Wunmi Mosaku: “BAFTA’s diverse shortlist shows our stories are worthwhile”

The British-Nigerian star of 'His House' on turning the tables at awards season

Wunmi Mosaku’s performance in His House, a socially conscious horror film from first-time director Remi Weekes, is so powerful and self-assured it’s masterful. Mosaku has already won Best Actress at this year’s British Independent Film Awards and is nominated in the same category at the BAFTAs. If she wins in two weeks’ time, she’ll add a film BAFTA to the TV award she won in 2017 for BBC One’s Damilola, Our Loved Boy. Add to that a bunch of credits in huge franchises (Justice League, Fantastic Beasts, upcoming Marvel show Loki) and we’re looking at one of the UK’s brightest new stars.

It is in His House, however, that Mosaku shines brightest. As Rial, a refugee who flees war-torn South Sudan for the UK, Mosaku conveys grit, resilience, vulnerability, a keen intuition and profound sense of grief. Though she and her husband Bol (Gangs of London‘s Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) make it safely across the English Channel in a flimsy-looking motorboat, their young daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba) tragically drowns during the crossing. So when a condescending caseworker (Matt Smith) deposits them in a rundown council house in an unnamed English town, they’re exhausted, deeply traumatised and dealing with a bereavement that they feel responsible for. At this point, their desperately sad situation takes an even more terrifying turn.

Wunmi Mosaku
CREDIT: Ashley Randall

When the house is haunted by an apeth – or night witch – which convinces Rial it can reunite them with Nyagak, the couple have very different reactions. Bol is committed to assimilating in a Britain that has welcomed them begrudgingly and without compassion, but Rial refuses to change who she is. “She’s willing to sacrifice her marriage, her chance at asylum and this house because she thinks she can turn back the hands of time,” Mosaku says, speaking on Zoom from her Los Angeles home. “But she too is being played: what the apeth says isn’t real, and they can’t go back. It seems like she knows what she’s doing, but she’s a victim herself in thinking that to go back would be to undo all the guilt, the shame and the pain.”

Bright and insightful even at 8am LA time – she’s not someone who sleeps in – Mosaku says that in some ways, Bol resembles the “good immigrant” she spent years trying to be. She was born in Nigeria, but emigrated to Manchester with her parents when she was one. She sang in the Manchester Girls Choir for 11 years while excelling at local schools, and had conditional offers to study Maths, Economics and Italian at university before realising drama was her true calling. “I started having panic attacks and insomnia because the idea of doing Maths didn’t sit right with me,” she says. “My sister did Biochemistry [at university] – she’s really brilliant and has an artistry behind her science. My mum and dad are both academics with artists’ minds too, but I knew I didn’t have that with maths. I could just do what I was told.”

Wunmi Mosaku
CREDIT: Ashley Randall

So she applied to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and never looked back. After graduating in 2007, she landed a steady succession of stage roles before climbing the ladder of British TV from a Doctors guest spot in 2008 to a main role as DS Catherine Halliday in season five of Luther in 2019. Her other TV credits include the Black Mirror episode ‘Playtest’, season one of The End of the F***ing World, and of course her BAFTA-winning turn in Damilola, Our Loved Boy. On the big screen, she has balanced small roles in blockbusters (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) with meatier parts in indies like 2019’s Sweetness in the Belly and now His House.

Given that Mosaku had grafted to become a familiar face on British TV, her 2018 move to LA must have felt risky, but it already seems to have paid off. Last year she shone in HBO’s politically charged horror series Lovecraft Country; next comes Marvel’s hugely anticipated Loki series starring Tom Hiddleston. The latter is cloaked in so much secrecy that Mosaku’s character name hasn’t even been revealed. When we ask what she can say about it, she deadpans: “I can say… that it’s out on June 11 on Disney+.” After we finish laughing, Mosaku says the show is so tightly controlled that she wasn’t allowed to travel with her script in tow. “It is very secretive, but I like that because I don’t like spoilers,” she adds. “And I can tell you that it’s great!”

“What can I tell you about ‘Loki’? I can tell you it’s great!”

Three years in LA hasn’t eroded Mosaku’s Manchester accent. But a question about her Nigerian heritage prompts an extremely sad and revealing story. “My parents were told that they should stop speaking [the West African language] Yoruba in the house,” she says. “Not realising at this point that I was dyslexic, my school blamed my difficulty in reading English on my mother tongue. They would never have told an Italian family to stop speaking Italian to their kids, but I lost my mother tongue – my ability to speak and understand Yoruba – because my school valued English and other European languages above my Yoruba language.”

Mosaku says she was reminded of this loss every time she chatted with her grandma who didn’t speak English. “I still think about it all the time now,” she adds, “though thankfully my mum still cooked the [Nigerian] food and I can cook the food now. But I’ve lost a lot in trying to assimilate – and what I’ve lost is something so valuable.”

“I’ve lost a lot of my Nigerian heritage in trying to assimilate to the UK”

For the past year, Mosaku has been trying to regain some of what she lost by re-learning her mother tongue; she credits this edifying process with making quarantine a little more bearable than it otherwise might have been. “I can’t possibly explain to you how good it now feels to speak with my mum and my dad in Yoruba,” she says. “It’s been my greatest joy this last year, but there are some things [about my heritage] that I still miss. And I miss them because we were told they weren’t valuable enough to keep”.

This perceived lack of value was most definitely relative. Mosaku says that from a young age, she was taught that to succeed in Britain, she had to act as ‘British’ as possible. And she always understood precisely why. “[My sisters and I] saw how not sounding British and not being British ‘enough’ affected our family because my parents came to England as grownups with an accent,” she says. “They came with their PhDs and their Masters – they were both Professors in Nigeria – and they were denied the ability to live as fully as they were qualified to do because of racism. So of course we assimilated because we didn’t want to suffer the same fate. Don’t get me wrong, my parents smashed it – they did great. But we saw the struggle and we understood that assimilation was survival.”

His House
With Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in Netflix horror ‘His House’. CREDIT: Netflix

Today, Mosaku says her purpose as an actor is partly informed by the lack of representation she experienced growing up. As a kid, she soaked up whatever Black culture she could find on TV – she was a big fan of Desmond’s, the ’90s sitcom with a predominantly Black British Guyanese cast – but says there “simply wasn’t enough” for her to latch onto. “As a young Nigerian girl growing up in Manchester, I didn’t see me on screen – I felt like I was a risk,” she says. This carried through to drama school, where she felt like “an anomaly” and someone “who they were taking a chance on.”

Mosaku saw first-hand how representation can inspire others when she became friends with Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, a fellow RADA-trained actress of Nigerian heritage. “She saw me in [2010 Channel 4 film] I Am Slave and then read an interview I did in the Metro,” Mosaku recalls. “As much as I consider us colleagues and equals, she said to me that seeing me doing what I was doing had made her think: ‘Yes, I want to be an actor.'”

His House
‘His House’ is streaming now on Netflix. CREDIT: Netflix

Because of this, Mosaku is especially excited to be nominated alongside Bukky Bakray, the 19-year-old star of stunning coming-of-age film Rocks, at the BAFTAs. “Seeing Bukky in Rocks, I saw me. That’s what I looked like when I was 16,” she says. “And knowing that a younger generation gets to see me, Bukky, Ronke, Michaela Coel, [fellow BAFTA Best Actress nominee] Radha Blank, it really means something, it just feels good.”

Mosaku also says she’s “proud” of this year’s much more diverse list of BAFTA nominees, the product of a seven-month review process designed to “level the playing field”, according to BAFTA chair Krishnendu Majumdar. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, the nominations for films like Rocks and His House really underline that this is our industry too,” she says. “They show that our stories are worthwhile and really mean something.”

“Seeing Bukky Bakray in ‘Rocks’, I saw me”

Mosaku’s BAFTA nod isn’t her only laurel this awards season. She was also nominated at the US Critics’ Choice Television Awards for her blistering performance as blues singer Ruby Baptiste in Lovecraft Country. In the HBO horror series’ most thought-provoking episode, Strange Case, Ruby wakes up after being dosed with a magical potion to find herself in the body of a white woman. The episode is deliberately and brilliantly discomfiting, and requires Mosaku to show how Ruby’s heightened awareness of racism and white privilege snowballs into full-on, bloody rage.

Mosaku’s performance feels even more remarkable after she says today that she “really struggled” with Ruby’s decisions in the episode. The actress found it “really difficult and quite triggering” when her character chooses to continue “race-shifting” after her first dose of potion wears off. Then she “really struggled” again when Ruby exacts a violent revenge at the end of the episode. In a properly shocking scene, we see Ruby penetrating her white department store boss with a stiletto heel as vengeance for his attempted sexual assault of her only Black colleague. Still, Mosaku points out that this rape scene only feels so shocking because it differs from other rape scenes we’ve seen on screen.

Lovecraft Country
As Ruby Baptiste in HBO fantasy-horror ‘Lovecraft Country’. CREDIT: HBO

“We are used to seeing violence against Black women, but we’re not used to seeing violence by a Black woman to a white man,” she says. “So I thought that was actually quite important. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, people are really going to have a problem with this’. But shocking as it is, why are we okay with seeing Black women being raped on screen, and not okay with violence the other way?’ We’re just not used to seeing the patriarchy flipped over in this way.'”

With His House, Lovecraft Country and now Loki, Mosaku’s profile looks likely to continue growing. But when I tell her that an article I found called ’10 Things You Didn’t Know About Wunmi Mosaku’ doesn’t reveal very much about her, she seems pleased. “I’m not an actor because I want people to know about me,” she says. “I can get stressed before interviews but I’m always happy talking about the work.” During this interview, Mosaku mentions her husband in passing, but says she’s even careful about tagging loved ones in Instagram photos: “Once it’s out there, it’s out there”.

With this in mind, we end with a work question: what does she hope people take away from His House? “I want their hearts to open [so they can appreciate that] the horror they feel in the safety of their own home watching the film – the raised heart rate and raised temperature – is just an iota of what others really feel,” she says. “I want them to have more understanding of the wounds people are carrying with them every day.” For Mosaku, this incredible – and awards-worthy – film is all about encouraging “empathy and deeper understanding”.

‘His House’ is streaming on Netflix now – the 74th British Academy Film Awards take place virtually on April 11