Spoilers for Lovecraft Country episode 5, "Strange Case."
It’s long been said that choices define who you are as a person—whether you’re the arbiter of those decisions or they have been, rightly or wrongly, thrust upon you by a third party. But as I sit at my laptop listening to Wunmi Mosaku, who's wearing a “CHOOSE LOVE” T-shirt in support of the charity Help Refugees U.K., that sentiment has never felt truer. The British-Nigerian star has made some seriously smart professional choices which have seen her earn a BAFTA, appear opposite Idris Elba in Luther, and land roles in the critically-acclaimed Netflix series The End of the F**king World and the new HBO/Sky Atlantic series Lovecraft Country.
And after witnessing the resurgent power of the Black Lives Matter movement, she’s choosing to speak up about racial discrimination. “I've realized that my silence is not helpful to myself,” the 34-year-old says calmly. “It's not helpful for our education, it's not helpful for our communities, and it's not helpful to keep pretending or just keep things nice.”
Being overly “nice” was a choice Mosaku felt she had to make and maintain as a schoolgirl growing up in Manchester, England. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants who was “hitting five-foot-two by the age of nine,” Mosaku was acutely aware of how Black girls like her were perceived in a white-dominant community. “I was always treated older than I am when I was a kid, so I had to be like, ‘No, I'm sweet,’ and this has continued into adulthood because of the way society portrays Black women,” she explains. “When I step out of my front door, I have to paint on a bright, big smile to make sure people treat me kindly rather than with suspicion, or assume that I'm going to be aggressive.”
The onus on the Black community, Black women especially, to play nice has been an unreasonable expectation for too long, both in the U.S. and the U.K. But only in recent years—especially in recent months following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—has society begun to seriously reckon with that discrimination. It’s why Mosaku feels the release of Lovecraft Country couldn’t be more timely despite its period setting. “The show's really about all of this: systemic racism,” she says. “Until Lovecraft Country feels like a show where people go, ‘Is that how the world used to be?’ we do need to talk about it and make art about it, because sadly, it's not history yet.”
Lovecraft Country is a horror series based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name. Set in Jim Crow America in the 1950s, it follows the terrifying misadventures of Atticus "Tic" Freeman (Jonathan Majors), his friend Letitia "Leti" Lewis (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) after they embark on a road trip to find Tic's missing father Montrose (Michael K. Williams). Mosaku plays Ruby Baptiste, a blues singer who has a strained relationship with her light-skinned half-sister Leti and is trying to make something of herself despite the racism, colorism, and sexism stacked against her. Their sisterly dynamic pops every time they’re onscreen together, something showrunner Misha Green and episode 1 director Yann Demange noticed during a joint screen test.
“We started off polite, you know, trying to make everyone like you in the room,” Mosaku recalls. “But Yann pushed and pushed and pushed and it got to this fiery, real sisterly fight in the audition. It was electrifying.”
Mosaku had only read the pilot script when she received the happy call of her casting, and though Green talked her through some of the plot points for Ruby’s narrative arc in later episodes, accepting the role was still “a leap of faith”—albeit one worth taking. “In the U.K., you can generally get all four [or] six episodes to read before, but we only got the scripts on Lovecraft after we signed,” she explains. “It was scary, but I had faith in Misha and the show because the pilot was so exceptional.”
Then began the process of finding the truth in her performance, in order to deliver the very resonant feelings of frustration and anger that come with being a Black woman in America. But as Mosaku had conditioned herself to put on a bright smile and not let her passionate feelings show, a deeper introspection was necessary to bring them back to the surface. “The conversations we had to have about Ruby, about the rage and the disappointments, it brought up a lot of stuff for me,” the actor says. “I had to dig deep and explore a lot of things that I really stuffed down.”
One of the most difficult moments for Ruby occurs midway through the season. In the fifth episode, “Strange Case,” she gets to experience life as a white woman when the mysterious William (Jordan Patrick Smith) drugs her with a potion that transforms her into one. At first, Ruby is horrified by the experience, especially when the magic wears off: the white woman’s flesh and blood rips and sheds to reveal Ruby's body underneath. However, Ruby makes chooses to inhabit that body further in order to benefit from her shell’s white privilege, a decision Mosaku felt somewhat “betrayed” by. “I struggled with that decision she makes,” she explains. “I understand why, but I really feel betrayed by it. It's not a thought I would entertain myself.”
She continues, “Ruby says, ‘the problem is being interrupted’ because being a woman is not a problem. It's being in a patriarchal society that's the problem. Being Black isn't a problem—it's being in a white supremacist world. I love myself, I love my skin, and I love my history. I'm grateful for who I am, grateful for the people who made me, my ancestors, and I wouldn't change a thing.”
Of course, Ruby’s history is somewhat different from Mosaku's own. But she's married to an African-American man whose father, she says, is a scholar in African and African-American history and was able to educate her on everything from “W.E.B DeBois and Frederick Douglass to the Pan-African movement.” It’s why she accepts the debate regarding Black British actors being cast in Black American roles. “I feel very comfortable about the conversation because I understand that our struggles, as similar as they are, are so different,” she explains, “I also can't deny that I have a privilege by being British here.”
Mosaku remembers a time she was driving with her husband and they were pulled over by the police. He told her to make sure they heard her British accent. “You can feel the difference and the shift because, for some reason, Americans are enamored with our accent and think we're super intelligent and refined,” she says. “There is a difference in the way I'm treated, but from a distance, I'm treated the same as my African-American sisters, so I do fear the police, I do fear for my life, I do fear the Karens, and I don’t think we can deny the kinship between us.”
This kinship also has to do with the shared hangover of colonialism. Lovecraft Country might be a show about American racism, but its white supremacy is a product borne out of Western colonization, which Mosaku knows too well. “Colonization is a murdering of culture—that is my history,” she says. “British colonization and the measure towards whiteness in terms of culture, language, skin tone. There are so many similarities, we just have different histories.”
This empathy is no doubt part of what makes Mosaku an impressive performer, but it’s also why she so often chooses roles that highlight social injustice and explore trauma. In the BBC drama Damilola, Our Loved Boy, for which she earned her BAFTA TV award, she played the mother of murdered school kid Damilola Taylor. In Kiri, she played the police officer leading the missing person investigation of a nine-year-old Black girl. Soon, she’ll be seen in Netflix’s His House as one half of a Sudanese refugee couple grieving the loss of their daughter, but are soon faced with new horrors in the home they are offered as asylum. She was moved to tears by writer-director Remi Weeke’s script and hopes it will also move audiences to question immigration policies in the U.K. “It always baffles me that people have to risk their lives to get to a safe place in which they are then allowed to stay in,” she says, looking down at the words on her T-shirt.
“Why can't we just bring them in safely?” Mosaku asks. “The horrors that they experience crossing the Channel and the horrors they face when they get to a place of safety are real. The scars will be prominent in their lives and then in future generations. What are we doing as a society? People need safe space, food, shelter, and hope—they don't need fear.”
As our conversation comes to its conclusion, there is time for one last question: What career choices is she hoping to make next? She smiles. The answer is written on her chest. “I've always had a lot of drama, a lot of grief, and a lot of pain,” Mosaku says. “Now I wouldn't mind exploring the ups and downs and the ins and outs of Black joy and love.”
Lovecraft Country airs Sundays on HBO in the U.S. and on Mondays on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the U.K.
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