This interview contains spoilers for Sunday’s episode of “Lovecraft Country.”
For the gore-adverse Wunmi Mosaku, “Lovecraft Country” might seem a curious choice. But she’d already read most of the pilot script when the monstrous Shoggoths started ripping off appendages, and by then, she was hooked.
“I got so lost in the story, I felt like I was committed to this character before I realized it was a horror,” Mosaku said of the HBO supernatural thriller set in 1950s Jim Crow America. “But what I think is so clever about the script and the book, and also so magical and mystical and wild, is that the scariest thing is the reality of the horror.”
Mosaku plays Ruby Baptiste, the blues-belting half sister of the gutsy Leti (Jurnee Smollett), whose dreams of working behind a counter at Marshall Field’s remain unfulfilled. Until, that is, in Sunday’s episode, the fifth of the season. With the help of a potion, Ruby wakes up in the body of a white woman, played by Jamie Neumann. Calling herself Hillary Davenport, Ruby spends the day alternately enjoying and being bewildered by her newfound cultural currency before metamorphosing — graphically, painfully — back into Blackness.
“Seeing ribs and elbows popping out of someone else’s skin is gross, but I was actually more enamored by their artistry,” Mosaku said. “Like, how did they do that?”
The Nigerian-born actor, 34, speaks with a sunny British accent flecked with laughter; she emigrated to Manchester with her professor parents when she was a year old. As a child obsessed with “Annie,” she discovered that Albert Finney, a fellow Mancunian, had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, so she applied too and was accepted.
A BAFTA-winning stalwart on British TV (“Luther,” “Vera”), Mosaku is better known in the United States from films like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Philomena.” Audiences can also see her in the upcoming movie “His House,” in which she and Sope Dirisu play Sudanese war refugees who discover something terrible lurking in their new home in Britain. (It premieres Oct. 30 on Netflix.)
Now based in Los Angeles, Mosaku has spent the past few months trying to keep birds away from her quarantine garden of cucumbers and eggplants. In a recent phone interview, she discussed “Lovecraft Country,” its “disheartening” cultural relevance and why revenge is a dish best served without stiletto heels. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In Sunday’s episode, Ruby says that most days she’s happy to be both Black and a woman, “but the world keeps interrupting, and I am sick of being interrupted.” Who is Ruby, uninterrupted?
I would describe her as very ambitious. She’s very aware of the game she needs to play. But she still has the idea that if you work hard enough — and you just need one break — then systemic racism will stop applying to her. We all know that she’s talented enough, intelligent enough. She has this deep hope, but actually it’s masking this even deeper and more fiery rage over the injustice that she’s experienced.
The story is set some 60 years ago, but is there anything in Ruby’s situation that you related to?
Oh, yeah. I look like Ruby in a world that still experiences racism, injustice, inequality, the patriarchy and colorism. I’ve experienced that and my family’s experienced that, absolutely. The thing I find the hardest about the show is that it does still feel so relevant. I am Ruby in many ways. The car chase at 25 miles per hour and the police officer in pursuit was the most intense thing, because it’s based in reality and resonates with me. It resonates with a lot of people of color. So that’s the thing that I find incredibly powerful about the piece, but also really disheartening as well: It feels like not enough has changed, and sometimes it feels like, have we moved on?
Has your perspective changed between shooting the series a year ago and now, after a summer of protests and renewed national focus on racial injustice?
The difference is there’s a pandemic, and there’s no distraction for a lot of people. So it’s resonated more as a movement. People are paying more attention and feeling it more deeply rather than seeing it as a problem over there, or a problem for a racist to fix, or a Black person problem. We’ve realized that it’s everyone’s duty, everyone who desires and requires justice and apology. It’s a community thing. If you want the world to be better, then the world collectively has to do it.
How was it shooting those gruesome scenes where Ruby claws her way out of Hillary’s body?
The worst thing was the shape-shifting. Jamie gets off a little light — she has to do all the physical stuff, and she’s amazing. But the actual coming out of a cocoon? That gore, blood, gunk stuff? That’s all on me. When I saw my eye pop out of her throat, I was like, “Ohhh.”
In an even gorier scene, Ruby slips back into her white disguise in order to violate her racist boss with a stiletto heel, payback for his abuse of a Black co-worker. How do you prepare to perform something like that?
I had no idea until I read [the script for Episode 5], and it was a real shock, because I didn’t see it going there. That kind of violence is not OK in any aspect of revenge. Revenge is something that I have never really explored and personally, my mom’s always like, “Kill them with kindness.” Which generally just means to smile and let it go, and shame them for their actions.
We both, me and Jamie, really struggled with that scene. It was a very emotional day, to be honest, because there was the exploration of the depth of your rage and revenge. The pain just feels so real and so deep that it brings up a lot in your own life, of your own rage and your own pain.
Ruby uses the magic potion several times. What do you make of the fact that she chose to keep turning into a white woman?
It ends up a superpower she now has access to — now she has unmitigated freedom. There’s magic where there’s not really consequences. But I really disagree with what Ruby does. Sometimes I’m like, wow, it’s hard, because it feels like a betrayal, and it feels so wrong. It feels so anti-loving oneself, which is obviously the kind of movement we’re in as a society: love oneself. It is really difficult for me, personally, to understand. Not understand — I understand it. I just don’t empathize with it.
Black female showrunners like Misha Green, the creator of “Lovecraft Country,” are still relatively rare. Did her being there make it easier to explore these kinds of issues?
Oh, absolutely. Talking about racism with white people can make white people very uncomfortable, Black people very uncomfortable. You have to have a level of trust and a safe space to try to talk about how you relate to the character, how you differentiate from the character, the things you’ve learned. I’ve been very much the kind of person who’s very quiet about my own experiences. I don’t like arguing and I don’t like confrontation, and I find it difficult to engage honestly about things like this outside of my home. Because it’s exposing, it’s painful, it’s exhausting having to explain to someone who doesn’t know what that’s like and who lives the complete opposite to your experience. So there’s a realness that you can bring to the table because she looks like you. The world sees her in the same way that it sees you.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m Black British-Nigerian in America, and without my accent, yes, we’re treated the same. When I speak, people treat me a lot differently. I’m aware of that privilege as well. But sometimes there isn’t always an opportunity to speak before someone judges you or treats you unfairly. So it was necessary for me to be honest and open up. I don’t think I would have been able to easily perform without someone who shared a similar experience to me as a Black woman.