Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Filming Belle: Nightdresses Were the Sweats of the 18th Century

"To take the corset off at lunch or to not take the corset off at lunch?"

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A film helmed by a female director is rare in Hollywood, but one that also stars a strong female lead? Enter Belle, the beautiful period drama directed by Amma Asante and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Set in 18th century England we find Dido Elizabeth Belle—a mixed raced young woman raised in an aristocratic household. Reminiscent of the best of Jane Austen and rife with political and social controversies, we witness Dido emerge against all odds as a fierce, powerful woman who possesses just as much resilience as she does grace. We sat down with the sensational Gugu Mbatha-Raw to chat about the film, her tricks to surviving the corset, and how she brought the true story of Dido to life.

Marie Claire: So take me back to when you got the call that you had the part. What did you feel, think in that moment?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Gosh, sort of relieved. Because I felt like I had been auditioning for it for years. I had been carrying the postcard around in my diary and had a copy of it by my bed in my apartment in London. I had sort of been trying to manifest this idea of me playing this role for a long time so when it actually happened I thought, "Finally, I can stop imagining and start doing."

MC: How did you prepare for the role?

GMR: I was actually in LA up until a period before we started shooting and I thought, "Oh God. I'm in LA. This is so the antithesis of this world I'm about to go into. What can I do while I'm here to help get my head into the project?" To get into the physicality and the posture and the music of Handel, I started to take piano lessons. And when we got back to London I had my first costume fitting straight off the plane, which was pretty horrendous. You can imagine you're feeling sort of bloated and disgusting from being on a plane and then someone's lacing you into a corset. So that got me into the mindset of the posture pretty quickly.

MC: Yes, the mighty corset. Tell us the truth—how brutal was it wearing that thing all day?

GMR: I have to say, myself and Sarah [Gadon, who plays Dido's cousin, Elizabeth] totally bonded over our mutual fatigue of the corsets. I really had to sort of change how I ate. You have to eat little and often. You can't have a giant lunch, for example. And then the question is, "To take the corset off at lunch or to not take the corset off at lunch?" Because if you take it off and fill your belly and then squeeze it back in—that's going to be really uncomfortable.

MC: I didn't even think of that! So what did you do?

GMR: We ended up having a compromise of just having the corset loosened because then it wasn't too much of a shock to the system. I could relax and eat. But I ended up having six small meals in a day, which apparently is better for your metabolism anyway. You have a few bites of something or a smoothie and then you're done.

MC: That must've made the scenes in your nightdresses, sans corset, pretty fabulous.

GMR: Ah, our nightdresses—those were like the 18th century sweats. And they made those scenes more intimate and girlish, because we felt so free running around in barefeet and a nightgown.

MC: And I'm glad you said girlish because among other things this film really is a coming of age story. I think every girl, even today, struggles with the questions of "Who am I?"

GMR: Exactly. Who am I? And am I who I think I am? Who I want to be? Or who society labels me? And for Dido growing-up in this very protected, cloistered environment of Kenwood House, she's aware that her role in the household is privileged but not equal. She's not allowed to dine with the family at dinner. And that causes her a humiliation on a daily basis.

MC: Which is what makes her journey so awesome. She became this amazingly fierce and determined woman. Did you ever think about other powerful women as inspiration?

GMR: Always. Amma has been such an inspiration to me as the director and her determination to tell this story. And tell it in such a detailed and nuanced way. She is a kickass director. She's glamorous and she's got this beautiful sense for the sweeping romance of the period but also really knows what she wants and has a really determined vision. And that to me was really inspiring for Dido.

BELLE opens in theaters this Friday, May 2nd

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