Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Lockdown in La La Land

Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

From Harper's BAZAAR

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Today I left the house wearing a face mask for the first time.

I had woken up to the sound of heavy rain, which is always surreal in Los Angeles, and when I look out of the window to the hauntingly dehumanising sight of bandana-clad dog walkers, an eerie weight settles as I remember: this is our reality now.

I’m standing in the supermarket queue, a line dotted by crosses taped on the floor of the underground car park to signify our designated 6ft distance. Easily 50 people long and snaking around the perimeter of the building, I make my way to the last available X-marks-the-spot and join the other masked Bandits. I haven’t food shopped for over a week and am in need of supplies.

There is an obnoxiously loud man two crosses ahead of me ranting into his phone with such a high energy, the surrounding Bandits have allowed an extended social distance of a cross on either side of him. I sigh, remembering I’ve left my headphones at home, so am unable to tune him out, I wait and exhale, wondering how I am going to get used to the claustrophobic sensation of hot air and fabric condensing on my face.

Loud Phone Man is not wearing a mask and it's clear we’ve passed the tipping point of mild judgement, at least here in LA, where Bandits exchange a raised eyebrow, (about the only non-verbal Bandit communication available) which somehow magnifies the annoyance of this shopper - not only loud, but breathing indiscriminately all over us in this confined space… what does he think this is? Last week??

Before???

It’s Monday on #Week4 of Covid-19 lockdown in La La Land and as I shuffle to the next X I reflect on the journey so far.

After a whirlwind press tour to promote the release of Misbehaviour in UK cinemas (sadly cinemas were shuttered just days after the film's theatrical release – but it's available to watch online at home from April 15th!) I returned to work in Atlanta for Loki, the Marvel limited series for Disney Plus I’ve been working on, so am on set when I get the news that we are going on hiatus as a precaution due to the accelerating coronavirus, initially for one week. Thinking it would be longer, but still unsure at that point, I book a flight to LA to sit things out there for the time being. The next day Trump imposes a travel ban on travelling in or out of the US for 30 days, and with my visa situation and the pace at which everything is moving, it feels risky to fly to the UK in case I cannot get back into the country when filming recommences, whenever that will be.

So, with my housemate and her dog for company, we embark on social distancing, self-isolation and Lady Macbeth-level hand-washing.

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Managing a constant low-level anxiety about my parents and loved ones, and friends in New York, London, Johannesburg and all over the world, I become consumed by the news, glued to the BBC website and KCRW talk radio for the latest figures. Like families gathered around “the wireless” in wartime, everything is unfolding so rapidly and the news, never this dramatic in my lifetime, takes on disaster-movie proportions.

FaceTime and WhatsApp become my lifelines as the reality of the pandemic is tinged with a weird detachment… a numbness I later realise was a form of shock that lasts for nearly two weeks and puts me into a hyper-focused state as I race to keep up, stay informed and learn how to adapt to this new rhythm.

I am of course aware that I am so privileged to be safe and personally unaffected thus far, but grasping the truth from what is overblown, and fact from politics and propaganda, give everything an out-of-body zero gravity quality; a new normal we are all united in.

Things are kicking off in the food line as my attention is caught by an exasperated Valley Girl three Xs ahead who finally explodes at Loud Phone Man, “ OH MY GAAAAD, USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE, CANT YOU SEEEEE EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT YOU CAUSE YOU’RE TALKING SO LOUD… WE ALL HAVE TO STAND HERE, OHMYGAAAD!” As she stomps her Ugged feet to the next X the security guard and smiling store employee (no mask) approach and I can feel a repressed inside-voice-cheer emanate from the rest of the line in applause.

The Bandit Couple ahead of me raise another eyebrow in solidarity and Female Bandit begins to capture a video of Loud Phone Man on her iPhone. The air gets thin, the energy tightens, “Hey Man,” Smiling Store Employee intercepts, Security guard flanking, “You wanna keep it down a bit, people are stressed, y’know? Thanks Man.” Valley Girl scowls, Bandit couple exchange glances, while still filming, Loud Phone Man defends, “I WASN’T EVEN TALKING THAT LOUUUUUD!!!” (Collective Bandit eyeroll) “YESSSSS YOU WERE!!!” Hisses Valley Girl, “Yeah Man, sorry you were,” Store Employee placates. taking the referee stance. I notice Loud Phone Man is wearing flip-flops, on a rainy day. He continues his conversation into his device, phone held to his lips, like a dictaphone, barely any quieter. “We have to be prepared…”

I sigh and feel warm breath on my cheeks. Mouth drying I look at my phone for escape and see that Boris Johnson has been admitted into intensive care for persistent and worsening Covid-19 symptoms. I suddenly feel very far from home and very sad.

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

I remember the things I’ve been doing to keep grounded and my spirits up. One of the benefits of turning out old cupboards was rediscovering my long dormant art materials. Painting, such an absorbing and transporting activity for me in childhood, was once something I considered doing instead of acting, but found it a little socially isolating - so acting won because it felt more collaborative. Now, of course, painting in isolation is perfect and becomes the most comforting of pastimes and a creative channel as I make images of my family and feel like I am spending time with them.

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Understanding how superfluous actors are in a crisis such as this, I come to terms with the fact that staying at home, as passive as it may seem, is my contribution for now. Having the luxury of not having to home-school any children and knowing my work is pretty much on pause until social distancing recedes, I try to reframe this time as a chance to rest and refill the creative well. I read novels for pleasure, something I rarely find time for beyond work-related reads. I take my first Zoom yoga class (alexdawsonyoga.com), I join a 21-day online meditation experience (chopracentermediation.com), I take local hikes for fresh air and make first ever batches of banana bread and chicken soup. I even buy a mini trampoline online which, after a mildly challenging self-assembly, I’ve been sweating it out on to streamed classes online (lekfit.com) with a friend in Toronto, followed by accountability FaceTime coffee dates to virtually high five!

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

By the end of week two, the adrenalin crash truly hits and I’m exhausted from the constant rhythm shifting, news consumption and uncertainty. I’m an eternal optimist and good at self-motivating, but even when you’re Keeping Calm and Carrying on, you need to crash at some point. I nearly cry when I get my mum an Ocado food delivery slot - nothing has been available for weeks - and the “what ifs” that I have been keeping at bay with all my other activities release with relief and gratitude.

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

That’s when I discover Brené Brown’s new podcast Unlocking Us and find such solace in her calm and thoroughly researched words and conversations. Since her TED talk fame as a charismatic shame and vulnerability researcher, I’ve read all of her books and there is always something practical and nourishing in her work, told with humour and in a deeply relatable way - which I’ve found comfort in while in the midst of folding laundry, cleaning the bath or chopping vegetables.



Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Back in the food line and things are moving; the tension of the Loud Phone Man Vs Valley Girl dispute still simmers but everyone relaxes as they get closer to the front-door finish line. Smiling Store Employee does his speech on the new system: no reusable bags allowed, sanitised trollies and a one-way system in the aisles inside marked by arrows on the floor, to minimise contact with other customers. It all feels so surreal and regimented, but the Bandits, already drained from the 30-minute wait, constant Loud Phone Man soundtrack, near car park fight and everything else they’re all adjusting to, nod wearily behind their moist makeshift masks. It’s a bizarre sight.

Still chatting, Loud Phone Man makes it in and there’s a collective “phew” eye-contact exchanged between Smiling Store Employee and the remaining Bandits. Then his smile drops and crinkles for a second. “Yeah, he’s been in every day this week. It’s kinda sad. There’s no one on the phone.” The Bandits' brows knot quizzically. “Yeah, I think he has mental health issues, he just talks but the phone’s not on and he has no ear pieces, he just talks into it… 'They’re coming, we have to be prepared.'… I don’t know what to do.”

The reality breaks my heart. It seems to highlight the collective insanity we’ve all been processing and in that moment I just feel so frustrated at the state of the world and how this pandemic has exposed so many cracks in our society - from mental health to healthcare to privilege and poverty, everything just feels so raw.

I try to look for the silver linings and, among all the fear and anxiety and loss, I’ve been so inspired by human resilience, adaptability and creativity. I’m hopeful this great pandemic leveller will bring a new era of authenticity. An opportunity to shift mentality from Me to We.

Photo credit: Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Week three in self-isolation felt almost normal, which feels weird to admit. I’m getting lots of sleep and take regular meditative baths, which I’ve renamed Home Spa. I’ve found ways to safely contribute in my local community. When the shelves were bare from panic buying, I chatted with the manager of our local grocery store, who seemed so overwhelmed, so my housemate and I volunteered to stack shelves after hours. Although not exactly the front lines, we have fun and it feels good to give something back in our small way.

We of course negotiated to be paid in baked beans and toilet paper.

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