Rising Star: Gugu Mbatha-Raw From NBC’s ‘Undercovers’

J.J. Abrams loves a strong woman. Throughout his career, the producer has cast a host of young actresses who could not only convey complex emotions, but also manage to kick some serious butt.

The spectacled mastermind tapped Jennifer Garner for “Alias,” making her a star as super-CIA agent Sydney Bristow; he scooped up Canadian cutie Evangeline Lilly for the role of fugitive-turned-island warrior Kate Austen on “Lost,” and he made Zoe Saldana a household name after casting her as the brain in a sexy space suit — Uhuru in “Star Trek.” His latest import, courtesy of NBC’s new husband and wife spy drama “Undercovers” — Gugu Mbatha-Raw, AccessHollywood.com’s newest Rising Star — is J.J.‘s latest leading lady ready to break out.

“It’s been a very weird and wonderful journey,” the British beauty told Access recently of landing the role of Samantha, one half of CIA spy power-couple The Blooms, opposite German-born hunk Boris Kodjoe, on the sexy and sassy drama, which premieres on Wednesday night at 8 PM on NBC.

After a host of memorable parts on television in her native England, Gugu was in New York City (after the play she was starring in on the London stage – Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” alongside Jude Law — made the across-the-pond leap) when she got the call.

“I was on Broadway when I first got the initial audition,” Gugu said. “I didn’t really know much about the project because it was very top secret.”

She took part in an early audition, but unaware that her test had piqued the interest of the top brass, the Oxford-born actress was actually away in a picturesque locale when she got the big call.

“I went off to Egypt on a yoga holiday,” she explained. “I was in Egypt, under a palm tree, and I get a call from my manager saying, ‘They want you in LA tomorrow to read for the lead part’… I managed to get back to London and then back to LA in a couple of days. So yeah, it’s been a very weird and wonderful journey.”

While she’s starred in a host of Shakespeare plays, a spy drama called “Spooks” and the TV cult-favorite “Dr. Who” in her native UK, playing Samantha – a woman of beauty, brains and brawn – has been a thrill for Gugu.

“We have plenty of stunts. It’s really exciting and not really something I’ve really done before,” Gugu explained. “The action is definitely something intriguing for me, having just come from doing Shakespeare on stage. It’s quite a contrast to being an actual heroine… It’s been a new challenge to be out there doing something a little bit tougher and a bit higher stakes… I get to kind of knock people out and kick people and punch people. It’s great fun.”

While work has kept her too busy to watch TV, while commuting across Los Angeles, the actress managed to encounter her own image one day — on public transportation.

“It [was] slightly surreal — the first time I saw my face on a bus. But I do feel quite distant from it because, I mean, a lot of those images are so heavily airbrushed for the posters. I don’t really look at it and go, ‘That’s me,’” Gugu said with a healthy and refreshingly endearing dose of realism. “I look at it and go, ‘Ooh! Who’s that girl that looks a bit like me?’… I don’t really sort of equate myself in those pictures; a lot of them are Samantha Bloom, the character. So I have a little bit of distance from it all.”

While she’s currently in the middle of filming the already-ordered first eight episodes of the new series, there are future projects already on the actress’ plate. Gugu will be seen next on the big screen in 2011 in the college campus romance “Larry Crowne,” alongside Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

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