The Time Machine
Samantha Mumba sits in a hard-backed chair: perfect posture, perfect makeup, perfect smile. In fact, she hardly moves in that chair during the half-hour we're talking. Poised and self-possessed, the nineteen-year-old pop star has been performing for years. Born in Dublin to an Irish mother and Zambian father, she started tap dancing at age three, attended Dublin's Billie Barry Stage School until she was fifteen, then started singing on Irish TV shows, eventually coming to New York City, where she signed a contract with manager Louis Walsh. Best known in the U.S. for her single, "I Gotta Tell You" (and a big fat tour last summer, opening for 'NSync), Sam Mumba is now breaking into movies with The Time Machine. She plays Mara, the resilient Eloi woman who looks after Guy Pearce's time traveler, some 800,000 years into the future.
Cynthia Fuchs: What possessed you to want to make a movie?
Samantha Mumba: It wasn't a choice that I made, actually. I did an article in People magazine, and the casting director saw that, and they'd been looking for the role for a couple of months. They asked me to do a screen test, and I did, then I kind of forgot about it for a couple of weeks. Then I got a phone call to come up to New York and do one more, and got the part. I never thought I was going to get a movie. It just kind of happened.
CF: That's fortuitous. It actually seems like there's pressure nowadays, if you're a young person in this business, to be a multi-threat performer.
SM: You're supposed to do everything! Tell me about it! But the two things are very different. I might try to juggle the two, or might not.
CF: In pop, you have room for self-expression (and I know you write your own lyrics), but there's also a lot of image-control. I imagine that there's even more management in movies.
SM: Yeah. But I've been very lucky in my pop career; I decide what I wear and other aspects about my image. But with the movie, down to the tiniest thing, it was scrutinized, "That isn't right, that needs to be changed." But that was actually okay with me, because it was about somebody else, Mara. For my singing career, from day one, I've loved fashion and clothes, and I can't perform well if I'm not comfortable in something I'm wearing. Then it would be a crap performance, kind of wasting everybody's time. The record company agreed, and luckily, I don't like really dodgy stuff. So it's worked out well.
CF: How did you think about playing a fictional character?
SM: I had an acting coach, Larry Moss, and he said at the beginning, maybe she walks different than you, or maybe she does little things that you don't do. So I loved getting to make up those details. She's very strong, and very smart, actually. Larry and I would go to a coffee shop and read off the script and he'd put into my head a lot of ideas. I couldn't even comprehend the fear that the Elois would have been living with, and he got me thinking how you would feel if that was happening. He had me laughing, crying, screaming, giving me loads to work with. The other Eloi are willing to go and be eaten, and she does her best to fight, she and her brother.
CF: How was it to have your brother play your brother in the film?
SM: I was filming for like three or four months, and I don't like to be away from family for that long, so it was good because he was here and my mom was there as well. It made it a lot easier. And we had fun on the set. I mean, he's my little brother, so we had good days and bad days, but even the bad days were all right.
CF: He's interested in pursuing a performance career as well?
SM: Yes, he's more interested in the rap thing, and is just finishing his album.
CF: Well, it's definitely the moment for little boy rappers, with Lil Bow Wow, Romeo, and Corey.
SM: Yeah! But I know that he's well able to handle this, and my mom's traveling with him. Plus, I keep a strict look on everything, to make sure that nobody's taking advantage of him. It's something he's wanted to do; he saw me doing shows when I was young. I've been lucky, and since I had to go through it alone, I'm a lot stronger. I'm so happy. I love everything. Who could complain? I'm getting to see the world. I'm nineteen, and been to countries that some of my friends have never even heard of. I left school at fifteen, but I have no regrets. I've been preparing all my life for it, and when I got this great record deal, I couldn't say no. I'm not promoting children to leave school early, and there's no way I could have done it without a great deal and a great manager behind me. But there's the whole faith thing: I think everything happens for a reason. It's too weird how all this has happened. It just doesn't make sense: you couldn't have planned it.
CF: During your performance for the film, was it weird to be acting with special effects, as opposed to people?
SM: A little bit. But having said that, they built the seventy-foot cliff face, so we were on a location. There were a lot of effects and green screen, but there was always some bit of props to make us feel we were there. And the Morlocks were scary, genuinely, so that made my work easier. That and being swallowed into the sand pit! I wasn't acting: I was scared. It was a whole contraption, one of those big metal containers, and they buried it. And there was a suction thing, to drag us under, and as soon as we got under, there were two guys there to drag me out and up a ladder, so I could get air. It was a brief moment, but I had earplugs and nose plugs to keep the sand out. It was very clever. It wasn't even sand, it was really light and shiny.
CF: What was your experience with learning the Eloi language?
SM: It was a little tricky, because you couldn't just learn it phonetically, you had to convey emotions. Because there were no subtitles in the movie, you had translate it, so people could understand by how your voice went up or down or your facial expressions. That was probably the trickiest part for me. And there was a language person on the set, so I couldn't slip in any made-up words.
CF: Mara, like the other Eloi, is always living on the edge of two realities -- the dreams sent by the Morlocks, and the day to day life that everyone knows will end.
SM: Yes, Jeremy Irons' character is controlling our minds and our dreams, he knows everything we're doing. It's creepy. But it was good to work with actors like him and Guy Pearce; I learned a lot just by watching everything.
CF: How different is touring and this on-set existence?
SM: The 'NSync [tour] was brilliant, the best time I've had, in terms of being on big turbos, with my dancers who are my friends, just having loads of fun, performing in front of thousands of people. Normally, though, you're not performing that much. You're doing interviews and TV shows, not so much in front of a live audience. The movie experience is so different. Even doing interviews is different: now I'm talking about Mara, not me. It gets boring talking about yourself all the time. I definitely want to keep the two separate. Playing a singer in a movie -- that doesn't appeal to me.
CF: Do you have an idea of what you might pursue in the future?
SM: You know what, I don't have a plan. I'm just going along with what's happening. I do love playing characters, though, and I want to play roles that are very, very different from me and from each other. Though I did see some similarities between myself and Mara, but the fact that she's 800,000 years beyond, I though that divided us! I want to try loads of different things. I'd like to play a real bitch, a real baddie. I want to be in a comedy, maybe a romantic story, or a vampire. And action, I do like that.
CF: You did a lot of running and jumping in this movie.
SM: Yeah. What took it out of me was the tunnel where we're running away from the Morlocks at the end. We were doing take after take after take. It was well worth it, seeing the final outcome, but it was really tiring. And it was kind of scary because the ground was really uneven and you couldn't really be looking down. I'm surprised myself and Guy didn't go flying. The cameraman had a couple of near misses, because he had a big camera and was trying to keep up with us.
CF: When you're touring, you don't have much trouble staying fit -- all that dancing.
SM: That's my lot, really. I'm going to try this year to be a little more fit, start going to the gym. Normally, when I'm dancing every day, I built up my stamina. Singing and dancing at the same time is not the easiest thing to do, and not looking like you're about to pass out! And being on the road with 'NSync -- that amazes me. It's really hard, the dancing they do. They're a good example; I was blown away when I first saw their show, just godsmacked. You do it different in America, it's always kind of on a bigger scale.
CF: You started tap dancing when you were three: you knew then that this is what you needed to do?
SM: Oh yeah. Initially, my parents put me in it because they thought, okay, if she's doing shows and performing, then maybe, when she grows up and goes to job interviews, she'll be confident and be able to present herself well. But once I went, I loved it. It was always a natural thing to do.
CF: And for writing, you do lyrics?
SM: Yes, I've just finished my second album with the same producers [Anders Bagge and Arnthor Birgisson]. We just kind of sit around together and write down all my ideas, with rhymes that come to me, and they write down their ideas. I started writing when I was fifteen. I'd never thought about it before, and my publisher said, you should think about writing, and I thought, "Yeah, maybe I should." For a couple of weeks before I was do to go into the studio to meet with the producers, I was writing loads at night, mostly just before I was going to bed, thinking about what I wanted to sing about. And I went in with all this stuff, and they loved everything I had.
CF: Pop comes with this stigma, of course, that the performers don't "create" their music.
SM: Oh we all come from a factory, actually! But I think pop is something that's always going to be around, it's a tried and tested formula. I love pop, for what it is, I'm all into trying new things. Maybe in the future, with other albums, I'll experiment with different things. But for now, pop suits me. I don't know why people make such a big deal over pop -- if you don't like it, don't listen to it. And for me, I like the way it's working now. I wouldn't dream of putting myself down as a producer on an album. I wouldn't have a clue. There's too many buttons on that dashboard, and I leave that to people who specialize in it. The team I have is great, to want to do everything just seems selfish.
CF: Do you think about who your audience might be when you write or perform?
SM: I don't think about their ages. I might have little old ladies and little children that can barely speak. It's so varied, which is a good thing. I think of it, like, here I am, and whoever enjoys it can come on the bandwagon.
Click here to read the Time Machine review.