Wunmi Mosaku is ready to talk
The BAFTA-winning actress shares how her latest role in HBO’s new series, Lovecraft Country, taught her the importance of not staying silent
By Louis Wise Monday, 24 August, 2020
Wunmi Mosaku found her voice twice over filming HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country, which blends horror and sci-fi tropes with something arguably a lot scarier: the experience of being Black in 1950s America. First, the 34-year-old British actress had to find a whole new vocal style playing Ruby Dandridge – Ruby sings the blues, and for Mosaku, who had spent her whole childhood singing in choirs and dreamed of becoming an opera singer, this led to an unexpected discovery.
‘I just figured out a new part of my voice that I’d never really experienced before – and I loved it,’ she beams via Zoom from LA, which has been her home since 2018. Before that, Mosaku was mostly UK based, making a name for herself in a string of classy British series including Kiri and Luther, plus Damilola, Our Loved Boy, which earned her a Supporting Actress BAFTA. But now she is newly married to an Angeleno, with Hollywood prospects too, and is sitting in her backyard, with cute aviator specs and a ‘Choose Love’ slogan T-shirt on. She and her husband – who works in the industry, but not as an actor – have been patiently observing lockdown here since March.
‘I mean, I had tried some bluesy stuff in drama school,’ she says with her Manchester lilt, a result of her upbringing – she and her family moved there from Nigeria when she was one. ‘But that power? That kind of belt? Never.’
And filming the show – the premiere last weekend could not be timelier – started a much broader reckoning for Mosaku and the power of her voice, one only emphasised by recent events. ‘I’ve realised that I haven’t truly been honest about my experiences in the industry,’ she says. ‘I’ve just tried to survive, succeed and keep things light. I’ve noticed how exhausted I am by not being myself. It’s not that I’m not joyful – but the energy that I put into making sure that everything’s nice and palatable, and not expressing my true feelings, is quite draining.’
Mosaku’s furious, heartbreaking Ruby is a great calling card for this. If her BAFTA-winning performance as Gloria Taylor – the mother of the murdered 10-year-old Damilola Taylor – was pitch perfect, this is a whole new register.
Lovecraft Country is an adaptation of the cult 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, which has a bracing, original premise: it takes the madcap alien scenarios imagined by the 1950s sci-fi writer HP Lovecraft, who notoriously was an out-and-out White supremacist, and reappropriates them as metaphors for the Black experience in the US. The monsters tormenting our heroes are around every corner; the sorcery is depressingly real. This is something Ruby discovers in typically gruesome style when she achieves her wish to get inside a White woman’s skin for a day – literally.
‘It’s not an easy watch,’ says Mosaku. ‘There’s definitely a thrilling element to it, but it feels wild. And it feels kind of bold and brave, and unseen and unheard of. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
Lovecraft Country is executive-produced by Jordan ‘Get Out’ Peele, and its chief writer is Misha Green, who created the acclaimed Underground. Mosaku says that talking to Green and her co-stars about the modern Black experience was the first time she could have that discussion properly, frankly outside of the home. ‘I guess it’s the beginning of my realisation of my betrayal of myself in this outward persona,’ she says. ‘And yes, the racial tumult and pressures happening globally only reinforce that. They make me want to do more for myself and my community. I’m not helping by staying silent, you know?’
It’s not as though Mosaku didn’t have some awareness of all this growing up, but by her own admission it was muffled or muted. ‘I feel like in Britain I’ve been gaslit my whole life,’ she says. ‘Like racism doesn’t exist. And the reality is, you tried to talk about it and you felt like you got shut down.’
When Mosaku’s parents came to Britain more than 40 years ago, with her and her elder sisters, the opportunities for them were scarce; she was taught to keep her head down and excel. Excel, she did. She was all set to study maths and economics at university, hoping she might sing opera or act on the side, when she finally admitted to herself that she wanted to go to drama school. Her family were supportive but sceptical; she could have the money for the bus ride for one audition only – and she got in. Had she always felt that she had to play by the book?
‘Yeah,’ she replies simply. ‘But who wrote the book? That’s the problem. Who’s the book for? That’s what I’ve realised. It’s actually not written for us. And that’s a really difficult, painful awakening.’
Still, Mosaku does see lots of positive change from her new home across the pond. She flags stars like Stormzy and Dave – ‘there is a unity growing that I hadn’t experienced myself.’ And she is also on a pretty fun-sounding WhatsApp group involving other premium British Black female talent, including Susan Wokoma, Michaela Coel and Jenny Jules, which has migrated to Zoom during lockdown. ‘We talk about everything that’s going on in the world,’ she smiles.
It’s not as though Mosaku always played it straight down the line, either. She thinks back to those choir days, when she dutifully sang soprano in classical fare. ‘The funny thing is, I remember my choir mistress really giving me the eye – because we all had to sound exactly the same, even the vibrato – and sometimes I’d rebel and do the vibrato my way,’ she says with a bemused laugh. ‘She would just glare at me in concert, like, “Pull it together, Wunmi. Stop it”. I guess that was the beginning of me pushing the boundaries of my voice.’
Lovecraft Country is available via HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK. Mosaku’s other upcoming project, His House, will be released on Netflix in October