Home TVInterviews Interview: Lovecraft Country’s Abbey Lee and Wunmi Mosaku

Interview: Lovecraft Country’s Abbey Lee and Wunmi Mosaku

by Leora Heilbronn

Each week, Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country manages to outdo the previous week’s episode, a difficult task considering the brilliance put on display week after week (and we’re only halfway through the season!). In this week’s episode, Ruby (the incredible Wunmi Mosaku) explores the power encapsulated in white female privilege (we won’t spoil how, for those who haven’t seen the episode yet) and let me tell you, it is the best episode yet.

During the HBO junket day to promote Lovecraft Country a few weeks ago, we had the exciting opportunity to chat on Zoom video with Wunmi Mosaku (Sweetness in the Belly, Luther) and Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon, Mad Max: Fury Road), who plays the enigmatic Christina, about their personal experiences of being female in today’s world. The following is an edited and condensed version of the very candid conversation that ensued.

Wunmi, you had said previously that you were really shy when you were performing with the band in the pilot episode and in this week’s episode. You’re an incredible front woman though! You should definitely have a career in music. 

Wunmi Mosaku: Aww, thank you! That’s so kind of you. I haven’t really given it much thought outside of the job. I love singing, I always have since I was a kid. I was in a girls’ choir from age seven to 18, so yeah, I love it. But I never would have called myself a singer because I would never feel confident doing it completely on my own. I always wanted my 44 girls with me. [laughs] So this was definitely a learning curve – getting up on stage, on my first day at work, in front of a crowd of people. That was incredibly scary! But by the end of it, I just loved it. You couldn’t get me off of that stage. [laughs]

What do you hope viewers outside of the U.S. will glean from the show in terms of race relations in the U.S. today versus the Jim Crow era? 

Abbey Lee: The question of how the Jim Crow era relates to right now, I guess I would hope that it exposes that not much has changed. A lot of what’s happening in the show is a reflection of what’s still happening today. I think the recent global awakening to a lot of these issues is going to be supported by this show, and this show is coming out at a very powerful time. We see a lot through the news and our personal experiences and being in a digital age, we’re exposed to a lot. This show is utilizing art as a way to communicate it on another level, on a sort of spiritual level, so it’s another tool to communicate these issues to people.

WM: I think as well, the fact that it’s been a global uprising and awakening will hopefully mean that people aren’t just talking about race relations in the U.S., they’re talking about it in their own countries and within their own friendship groups and families and colleagues, that it’s a dialogue that needs to be happening all over. It’s about so much more, in a way, than just race. It’s your relationship to it, your relationship to your privilege, your relationship to your oppressor, and there’s also gender included in that. I just think the timing of it is extraordinary because we have this space, because of the social distancing, and we don’t have the distractions. But I do feel like it’s always been relevant, this show has always been relevant, and I guess we’re trying to get to a point where it’s no longer relevant. That history, and we’re talking specifically about Jim Crow, but racial injustice and inequality are not a thing of the past, it’s happening globally all over right now.

Wunmi, that stiletto scene in this episode! So good!! And I loved the vulnerability that you both brought to the scene where you’re speaking openly to each other about privilege. I’m curious about the effects work in this episode and the shedding of the skin, as it were? 

WM: [laughs] There was a lot of goop, a lot of sticky stuff all over.

AL: Which, by the way, is, and everyone should know, that stuff is really cold. And it stinks, and it’s really sticky.

WM: [laughs]

AL: For hours you’re covered in cold, sticky, smelly goo.

WM: And they have to keep layering it on because it dries. So you constantly have someone brushing you down with goop and blood, it’s constant. And if you touch anyone or anything, your hair gets waxed off, if it’s dried at all. Yeah, it’s pretty gross. [laughs]

AL: It’s also very technical. It’s very much like “stand here, don’t move while we put this special effects part in and we map this out”. And “your hand goes there”, because there’s a lot of the special effects involved. So it’s a little bit arduous in that it’s technical.

WM: Yeah.

Abbey, can you talk a little about your process in terms of crafting your portrayal of Christina?

AL: I did a lot of research into not just the history of American in the 1950s and, in particular, women, the female history of what it was like being a woman in American in the 1950s, but the post emancipation African American experience. It was something I’d heard about and knew a little about, I thought I knew about it, but really came to realize I knew very little about in terms of in-depth detail. I think Christina is a fish out of water, there is an ominous kind of…you can’t place Christina, weirdly, in this show. There is something about her that feels apart, there’s an ethereal kind of element to her. So any sort of feelings that I had of feeling apart or feeling like a fish out of water, I brought that with me and I gave it to her. Australia is not innocent to these issues, we have our own problems, and they’re just as brutal, they’re just different. They look different, they’re done in different ways, but it’s still relevant. It’s not like we don’t have these problems.

The book on which this show is based has been criticized for having one-dimensional villains. Abbey, was that something you had in mind when you created your portrayal, who is obviously not just a one-dimensional character. 

AL: I actually didn’t know that, but it’s a testament to Misha Green, isn’t it? The brilliance of her ability to take these characters in the book and expand them and nourish them with a fullness and richness of humanity, and living with the duplicity of human nature. I mean we’re all walking contradictions, constantly struggling with our morals and our limits of how far we’d go to get our needs met. Christina, in particular, is a blend of two men in the Matt Ruff book. She doesn’t exist in the book as she is in these scripts, she’s an amalgamation of two men. I mean when you compare the book to the scripts, Misha did a lot of work to really flesh these characters out. If I wanted to make the decision to make Christina a psychopath, turn her into just the antagonist, not that it was written that way, but I could have made that choice because she does do some really questionable things. But I believe the most interesting aspect to being an actor is to find the humanity in the most difficult of places. If what we’re really trying to do is reach everybody, it’s to try and tap into why someone does what they do, what does that person need? And Christina is the same as all those characters, so I did have to go to a very uncomfortable at times place, going “well this woman is doing these awful things, but why? what is she missing? where are the holes in her heart that she’s trying to fill?”. And she is, on one hand, the nasty, deranged villainess, and on the other hand, she is oppressed and damaged and used and abused, and she’s just looking to liberate herself to try to find her place and footing in the world and build relationships and deal with her trauma. So it was a complicated task to take on. I think all the characters have that in this show. So yeah, we didn’t have to deal with anyone being one-dimensional. If that’s happening in the book, that’s certainly not something that we had to face because the scripts were deep.

Does being on the show make you aware of your own privileges or lack thereof?

WM: That’s a really difficult question because we don’t get the luxury of race switching, [laughs] so I only have my experience of being a Black woman. I’m also absolutely aware that I have privilege: I’m able-bodied, I’ve never had to come out to my family or friends, and all those things that I take for granted. You watch tv and you see able-bodied people playing all the roles, even the roles of disabled people. I’m very aware of where I feel like I’ve been oppressed, and I’m very aware of what I’m scared for for my future, for my children’s future, and I’m very aware of what has been stripped culturally in the act of colonization. There’s a lot. But I wouldn’t change who I am, I wouldn’t change anything about who I am. So yeah, I don’t really know how to answer that because that whole ordeal that Ruby goes through really plays with your head because it feels like a betrayal of one’s self, exploring the other side of the race line.

AL: It was an incredibly eye opening experience for me, a very confronting and enriching experience for me, learning about myself and about the world and my peers and about oppression and privilege. Christina is the prime example of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, which is something we see so much. It’s such a difficult cyclical sort of pattern to break in so many ways. If you’re abused and traumatized, it takes such courage to stop that chain, to be bigger and braver than that, to be loving, when all you know is damage. It is so often that you go down the path of doing damage, and that was something that was a big part of Christina, and I think we see that a lot globally. Universally, that’s a big thing. Human trauma is really powerful.

Very recently I was having a conversation with a man and he was talking about how female oppression is only in countries where they have to wear veils or have to marry, and I’m like “no! It is a daily occurrence for all women globally”. The scale of how it affects you, it ranges. Whether it’s under the table, kind of nuanced or just that you’re being tortured for being a woman, there are levels to it but it happens to all of us. All women know it. All women have experienced it on some level, no matter how much money you have, no matter how much support, no matter how you look, all women feel it.

WM: What’s wonderful about the show as well, is that, Abbey, you and I have had these conversations so much because as much as there is oppression for being a woman, just exploring our different experiences, being a Black woman and a white woman, we’ve had numerous conversations about how it’s just different. Oppression, for me and Abbey, in some ways are completely different on some days and in some scenarios. Remember that time on set when you said, “you’re always so happy on set!”? And I said, “I’m really not. I have to act it because if I don’t come to work with a smile on my face, I get categorized in a very different box than you would”, and that’s purely because of race. So there is obviously the female experience, but there is a completely different thing that Black women have faced.

AL: I mean you could talk about this all day because it is so nuanced and detailed. Hopefully this show is going to give a little bit of an insight into what it’s like for all these different types of people. I think so much of changing the way that we live and how we treat each other, is understanding one another. It’s me being able to say that to Wunmi and Wunmi being able to tell me why, and now it resonates and it changes my perspective, it changes my understanding. I think that’s something this show is really trying to do, just lighting up all of these things that we’ve been so in the dark about.

WM: And it’s given us a safe space to really talk it through because before, I don’t know if you would have felt comfortable asking me these questions, and I definitely don’t think I would have spoken to you as openly as I did, without all of the things that we address in the show. You need honesty and you need to be able to ask these questions, and it may be received wrongly, but knowing that it’s a safe space to ask? That’s so important because how can I truly tell Abbey how I feel, and how can she truly tell me how she feels, and how we can be of service to each other and be an ally to each other and make sure that the world is changing in a way that we think it needs to, you know?

Lovecraft Country airs on Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO and Crave

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