In the historical drama “A United Kingdom,” Academy Award-nominated actress Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) portrays Ruth Williams, a former WWII ambulance driver in London who marries Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, “Selma”) and would later serve as the inaugural First Lady of Botswana. Their interracial marriage was considered controversial by the apartheid government of South Africa and the tribal elders of Seretse’s homeland, which was known at the time as Bechuanaland.
During an interview with me last week, Pike, 38, discussed Ruth and Seretse’s relationship and the research she did to play the character. She also talked about the timeliness of the film and what she hopes audiences learn about the power of true love.
In your research on Seretse and Ruth’s relationship, what was something you learned about Ruth’s life that you found particularly interesting?
I think I learned from reading her own articles. She wrote a series of articles for something called the Sunday Dispatch, which was a newspaper in England during the time she was in Africa. Those articles are the most illuminating because she was not a journalist. She was not edited. You really got the flavor of her voice. She was really funny and witty. I was also really struck by how important her experiences in the war were to her. She mentioned it briefly in the film that she drove an ambulance. She was on the front lines. She was evacuated as a young woman and came back to London, but couldn’t bear the boredom.
Was Seretse and Ruth’s relationship something you learned about in school during in history class?
No, not at all. It was too embarrassing for the British government.
What spoke to you about this story that made you want to be a part of it?
David [Oyelowo] sent me the script, but I didn’t know anything about the story. Then I saw photos of [Seretse and Ruth] and got to look into their eyes. I thought that if still images could move me that much, who knows what a film could do. Also, the book (“Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation” by Susan Williams), which our film is based on, is wonderful. It’s fascinatingly detailed about the history, and [Williams] also uses a lot of original sources. She got to interview both Seretse’s sister and Ruth’s sister. You get a very keen impression of both of them.
Ruth passed away almost 15 years ago. If you had the opportunity to ask her a question, what is something you would have asked her that you didn’t get from your research?
I imagine you wouldn’t get to know her very well by asking her direct questions. I imagine she was the kind of woman who, although she lived through all these incredible experiences, was probably better at small talk. I think you would have to get to know her gently. You would probably have to start with what kind of music she likes and talk about her grandchildren and sort of get into it that way.
Did you talk to David and his wife, Jessica, about their own personal story of their interracial marriage and whether or not there were any parallels to Seretse and Ruth?
Yes, I was very interested in their story—not that they endured the kind of racism that Ruth and Seretse endured. David and Jessica had a couple of stories early on of things that I was able to try and create expression from, especially with some of the casual attacks they have experienced and Jessica’s complete anger, which sort of rose up. I found [her anger] very indicative of what Ruth felt.
Here in the U.S., interracial marriage has only been legal for 50 years. Doesn’t that strike you as not so long ago? Isn’t it crazy to think that it just happened?
Oh, I know! The principles of apartheid and separation and segregation do seem crazy. What’s interesting is to explore why people felt it. Then you can understand the danger of anything repeating itself—prejudice coming back in. It’s a large part of why I wanted to make this story. Yes, the story shows their love was able to overcome prejudice, but almost more importantly is that they conquered fear. They conquered fear in Botswana and fear among their families. They loved each other so truly and so passionately and so truthfully, people couldn’t help but be swayed by it. I think love can be a huge weapon in overcoming fear.
Do you consider it a timely film in the U.S. now that the political landscape has become so negative?
I think “A United Kingdom” is a weirdly, timely movie now. I always felt it would be timeless. And now we see that it’s quite timely. We’re living in this culture where we’re now being asked not to trust people, and this is a movie about the power of trust—trusting in yourself and trusting in others and asking people to put their trust in you. When you think about Ruth, it’s unusual in a movie to get the experience of a white person who is being excluded from a black world that they are craving to belong in. That was a very interesting perspective.
How has your life changed since 2014 when you earned your first Academy Award nomination for “Gone Girl?” Is it much easier to get your foot in the door? Are you getting more phone calls from filmmakers? Was there moment when you realized things were different?
It’s hugely much easier, but you’re always having to work. You can never slack off. There are millions of people who saw “Gone Girl,” but there are still plenty of people who never did. You still have to try to convince people. That never goes away.