Forget the image of old white dudes scribbling equations and quantum theory on a chalkboard; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the woman making the biggest scientific discoveries in the movies this year.

You last saw her in Netflix’s The Cloverfield Paradox as Ava, a U.S. astronaut who makes a mind-boggling discovery about alternate universes. In Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, Mbatha-Raw plays Dr. Kate Murry, a brainy scientist and mother who cracks the mystery for inter-dimensional time-travel alongside her husband, Chris Pine’s Dr. Alex Murry. But after Pine’s scientist disappears, Kate and Alex’s kids, Meg (Storm Reid) and the precocious Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), go on a journey to rescue their father with the help of three supernatural beings, Mrs. Which (Oprah), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling).

I talked with Mbatha-Raw about playing a scientist and a mother. She told me about reuniting with DuVernay, whom she worked with on a short film for the Smithsonian's African-American History Museum in 2016, and the importance of A Wrinkle In Time’s positive and empowering narrative. I also asked her about The Cloverfield Paradox, which she didn’t know was a Cloverfield project until I told her it was in a previous interview, and how it evolved into a Clover-verse movie.

Were you a fan of the book before you signed up for the project?

Actually no, I hadn’t read the book. I think growing up in the UK I somehow missed it or something was going on but I was first introduced to it when I first read Jennifer Lee’s script and then, of course, went back to read the book as an adult.

What was your first impression when you read the script?

Well firstly, I met with Ava and we had worked together on a short film for the Smithsonian Museum’s African American Museum of History and Culture, and when we went to the opening of that she told me about the script. She told me she would love for me to consider playing the mother and I was like “A mother! I don’t know, I’ve never played a mom before.” I thought you know “Am I able to pull this off?” but then I saw a picture of Storm Reid and I truly sort of saw myself in her and I was really intrigued. You know I had been such a fan of Ava’s work for a long time from Selma and 13th and I think you know her intentions with those projects and what she’s doing culturally behind them was really intriguing to me.

And the script is such a beautiful story written by Jennifer Lee who did Frozen, or adapted by Jennifer Lee I should say, and it’s really a beautiful family story with some wonderful spiritual messages about the light triumphing or darkness and family and love and the chance to play a scientist was also appealing to me. My character is Dr. Kate Murry as opposed to just Mrs. Murry as she is in the books and I think Ava took the 21st-century decision to have her be a doctor and not just defined by her marriage, which I thought was interesting. Plus, the chance to work with Chris Pine and create this family dynamic of two sort of intellectual equals trying to sort of get to grips with the universe. There were a lot of kind of heady and interesting themes there.

Atsushi Nishijima

The fact that you’re a mother and also a scientist, I love about your character. Even though Chris Pine is the one who travels through the universe we learn that your character is the one responsible for finding out that theory and solving it.

Absolutely. There’s a line in the script that I say it’s “He was all about the big” in terms of exploring the universe and my character more about the small. In a lot of my scenes in actuality were actually quite domestic scenes in the family household. That different dynamic between the soul and the ego and that balance between when you have somebody that’s passionate about their work. Being in a relationship with somebody who’s passionate about their work and also the reality of what life is really all about which is family and human connection.

You bring it back down to earth while he’s up in the bigger ideas.

Absolutely. I definitely see my character as very much the grounding force of the family. She’s really holding the family together in the four years that he’s away. I didn’t get to go to all the wonderful and fantastical places in New Zealand where everyone got to shoot but I think certainly Dr. Kate bookends the piece, keeping the family together and keeping that world grounded.

This project is especially exciting because it’s made Ava the first black female director to helm a movie with this large of a budget, which is great. What was it like to be a part of a project that’s groundbreaking in that way?

It’s incredible and I think this is such an incredibly diverse cast that Ava has brought together. You know, from legends like Oprah to Mindy Kaling to Reese Witherspoon to Zach Galifianakis. Everybody brings something completely unique to the table and it’s really an incredible cast and I think it’s exciting that this big studio, Disney, is celebrating and taking it on. It’s historic but hopefully, this will become the norm. This is reflecting the world we live in so I think it’s a very exciting step in the right direction.

Previously you worked with Ava on a short. What was it like to be with her on a set of this scale?

We literally talk about the small and the big, in terms of a short that we shot in one day for a museum and then coming onto a huge Disney movie. I was just so impressed with how she handled herself on the set and her vision. The details, I think, on a big movie it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the thing. Ava was constantly grounding the story and the relationships. She’s so dynamic and passionate that it was impossible not to follow her lead.

Atsushi Nishijima

It seems to me like you’re in so many movies right now, from sci-fi to Disney to something Ed Norton. What is it you look for when you’re signing on for a project? Is there anything in particular that draws you in?

I like a challenge. I don’t like to repeat myself, so for me it’s been interesting doing different genres from rom-com with something like Irreplaceable You to sci-fi with Cloverfield Paradox. Or fantasy with Wrinkle.

For me it’s who I’m going to be working with. I was so excited to work with Ava and this amazing cast. Also the message behind the piece. What are we putting out into the world? I think in this day and age with all the issues we have; there is a lot of darkness in the world. I think something like A Wrinkle in Time is a good reminder for everyone about love and light and family and the right values.. Again, it’s about the experience for me. It’s exciting to be working on Motherless Brooklyn - again, a completely different genre, which is a detective thriller. I like to keep myself interested and stretch myself where I can.

Speaking of the Cloverfield project, I spoke to you for Miss Sloane a couple of years ago and I had asked you about God Particle which it was titled at the time and if it was connected to Cloverfield and you said that you didn't even know that they were connected. I’m curious - what was the process behind that and when did it become a Cloverfield movie?

I think it’s more a question for the creatives of Cloverfield. For me, we as the actors became aware of that sort of more in the post-production process. So yes, when I spoke to you absolutely it was not double bluffing, [laughs]. As far as I was aware at that point it was God Particle. I think for various reasons it made more sense to the creatives to make it into a Cloverfield film at the time.

A Wrinkle in Time hits theaters March 9.

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