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Exclusive: Amma Asante and Gugu Mbatha-Raw talk new film 'Belle'

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Fox Searchlight's "Belle" hits theaters on May 2, 2014. But we had the opportunity to attend an early screening of the film and chat with the film's director Amma Asante and star Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The film tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and is truly a must-see. Today on April 6, we are sharing highlights from our exclusive chat:

Q: And so tell me how did the project first come to you?

Amma: Well, my incredible producer sent me a postcard print of the painting. I had not seen the painting before that I knew of and it was just this incredible image that completely had me riveted, that I kept -coming back to every couple of days looking at it wondering who is she? Why is she there? Who commissioned this painting? What is her story? Who is the girl next to her? Why is she resting her hand so lovingly on Dido and I just wanted to know more, so it was the beginning of a lot of digging and a lot of research, from there onwards basically. That’s essentially how it came to me, my producer had been told by the British Film Institute that I was obsessed with 18th century and the female story and asked him to send me the postcard to ask what I would think? What would I do? If I could make a movie on her, so that’s where it started.

Q: What was the casting process like for “Belle”?

Amma: It was very thorough, it was very long. Gugu was a front runner from day one. But it was very very important that for the financiers that they knew I had kind of looked at absolutely everybody because this was an actress who was going to have to carry the entire movie, on her shoulders. I mean she was going to be surrounded by this great cast of amazing actors, but essentially it’s her responsibility, it’s all on her. So it was exhausting, but eventually it became very clear. I mean one thing that Gugu has is an innate grace, which is just beautiful. I needed somebody who could be both familiar to the audience and unfamiliar. Who both fitted in and didn’t fit in. Who was recognizable and unrecognizable so you would say “Oh I recognize her, I know her” and then you would say “but I‘ve never seen her quite like this” and I needed someone who could do that. And Gugu could both do that and she really understood the heartbeat of the kind of story that I wanted to tell, that was really important so it was hers.

Q: Can you tell about kind of the locations? There some beautiful scenery and very beautiful interiors as well.

Amma: All I did was keep in mind that I wanted to create iconic images. I wanted to create images that are very Georgian English world, and place a woman of color at the center of them. So I knew from the get go that I wanted to make this as lush and as beautiful as possible. So they’re all English heritage national trust homes. They’re all beloved iconic homes in England. We shot mostly in the UK but we also shot in the Isle of Man, which has wonderful exteriors, wonderful gardens; you know it’s a really green lush part of our world and so it is a mixture of both. And then we shot a lot of the court scenes in Oxford, which is again, you know an iconic city. It has an old feel to it and it is absolutely accurate to the period, so we didn’t have to, you know there are a couple of rooms that we built as sets, but mainly we’re in the real Georgian architecture that has the integrity that I wanted the film to have.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives an incredible performance in "Belle" and is definitely on our new actresses to watch list.

Q: So tell me about your research and preparation for the role.

Gugu: Well, really it started with the painting. And I ended up going to Kenwood House to get a postcard of the painting. And this was sort of several years ago because it's taken quite a long time for the development to come in to fruition. So I always had Dido in my mind, and in fact when I first moved to London I lived just a couple of miles from Kenwood House in HighGate. So I used to walk regularly on the heath, imagining myself as Dido. Kind of in my head thinking "wow will this film ever come to anything." And then really the script, the script was just so nuanced that there was so much there. We had etiquette classes and some rehearsals with Amma, which was amazing. And really just growing up in the UK and you know, immersing myself in Jane Austen period dramas as a girl. You know, I really felt like that world was sort of in my DNA from growing up with all of those novels. So yeah for me it was really a dream come true to be able to pursue a period drama and refreshingly not be playing a slave.

Q: Can you tell me about collaborating with Amma Asante?

Gugu: I mean Amma is amazing. She is a force of nature and incredibly intelligent and has so much heart. And she really brought out the heart of this story, the romance and the relationships you know and it really was all about the nuances. And that’s what was so wonderful is that she was really concerned wit making Dido Belle a very real living, breathing human being. And then it’s as well as the issues of gender, race and class. You know it’s a human story at it's core and hopefully you know we engage with Dido on a human level. So yeah she’s amazing.

We caught up with Amma Asante and Gugu Mbatha-Raw at a private lunch celebrating the film hosted by Stefano Tonchi, Tamron Hall, and Alek Wek at La Grenouille. Other notables that we spotted included Phylicia Rashād, Star Jones, Yaya DaCosta, Olivier Theyskens, Tamara Mellon, Martha Stewart, Montego Glover, members of the Astor family, to name a few.

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