Wunmi Mosaku hit American screens this year like a meteorite. The BAFTA-winning British actor grabbed viewers’ attention early as Ruby in Lovecraft Country, a vision in a blue dress belting out songs and playing guitar one minute and shape-shifting the next. Fans of the series may think of the Nigerian-born, Manchester-raised actor as an overnight success, but she has been preparing for this star turn since graduating from drama school in 2007. Now, the actress again claims the spotlight with His House from director Remi Weekes, a Sundance favorite preemptively snapped up by Netflix for an October 30 release.
His House blends instability, paranoia, and culpability against the backdrop of a migrant’s safe haven-turned-haunted house. Central to the story is the very real horror of the asylum experience: the lack of orientation, the lack of information, the attempt to “be one of the good ones,” as one case worker advises. Weekes’s feature directorial debut sees Rial (Mosaku) and Bol (Gangs of London’s Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) flee South Sudan under duress and endure a harrowing, tragic boat trip to the U.K. When they’re given an estate council flat of their own, the not-quite-home is tainted not only by unwelcoming neighbors, but also the increasingly aggressive supernatural. As she did in Lovecraft Country, Mosaku crafts a character more compelling than easy. “Rial’s character is not always easy to like,” Weekes observes. “Her character is often grating against forces that try and mold her into a new shape. Wunmi makes sure you’re on her side.” Dìrísù, whose first name is pronounced SHOP-eh, says, “Rial has real steel and self-assuredness. She’s an independent thinker, and while she has a lot of compassion in her, she won’t be taken for granted, and I think Wunmi nails that perfectly.” He adds, “We see similar qualities in her performance as Ruby in Lovecraft Country.”
Horror and grief make curious but effective bedfellows, and both take up residence in His House. Mosaku views the first as an ideal delivery vehicle for the latter. “The worst parts of His House, the worst parts of Lovecraft, are actually what the humans are doing, and the inhumanity with which we treat people,” she says. “We justify and rationalize and defend it but actually we are the most detrimental to each other. Horror helps me see my responsibility a little bit more.” Her hope is that that horror will create room for empathy—that audiences will see asylum-seekers as humans rather than undifferentiated masses in an endless stream of sad stories on the news. “We keep talking about them, but don’t hear from them. They’re not them, or other, but us.”
Mosaku, 34, followed a route that was very different from Rial’s. Her family emigrated by choice: Her mother came to Manchester to complete her Ph.D. when Mosaku was about eighteen months old; her father already had his Ph.D. and was familiar with the town. Both are college professors. Yet the much-milder version of being uprooted and plunked down in a new environment nevertheless took its toll. “I was completely silent for a year. I stopped talking. Everything about Britain was so different: the weather, the food, the faces,” Mosaku says. Over time, however, Manchester did come to feel like home. “In British culture, in the educational system, we don’t talk too deeply about anything painful in our past,” she says. But “the north of England is generally quite a friendly place.” Now based in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Mosaku cites both Manchester and Nigeria when people ask where she’s from. “I’m still very much attached to Manchester and the people,” she says.
Mosaku’s acting career has echoed that early experience of feeling out of place until she found her niche. Initially, after graduating from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she was bound for the stage. “I was always, sadly, told that I wasn’t that commercial. I thought theater was going to be my route because I look how I look. I didn’t see me represented so much onscreen at that time,” she says. “With Shakespeare, you can be five foot nine and dark-skinned with an Afro. You see that much more.” A group chat with other Black British female actors, including Michaela Coel, is one of her resources now for talking about systemic racism and artistry. Yet the worlds of TV and film have been more welcoming than she was led to expect: She estimates that at the outset, she got one part out of every twenty auditions, landing her first substantial role in the 2009 BBC drama Moses Jones. A steady stream of work followed, often also with the BBC. The network, Mosaku says, “has been very good to me.”
She has not always nailed it. One of her many auditions was for the UK version of Hamilton while she was filming the crime thriller Fearless in 2016. (Mosaku is a trained vocalist who sang in the Manchester Girls Choir from the age of seven until she left for school at 18.) She didn’t know that there was a soundtrack she could listen to, and prepared for the complicated rhythms by figuring them out on her own and with the help of a musician neighbor. On the day of the audition, the breakneck speed of the music sent her into sputtering shock. “I could not. Keep. Up! I couldn’t even catch my breath. I broke a sweat trying to keep up with the pianist,” she says through peals of laughter. “Before I left the room, they said, ‘Welllllll done. That was very brave of you.’” Ordinarily, she says, you’d hear back in a week or two. She hadn’t made it two miles away on her beloved bike before her phone rang. It was her agent, calling to say that she hadn’t gotten the part.
An inordinate number of detectives appear on her CV, including one in the series Vera, with Brenda Blethyn, and in Kiri. In 2017, Mosaku won a BAFTA for her role as a grieving mother in Damilola, Our Loved Boy, a film based on the true story of the search for justice for a murdered 10-year-old. “Winning a BAFTA was a huge honor, but I don’t know if it changed anything,” she says. “I don’t feel like studios were saying, ‘Let’s get that BAFTA winner.’ I don’t feel like I caught anyone’s attention until Lovecraft, really.” She muses that American viewers might recognize her from season 5 of Luther (2019), The End of the F***ing World (2017), or perhaps Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
Mosaku’s fearlessness is one of her most prominent features as an actor. Her beauty is another: luminous skin, a complexity of emotions at play in her shifting facial expressions. In a trick of psychology, her mother taught her to embrace her appearance when she was young by pointing out the shared physical traits that crop up in her lineage, like the front-teeth gap that is a symbol of wealth and beauty in Nigeria: “‘Well, I have a little gap and your dad has a little gap and grandma has a little gap. So what do you think of us?’” her mother would ask. “And I’m like, oh yeah…I do think you’re beautiful. I sometimes will protest against the ideas of beauty that we’re sold—it makes me so angry—but it has never undermined how I feel,” Mosaku says. Despite the widening celebration of self-love and body positivity that she encountered on social media when she joined Instagram in 2018, “there’s still a lot of pressure to look a certain way” in film and television.
The Lovecraft team understood what they had in her. Mosaku, who is wild about fabric and loves to sew, reflects that she “felt really beautiful on Lovecraft,” giving props to costume designer Dayna Pink for her selections. Off-set, without elaborate hair and makeup assistance, her aesthetic is streamlined. “Day-to-day, I feel most beautiful wearing some skinny jeans, a little sweatshirt, and an African head wrap with my glasses, maybe a little bit of lipstick and blush, and some hoops. Especially when I’m on my bike. I don’t know why, but when I’m on my bike I feel on top of the world. That is when I feel most myself.”
Lovecraft creator, writer, director, and executive producer Misha Green praises Mosaku’s versatility, one possible explanation for the parts that keep coming her way. “The role of Ruby was easily one of the most complex and dangerous roles. It required an actor who could be sexy and confident yet vulnerable; someone who is a bit jaded by life, but also an ingenue introduced to a world of magic where anything is possible, even her darkest fantasies. Wunmi threaded all of those complicated layers seamlessly from her first audition—where she left both Jurnee Smollett and me in tears.”
In a year that has relentlessly immersed Black people in collective pain, His House and Lovecraft provide an outlet for imagining what could be. Mosaku is careful about balancing the importance of art with real-life stakes, but ventures that both works feel necessary right now, giving full credit to their creators. ”The reality is they chose me. I’m so grateful. I didn’t write these scripts. The vision and freedom, the responsibility that they’ve given us as Black people? That is Remi and Misha and their teams,” she says. “They’ve created something incredible. I am just so lucky to have been asked to be a part of it.”
As for what she’ll be part of in the future, Mosaku sets no genre limits and welcomes any roles that evoke feeling in the audience. As in her most recent roles, she is open to projects that upend perception: The dark comedy Search Party and Matilda, The Musical are examples that she could see herself following. Weekes’s advice to Hollywood: “She’s ready to stop playing grieving mothers and hard-nosed detectives.” She can’t yet talk about the series she is currently working on, but going forward, Mosaku says, “I want to be a part of rich and meaningful things that make people care more and open them up, that move people to the depths and heights of their emotions, whether that be laughter or tears, politically or romantically.” Oh, the places she’ll go.