While a forbidden love is often feared to have the potential to tear a community apart, one of the strongest bonds of the 20th century ultimately overcame harrowing challenges and redefined relationships between two continents. Seretse Khama, who was born into one of the most powerful royal families of Bechuanaland, felt such a strong connection to British resident Ruth Williams doon after they met, he was willing to give up his role of king in order to marry her. The couple’s difficult journey to protect their love from opposition in both of their countries as they settled into their new life together in Africa left a powerful change in how government and citizens’ private lives influence each other. That lasting impact is grippingly showcased in the stunning new biopic, ‘A United Kingdom.’
The drama, which stars Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo as the influential real-life couple, enthrallingly showcases how Seretse willingly gave up his right to the throne, despite the pressure he received from his family and international governments, in order to defend what he believes in. In order to celebrate that strong commitment, Fox Searchlight Pictures is releasing ‘A United Kingdom,’ which was directed by Amma Asante and written by Guy Hibbert, tomorrow in select theaters.
‘A United Kingdom’ follows Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (which was renamed Botswana after it became an independent country in 1966), who’s studying law in London after the end of World War II. While there, he meets a London-born office worker, Ruth Williams (Pike), at a dance at Nutford House, which was organized by the London Missionary Society. The two quickly fall in love, but their future is uncertain, as his uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), has written to him and informed him that he must return to his home country. So the couple decides to marry, so that they can stay together.
When Ruth first accepts Seretse’s proposal, neither of them realize that their impending marriage will cause an international political crisis. Not only does Tshekedi object his nephew’s union, but so does Ruth’s father, George (Nicholas Lyndhurst). But the couple marries anyway, and Seretse brings his new wife home to Bechuanaland. Tshekedi feels betrayed, as he has raised his nephew like a son, and has been the country’s regent while Seretse attended school and prepared to take the reins of power. Seretse’s uncle also feels that having a white wife is an insult to the entire country, and he demands the future king divorce Ruth or renounce his throne.
Since Bechuanaland is an British protectorate, the English government also agrees that Seretse and Ruth should divorce. Britain has made a deal with the racially divided South Africa, which won’t accept an interracial married royal couple living on its border. While the British Parliament and two prime ministers maneuver the political turmoil in Africa, Ruth and Seretse peaceful refuse to give up on their love. The couple determinedly does whatever it takes to keep their family, as well as their country, unified during another era of turmoil.
Pike generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘A United Kingdom’ during a roundtable interview at The Peninsula Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the actress discussed how she became interested in playing Ruth in the biopic after Oyelowo sent her the script and pictures of the Khamas, and told her that the couple’s realtionship is the greatest love story of the 20th century. The actress also mentioned that shooting in the actual African country where the story is set helped make the story of the Khamas’ relationship feel more authentic.
The Academy Award-nominated actress began the conversation by discussing what attracted her to the role of Ruth in ‘A United Kingdom.’ “David Oyelowo had written me an email and said, ‘I’m going to send you a script, and it’s about arguably the greatest love story of the 20th century.’ That obviously peaked my interest,” Pike explained. “I thought that was a big claim, so I wanted to see what it was.”
The actor also sent the actress “a deck of photographs of the real couple. I didn’t know who they were, or their story,” Pike revealed. “So I opened these photographs, and saw this man and woman. I had a gut reaction to these photographs, and tears starting pouring down my check. I had this immediate and unusual visceral connection” to the pictures, so she thought she should pay attention to that reaction.
While Pike noticed the couple’s love in the photographs, she also “saw the struggle, and what it had cost them to get to that point. I think it’s the courageousness of love that still draws me to this story.”
When then asked if she always feels the need to feel such a strong emotional reaction to a script before she accepts a role, the performer divulged that she feels as though she needs to have what she calls “a secret about the character. I feel like I have to play the character in a different way than other people would. Sometimes I read things and think, I can do that, but so can 10 other people. But if something speaks to me, and you think I can play” a character, Pike will accept the role.
When she first read the script for ‘A United Kingdom,’ Pike “could see David playing (Seretse). I have known David for a number of years, and really love his work. But I had no idea that we would end up having the connection that we did on this film. It was a joy to find and experience,” the actress revealed. “It’s interesting when you know someone, and then later find that you have electric chemistry with them. That was what was so exciting about it…We both felt deeply committed to these people, and it was just magic from day one.”
Pike then described the drama as “an interesting portrayal of an African man in a British film. A lot of the time, the Africa that we see is a different version” of what the continent is really like. “You never see a member of a royal family fall in love with a white woman. But (the love between Seretse and Ruth) put a bridge between Africa and the United Kingdom. That’s what gave the story scope for me.
“Ultimately, Seretse and Ruth made their home in Botswana, and Ruth also rejected the UK over their treatment” that she and her husband received. “She had no desire to live in England again. She arrived in Botswana and made that her home…and stayed there until the end of her days. She didn’t even live in the capital-she lived out in the countryside, as that was her home,” the performer noted.
Shooting ‘A United Kingdom’ on location in Botswana was an experience that Pike described as being “amazing. It was a gift for all of us. You get this sense of place that you couldn’t get anywhere else. We had all of the supporting actors come in from the community.”
The actress added that filming in the actual location where the story’s set helped bring authentic moments to the screen. “There’s a moment where all the women sing to Ruth, which was an unscripted and unasked for moment. It was a spontaneous gift of song that arose in the moment. We wouldn’t have gotten that moment” if the drama wasn’t shot in Botswana.
Ruth’s decision to permanently move to Bechuanaland with Seretse so soon after they met is something that wouldn’t necessarily happen in modern society, Pike also noted. “In our day and age, I think we’re rather cynical about love at first sight, or falling in love rather quickly. I think that’s one of the things that drew me to the script, though. They’re people who said yes to a life in an immediate, and you can also say impulsive, way.
“Nowadays, people are looking for disconfirmation. They’re looking for a million reasons to say no before they jump in,” the performer added.
“But Ruth had just lived through the Second World War, and faced life and death in a very immediate way. So after that, I think she was ready to commit to things. She was ready to engage in life in an immediate way,” Pike explained. She also noted that Ruth’s decision to marry Seretse so soon after they met partly had to do with the time.
Ruth “was also part of a generation of people who saw a new version of what women could be during the war. They stepped into men’s roles and jobs, so they had a vision of a life that had to do more than being a housewife,” Pike pointed out.
The actress added that Ruth “didn’t know what direction life would take, but she was craving that type of involvement and excitement, and then she found it in a very unexpected way. She was an adventurer, and was bold. She was also in love. Everyone who had met them has said they were genuinely in love. So they had found certainty with each other.”
If Pike was able to speak with Ruth, who died at the age of 78 in 2002, the performer would have wanted to ask the inaugural First Lady of Botswana about her relationship with her father. Pike was interested to hear how their relationship “went down in the end. I think that would reveal quite a lot about her relationship with forgiveness and anger. We don’t see much of Ruth” dealing with those feelings.
The actress added that the estrangement between Ruth and her father surely hurt her, “but we don’t see her being too angry. She is politically angry about Churchill’s betrayal, but we don’t see that anger on a familial level.” Pike added with a laugh that she feels as though she knows Ruth, “but I’d be interested to see how far off I was.”
During production of ‘A United Kingdom,’ Pike was able to speak with Ruth and Seretse’s four children. “We had a very amusing encounter with our son (Ian Khama), who’s now the president of Botswana. There’s a very funny picture of David and me on either side of (Ian), beaming, like we have a right to be parental of this man, who’s older than us! It’s quite a funny picture.
“We also went to the equivalent of the White House in Botswana. We also met Tshekedi, who’s one of (Ruth and Seretse’s) three boys. He’s also one of their twins, along with Anthony. (Tshekedi) is named after Seretse’s uncle, so they made peace with each other,” Pike also revealed.
The performer also spoke about filming the biopic in the home the couple actually lived in when they arrived in Botswana. “The house that we first arrive in is the house that Ruth and Seretse made as their marital home. When the production company found it, it was actually lived in by a homeless person, who had burnt a hole in the floor. The house was in a very sorry state. We rehoused that gentleman, and restored the house,” Pike divulged.
“The house is now there for (Botswana’s) heritage foundation.” The pictures the actress first saw “depict Ruth in that house. It’s really iconic, and adds to the organic feeling of the film.”