New Girl: <i>Belle</i>‘s GuGu Mbatha-Raw
Spencer Heyfron

There’s one thing Gugu Mbatha-Raw, 31, knows how to do and that’s make history.

The actress, a native of Oxford, England, notably knocked down TV’s color barriers alongside Boris Kodjoe in 2010’s Undercovers, a short-lived spy series with not one but two Black leads.

“It was definitely a case of beginner’s luck,” she says modestly. “I had never been to L.A., and within three weeks I was on set with director J.J. Abrams.”

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Tackling a different type of history in Belle (out May 2), the actress plays Dido, an illegitimate mixed-race child who’s later adopted into her White father’s blue-blooded dynasty. (Bonus: Belle is written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante, both of whom are women of color.) Set in eighteenth-century England, it’s not just another slave narrative.

“This girl really existed in the 1780’s and she wasn’t a slave,” says Mbatha-Raw, whose mother is White and english, and father Black and South African. “She’s privileged but not exactly equal. It reminded me of the Jane Austen stories I loved, but told from a different voice.”

This article was featured in the May 2014 issue of ESSENCE. Pick it up on newstands now.