Tom Hiddleston may be the titular character, but it’s the women of Loki that shine

For actors like Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, their roles as Thor and Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) projected them from “no-names” to household names. For Robert Downey Jr., being cast as genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist Tony Stark/Iron Man marked the end of a very public scandal-fuelled era and the start of a magnitudinous career comeback.

Like her Avengers-aligned predecessors, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s casting as Judge Ravonna Renslayer in the new Disney+ series Loki, which premieres tonight, is indicative of a metamorphosis-of-sorts — but on a more intimate level.

“[Renslayer] wasn’t a best friend or a damsel in distress or anything like that,” Mbatha-Raw tells 9Honey Celebrity. “She is absolutely a woman with her own stuff going on, her own history. The fact that she was a judge, I thought that was interesting.”

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“I’ve not really played a character with that kind of gravitas before. So it felt like a sort of departure for me to go into one of those more sort of authoritative roles.”

The 38-year-old Brit has had an illustrious career spanning both screen and stage, with her critically-acclaimed breakout role being the fictional facsimile of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of an enslaved woman and British Royal Navy officer who was raised in high society and played an integral role in the landmark Zong case in Belle (2013). The role earned her two Best Actress awards — one at the British Independent Film Awards and another at the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Trying to reconcile the nuances of colliding worlds that simultaneously have chasms between them is a common theme in Mbatha-Raw’s work; she starred as Kelly, a bisexual woman stuck between past and present, a simulation and reality, in the 2016 BAFTA- and GLAAD-winning episode of Black Mirror entitled ‘San Junipero’.

Mbatha-Raw also played Hannah Shoenfeld in Apple TV+’s Morning Wars, the head talent booker of ‘The Morning Show’ who was promoted in exchange for her silence regarding the sexual assault committed against her by the show’s very famous and very powerful co-host.

Most recently, in Misbehaviour (2020), Mbatha-Raw strapped herself into the stilettos of 1970 Miss World Jennifer Hosten, who was the first Black woman and first Grenadian woman to win the title in a pageant that happened to be the subject of a women’s liberation protest headed by Keira Knightley‘s Sally Alexander.

Both Hosten and Alexander were, in their own ways, embodying a cornerstone of the feminist movement.

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But, in the way that second-wave feminism and intersectional feminism oft meanders, the clashing methods resulted in an outcome that exists in the shades of grey between positive and negative — although Hosten, like Mbatha-Raw’s Shoenfeld of Morning Wars, was conforming to the patriarchy by participating in a system built on the exploitation of women, she was simultaneously breaking down barriers for the women to follow.

Such is the price to pray for progression in restrictive systems. Renslayer, however, doesn’t have to contemplate these questions.

The judge, although at times she can be playful — as seen in her relationship with Owen Wilson‘s Agent Mobius M. Mobius — ultimately has a job to do.

“As far as Renslayer is concerned, Loki’s a bit of a time-waster,” Mbatha-Raw tells 9Honey Celebrity.

“[He] can’t be trusted, and she’s got other people to see. So it’s that funny thing, he’s ever so cheeky, not really being used to being talked down to. And equally, she’s not used to being disrespected and [Loki’s] trying get a rise out of her.”

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Just because Renslayer has to “stay on top and do her job” doesn’t mean she is one-dimensional.

Anyone who is a fan of Marvel’s comics knows the name Ravonna Lexus Renslayer is not evocative of simplicity.

In fact, the name is so loaded that when Marvel first announced Loki’s cast, they simply referred to Mbatha-Raw’s character as ‘Renslayer’, delaying the ‘Ravonna’ reveal (but, as per usual, that did not mean fans did not have their own theories).

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Renslayer, as the comics portray her, is a formidable hand-to-hand combatant who, although not possessing superhuman powers, does have superhuman durability and a gifted intellect.

She also happens to have a very strong love-hate (though mostly love) relationship with Kang the Conqueror, a time-travelling entity who is one of the Avengers’ most frequent opponents.

Is Renslayer — a judge at the Time Variance Authority (TVA) who sentences Loki to punishment for his crimes committed against the main timeline — the key to setting up the MCU’s next big bad?

That’s a piece of information that remains sealed behind Marvel’s oft-embedded Easter eggs.

Mbatha-Raw, however, says the power and complexity of the character is what drew her to sign on to the project after various Marvel auditions, near-misses and offers over the years.

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Well, that and the passion of director and executive producer Kate Herron.

Loki starts when the God of Mischief takes the Tesseract in 2012, as shown in Avengers: Endgame.

He’s immediately captured by the TVA and sentenced by Renslayer, in a compound-of-sorts located outside of the main timeline but within the equivalent of the current post-snap day in the MCU.

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We have this odd situation where fans, who have grown to love Loki over a decade of character development — although Hiddleston has only had a collective two hours of screen-time across six MCU films — are transported back to see him at his emo-authoritarian prime, rather than the theatrical trickster roots he had finally embraced.

The series, although borrowing heavily from Taika Waititi‘s love of 80s synth saturation, exists at a crossroads where it can simultaneously acknowledge and respect existing canon while also moving in the complete opposite direction, developing Loki’s character away from the shadow of the usual suspects, including his God (Lord) of Thunder brother, and instead through relationships he forms on his own.

Loki’s buddy-cop dynamic with Mobius, a more fleshed-out and less violent back-and-forth than Loki and Thor’s ‘Get Help!’ routine, epitomises this foreign familiarity.

Herron, known for her work on Netflix‘s Sex Education, was, according to executive producer Kevin Wright, the perfect person to translate Loki’s existential crisis from concept to screen.

“I remember leaving that first meeting with Kate feeling like this is a person who understands the spirit of what we would love to achieve, and she wasn’t just going to execute those ideas but was going to push them even further,” Wright says.

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“She had an extensive visual pitch that was unlike anything I had seen. She left no scene unturned and had a complete vision of how to translate this series to screen and create something wholly unique to the MCU.”

Herron, a self-professed Loki fan, prepared a 60-page document for her director’s pitch.

After a series of Zoom meetings with Wright and Marvel executive Stephen Broussard, Herron, who was based in London at the time, was flown to Burbank, California to meet with Marvel executives including head honcho Kevin Feige.

In August 2019, Feige flew to London to offer Herron the job. Within the following 48 hours, she had flown to New York to consult with Hiddleston, then was paraded on stage at Disney’s D23 Expo and announced as director and executive producer.

She could handle it.

“There is an earnestness and a grounded reality to everything that Kate does, and that she brought to these scripts,” Wright says.

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“She’s somebody who has a true love for the genre. We could see it from the first time that we met with her. We knew she could take these scripts we all loved and elevate them to even greater heights by bringing her own experiences and vision to them.”

Herron herself says she loves the “ambitious sci-fi story” that “in disguise, really, it had another story going on.”

“That’s definitely what drew me in. And in terms of Loki, what a treat. Because he’s had one of the best arcs, I think, across the MCU, and we’ve seen him change so much over a decade,” Herron says.

“The exciting thing as a storyteller was to go back to where we see the Avengers Loki, and he’s a completely different guy to the person that we have seen in the recent movies. What really excited me was that he still has all this road to travel.”

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The road Loki had to travel behind-the-scenes was a word derivative of exciting too — after only two months of filming, production was halted in March 2020 due to the coronavirus.

It resumed almost six months later in September, but if the half-year disruption — and what was going on in the actors’ personal lives as a result — impacted the story, its stars didn’t have time to contemplate.

They came back on-set with their game faces on.

“I had to jump in because the first scenes that were scheduled after a five-month break were all of mine and Mobius’ scenes in my office,” Mbatha-Raw tells 9Honey Celebrity, ironically from her tenth day of quarantine.

Though if 10 days of quarantine and two straight days of press has gotten to her, one wouldn’t be able to tell.

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Mbatha-Raw has been playing dress-up in isolation to entertain herself, wearing a hot-pink Gucci sweater and matching lipstick. The day prior, she wore a navy Rodarte dress with red polka dots, bright red boots, and, of course, matching lipstick — both ensembles mirroring her disposition.

Her energy is palpable, and it’s the same vigour that carried her through seven “solid” days of dialogue scenes “back to back” with Wilson immediately after production resumed.

“It was kind of full-on because it was going from nought to one hundred,” Mbatha-Raw laughs.

Mbatha-Raw found the company of her co-stars comforting throughout shooting during 2020 and all it entailed. In fact, Wunmi Mosaku, who plays the headstrong — and good-natured — Hunter B-15, Hiddleston and Mbatha-Raw all were studying at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the same time.

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Aside from her appreciation of the cast, Mbatha-Raw has a genuine love for her job.

A UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Mbatha-Raw is known for deliberately selecting roles and production teams that align with her feminist principles and work as an activist.

“I think [my platform is] a great opportunity to be able to highlight people who are less fortunate or need a bit more support or more of a spotlight,” Mbatha-Raw says. “That’s just part of who I am and what I’m interested in.”

“I think being able to create a conversation with your work is also really fun,” she continues.

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“In storytelling, you can change somebody’s mind or heart, and even in Loki, we are asking big questions about free will and destiny. Is anyone ever completely good? Is anyone completely bad?

“And I think through storytelling, you can also ask a lot of questions and maybe shift some people’s ideas about world or open people’s minds up a little bit as well.”

Loki premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday June 9 — in time for Pride Month, which is mayhaps a nod to Loki’s low-key confirmed genderfluidity.

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