Gugu Mbatha-Raw was born Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, England. Her father, Patrick Mbatha, is a Black South African doctor, and her mother, Anne Raw, is a Caucasian English nurse. Her parents separated when she was a year old, and she was brought up by her mother in the town of Witney, Oxfordshire (she is still close to her father). She joined the local acting group Dramascope and, from the age of eleven, appeared in the pantomime at Oxford Playhouse every year. A talented singer and dancer as well as playing the saxophone, she joined the Oxford Youth Music Theatre in her teens.
In 2001, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Since graduation in 2004, she has appeared in all media, including as an acclaimed Juliet Capulet in "Romeo and Juliet" at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre in 2005, opposite Andrew Garfield as Romeo Montague. Mbatha-Raw was nominated for Best Actress in the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards for her portrayal of Juliet Capulet. She also appeared as Octavia in "Antony and Cleopatra" at the same theatre in 2005. In 2009, she was cast as Ophelia in "Hamlet" on London's West End and Broadway, opposite Jude Law as the title role.
Mbatha-Raw appeared on such varied television series as Bad Girls (1999), Doctor Who (2005), Agatha Christie's Marple (2004) and Touch (2012). She had a supporting role in the romantic comedy Larry Crowne (2011), written and directed by Tom Hanks, who also played the title role. She was acclaimed for her performance of Dido Elizabeth Belle in Amma Asante's Belle (2013), which earned her a British Independent Film Award for Best Actress, and a nomination as Most Promising Newcomer. She was also nominated for a Satellite Award for Best Actress.
She starred in the romantic drama Beyond the Lights (2014) and was nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Actress for her performance. In 2015, she was nominated for a BAFTA Rising Star Award. That same year, she had a supporting role in Jupiter Ascending (2015), played Prema Mutiso, the wife of Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) in the biopic Concussion (2015), and the title role in Jessica Swale's play "Nell Gwynn", playing the actress who became the mistress of King Charles II of England. She was nominated for an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress for her performance in the play.
She played Rachel in Newton Knight's biopic Free State of Jones (2016), directed by Gary Ross, playing Knight's common-law wife, a freedwoman he had a family with after the Civil War. She also played Esme Manucharian in Miss Sloane (2016), Sophie on Netflix's series Easy (2016), and played Kelly, one of the leads in "San Junipero", the fourth episode of Season 3 of Black Mirror (2011). Her upcoming projects are Beauty and the Beast (2017), in which she plays Plumette, and a film adaptation of Roxane Gay's novel "An Untamed State", directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.