Spoilers for The Morning Show season finale below.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn’t sure if she landed an offer to join The Morning Show because she worked with Reese Witherspoon on A Wrinkle in Time, or because of her relationship with casting director Vicky Thomas, but after talking with showrunner Kerry Ehrin and director Mimi Leder, the British actress says she was all in — despite knowing it all ends with her character’s tragic demise.
“I just thought that it was such a powerful story line,” she told Vulture over the phone from London. “It was very timely and important, and such a relevant conversation to our culture. It wasn’t just your two-dimensional fiction predator and innocent victim.”
Mbatha-Raw plays Hannah Schoenfeld, a talent booker with an integral role in the show’s central story involving beleaguered TV anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) and his predatory behavior toward women in the newsroom. As viewers learned in a recent episode, Mitch sexually took advantage of Hannah, a junior booker at the time, when they traveled to Las Vegas in 2017 to cover the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival. Then, when she reported Mitch’s harassment to the network chairman, she was offered a promotion in exchange for not rocking the boat.
In the season finale, Hannah shockingly dies from an overdose, after Mitch approaches her to help him take down network executives (and the network, in turn, offers her a new position in Los Angeles). Mbatha-Raw spoke with Vulture about working in Las Vegas with Carell, her lengthy and emotional finale scene with Reese Witherspoon, and whether Hannah might make an appearance in the The Morning Show’s second season, which begins production in February.
In your initial conversation with Kerry and Mimi, did they tell you Hannah would die?
Yep! We’re good secret keepers, aren’t we? For me, it was important to know because it helped me arc some of her other choices. We don’t go very deep into Hannah till later in the season, but there’s a few scenes there, and if you were to watch them back knowing what you know about her, you might see some other layers. Like when she interviews Ashley Brown, for example, or when she goes to the hotel room in episode two. What’s her motivation there? Is that something to be able to vicariously feel, like she’s getting back at Mitch in some way?
How do you view what happened between Hannah and Mitch? That episode is so intense, with the Vegas massacre as the backdrop.
All credit to our director Michelle MacLaren. There’s so much going on in that episode: There’s this chauvinistic, misogynistic culture of the old days, filming on location in Las Vegas at four in the morning with real people on the street, and then dealing with such intimate scenes. With Mitch and Hannah, what I appreciated was that they went for the gray area. They didn’t try and oversimplify it. We were trying to go for the complexity of a situation like that. From Hannah’s perspective, from her junior role, she obviously sees him as powerful and as a mentor figure. He’s somebody she looks up to, professionally. He’s the king of the castle and the nuances of what he gets away with in terms of those chauvinistic sexist comments that he casually makes are interesting to see. And that’s all celebrated. I think there’s no way to sum up that, yes, this person is evil. Everybody may make different mistakes, but it’s just very human the thought process that Hannah goes through, from fear, to anxiety, to powerlessness, to freezing in that situation. Mitch is an experienced, sly, subtle, nuanced predator. He doesn’t come out looking like a villain. He’s a charming narcissist, and that’s very hard to deal with. Hannah makes a choice at the end of [the Vegas episode], but hopefully you really feel what a difficult situation she was put in.
And then, Mitch makes it that much worse by asking her for help while claiming she used him to get a promotion. The audacity!
“You used me to leverage your career. I get it. Everybody does it.” What? It just shows you the magnitude of his myopic point of view. Even reading that, it was just like, Wow. But I think it’s a really important conversation to have because when people talk about consent, when they talk about these situations, it’s he said/she said. It’s really valuable to see these two points of view to see how people misinterpret this.
I heard that real people made the Vegas shoot tough. They wanted to be in the scenes with you, right?
The street wasn’t blocked off and we’re shooting on the Las Vegas Strip with Steve Carell. For some scenes, he was wearing a baseball cap, but he’s still Steve Carell. But Mitch is also famous, so when drunken gamblers strolled up or waved or said anything, he would just continue to play it. He’s obviously so great at improv. He wasn’t fazed. He’s one of the most talented actors I’ve worked with. Everybody knows him for his comedic talents, but he’s got such depth and a huge dramatic range. And he’s so likable that it’s complicated to have him play a character like this. It’s conflicting for the audience because he’s somebody that we know and love, and then to put him in such a complex, dark character as a predator and a narcissist, it makes it harder to just discard him as purely evil.
In the finale, you have a great scene with Reese Witherspoon. For most of it, Hannah is very guarded and insisting she’s fine, but there’s a progression where her feelings finally do come out. Tell me about filming that. What were your challenges?
It was intense. It was an eight-page scene, which is rare in television but not so rare for our show. It’s virtually a monologue. Bradley [Witherspoon’s character] asked a few questions, but it’s obviously Hannah retelling and reliving that experience. We mostly ran it all in one take, which I requested because there is such a cascade of emotions that unleashes. It was really an intense day. It’s one thing experiencing it in the flashback. There is a surreal out-of-body experience, sometimes, when those traumas that happen. You go into fight or flight mode, or in Hannah’s case, freeze mode, for survival. That’s just so primal. In the retelling of it, that’s when it lands for her. She’s not the kind of person that’s been to therapy. She’s not told a bunch of girlfriends. She’s not really shared this experience with anybody. And so, that revelation is really her telling it to herself. She has to drop the denial, and that’s when she really feels the pain.
How did you feel at the end of the day?
Oh, exhausted. Reese sent me a lovely text at the end of that day. She’s so generous as an actor and producer. She said, “That was some great work.” It’s so nice to be able to work with somebody who will actually, genuinely text you, “Great job today.”
I was very conflicted about what Hannah did to Claire. I know she came from a good place, but was she out of line? What did you think?
Knowing what we know about what she’d been through, she thinks she’s protecting Claire. She’s projecting her own experience with Mitch onto that dynamic and thinking that Claire’s been taken advantage of. As the big sister in the friendship, that’s her responsibility to protect her friend. She doesn’t want someone else to go through the same thing, so I totally understand that her motivation is to protect Claire.
How did you interpret the ending? We see Hannah making plans to move to L.A. and start a new life, which made her overdose death really shocking. Did you see that as accidental?
It’s very opaque. I would never tell the audience how to feel because I think Kerry wanted it to feel open. Certainly, for me, I always felt like when she accepts the job, she does see a future for herself. I do think there’s still a numb part inside of her, so that’s not going to fix everything, but I never thought she intended to end her life. I think she intended to numb that pain and that hole in her soul. As a consequence of that, she died. Like Claire said, there was no note. In a way, it’s more tragic that it’s an accident.
Will you be back for the second season?
No plans at the moment, unless there are more flashbacks in store. Or maybe Hannah just comes back as a ghost and haunts the studio? [Laughs.]