MBATHA-RAW: I read the first couple of scripts, and because not everything was written, I couldn’t tell from them exactly where Hannah was going to go in the story. I knew it was being cast by Vickie Thomas who is an incredible casting director, and who I’ve met for many things over the years, and I know she always does great, interesting work. Through her, I got on the phone with [executive producers] Kerry Ehrin and Mimi Leder, and they explained the arc of Hannah’s journey which I just thought was so powerful. So, it was really in them explaining where she goes. I was really inspired by the fact that, as well as having this traumatic experience with the Mitch character, she also confronts him. I think it revealed the complexities of how different people bury those kinds of experiences. In terms of relating to her, the writing was so great in terms of the world and the characters being very ambitious and driven. I definitely could identify with Hannahs in the world of entertainment that I’ve met, in terms of that career drive, and so that was interesting, at least on the surface, but I was definitely more drawn to her secrets.
DEADLINE: What else drew you to the show as a whole?
MBATHA-RAW: Obviously, the cast. Knowing that this is Jennifer Aniston’s first return to TV since Friends, I knew it was going to be a big deal. I’d worked with Reese Witherspoon very briefly on A Wrinkle in Time, and really respected the way she has been championing female voices in her storytelling and her production company. Steve Carell obviously is such an amazing actor with such a range. I was intrigued by Apple TV+ because it didn’t exist really at the point that I got the scripts and knowing that it was going to be a new streaming platform, I thought it was a fascinating and interesting experience to be part of something brand new like that.
It was the first time post-#MeToo that I’d read anything that addressed the power dynamics in the media landscape so directly, but also in a nuanced way. I thought the conversations were going to be interesting and provocative, and hopefully potentially healing if we got it right, in terms of showing all the different perspectives and looking at the gray area of these issues. Because I think it can be very easy to simplify them when things become a hashtag, and things become just very much part of the zeitgeist. I think it’s always important to remember the human cost and look at those issues more intimately. So, I was excited by that challenge.
DEADLINE: This show came at a time when a similar scandal rocked a very popular morning show, The Today Show. I know this show was written before all of that came to light but how mindful of that did you have to be when you were approaching this character?
MBATHA-RAW: Obviously, we always knew we were dealing with a fictional drama. Kerry Ehrin, the showrunner and lead writer, had done so much research with the writing team. I think it was a testament to the research and how eerily accurate some of the scenarios were. But it was never based on anybody specific in that way. I think that they wanted it to be relevant but also universal in a way that women could relate to it, and men hopefully can relate to it, or at least see a new light shared on experiences that maybe they’d overlooked.
It’s always exciting to work on something that you feel is topical, because as painful as some of these issues are, I think that they do need to be processed. And I think when you’re watching something that is a drama that is outside of yourself, that is fictionalized somehow on your TV screen or your phone or however you’re consuming it, it’s a safe place. You’re watching it even though some of the scenes are close to the bone and potentially triggering for people who’ve had those experiences. I think to know that it’s a drama, to know it’s outside of you, that it will have some kind of resolution outside of yourself, is helpful for the culture, I hope.
DEADLINE: There was a healing quality to the story. Not just the Hannah story but with all the stories of the other women—of Bradley, of Alex.
MBATHA-RAW: To see so many defined female characters in one show, not just archetypes, they’re nuanced and complex and there are so many of them. Not just Hannah, obviously Reese’s and Jennifer Aniston’s characters, Karen Pittman, Bel Powley, there’s such a spread of different perspectives on that world and I just really appreciated the nuances of the ensemble.
DEADLINE: Your character was very good at what she did. She was a hustler, and she had the added weight of what happened to her, and the circumstances surrounding her promotion. Was that challenging for you to balance all those elements?
MBATHA-RAW: I love a challenge and I definitely felt that there was a lot going on for Hannah. But I think that that’s very real, and that people don’t always wear their heart on their sleeve in terms of their past and their trauma. I think people do want to move on, even if they haven’t processed things, and the idea of being a survivor of a situation like this, at least for Hannah, she didn’t want it to define her. She wanted it to be something that she could forget about and move on from. Obviously, as we see, she hadn’t fully dealt with it. But it’s very human to put out that tougher facade. The defense mechanism, the workaholic energy, all of that, is a way often to numb actually having to just be still and deal with your stuff. That is very familiar for people in the entertainment industry, in news, and somewhere in the morning show world which is a blend of entertainment and news which is very adrenalized, and that live TV element obviously adds an extra [layer] to everything. It’s very easy to be in denial in a world that moves very fast.
DEADLINE: As women, especially in this industry, we always feel like we have to prove ourselves. Being a woman of color, I’ve always been told we have to be two times better than our counterparts, especially our white male counterparts. Was that something that you felt that Hannah was dealing with?
MBATHA-RAW: I think that that was obviously an underlying pressure for her. It wasn’t overtly expressed in the storyline but we did talk about her backstory. I think in the quest for equality, gender equality and racial equality, this is a big conversation we’re having culturally now. But in the quest for that, certainly when we were making The Morning Show, and in terms of Hannah’s perspective on that, I think that she probably had internalized the culture that she was in to such a degree that she was just trying to progress and trying to do the best she could. I don’t know if it was always conscious. It was very much internalized for her.
DEADLINE: We’re in this moment where we’ve heard a lot of survivors come out with their accounts of abuse. While we’ve also seen people like Harvey Weinstein or R. Kelly having to answer for these wrongdoings, the sad truth is that we’re living in a world where people still question or place judgment on the survivors. Were you concerned at all about how viewers would receive Hannah’s story?
MBATHA-RAW: I think everybody was concerned to do their best to honor that in a nuanced way, certainly in terms of going through those beats of showing Hannah’s perspective. There has been some judgment in the media about why it takes a long time for people to come forward in these situations, or why they were in the hotel in the first place, and all of those kinds of things. Seeing that episode, really seeing somebody like Hannah, who was in a very vulnerable scenario after the Vegas shooting, a very traumatic experience in itself, and just really understanding how somebody like Mitch was a mentor figure for her and I think his perspective was so different to hers. She was looking up to him, idolizing him as the star of the show, and that he’s actually giving her a little bit of extra attention in terms of as a mentor and being kind to her. I don’t think she ever imagined that it would transition to anything more than that…There’s so much going through Hannah’s mind in terms of what will the implications will be. She doesn’t know how to deal with that situation so she just goes through with it. I think that to actually see those beats, and working with Michelle MacLaren who directed the episode, making it much more about the thought process for Hannah as well as the physical element was very important. So, I trusted the female leadership behind the camera. They really wanted to show a different side and in detail, a nuanced side of that experience.
DEADLINE: What kind of responses have you received to your performance and to Hannah’s story?
MBATHA-RAW: It’s been really interesting for me. There’s been a whole gamut of emotions. Many women have found it quite moving. People have reached out to me on social media, and some people have felt like it’s the first time they felt seen.
DEADLINE: Did you interpret Hannah’s overdose as accidental, even though it was never really talked about or mentioned on the show?
MBATHA-RAW: It’s incredibly sad and it could have gone many ways for Hannah. Knowing that she had this promotion, and a chance of a new start in Los Angeles with a different outlook there, which in a sense you could say it’s a fresh start, or it could be that she’s also thought of a problem being removed out of sight, out of mind, and somewhat blackmailed to get out of that situation.
We talked a lot about that moment where Hannah accepts the promotion, or leaves a voicemail at least, and then realizes that that didn’t solve it. That didn’t solve this abyss, this pain inside of her, and that it’s really that. She feels like she needs to numb that. Obviously, suicide is such a sensitive and complex issue, and I think in terms of, “Did she intend to do it? Did she not?” we talked a lot about it, and I always felt like she didn’t intend to die but that she did intend to numb.
But I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful… there are so many stages of this process and we’ve gone through them very quickly in the last few weeks and I think that is going to be really interesting to see in the long term. I hope that the movement has stamina and I hope that the culture has the stamina for really implementing the shifts that need to happen, not just a hashtag, beyond the hashtag. As powerful as that is in our culture for a moment, I think it’s also about letting in things that are going to have longevity.
DEADLINE: What did playing Hannah teach you?
MBATHA-RAW: I learned a lot on many levels. I think I learned about the world of morning shows on a superficial level. But also, the power of actually staying silent doesn’t help anyone. I think as we see with Hannah, her silence, or her inability to process, actually only becomes self-destructive to herself, and that has been a lesson for me. I think actually you’re not protecting anyone by staying silent about those kinds of injustices. It’s only eating you inside. So that’s been a valuable lesson in terms of addressing things, processing them.
DEADLINE: What are you looking forward to at the moment?
MBATHA-RAW: I guess I’m looking forward to just seeing how we as a culture evolve. The word ‘normal’, whatever that means, I don’t think that normal was functional overall, the normal that we had for many people. I think that before things settle there has to be a new configuration. I’m looking forward to the new normal and progress.