Gugu Mbatha-Raw was born Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha on 30 June 1983, in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, England. Her name, "Gugulethu", is a contraction of igugu lethu, means "our pride" (depending on context) in Zulu, like the township of the same name. Gugu grew up in the small town of Witney in Oxfordshire, before moving to London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 2001. Her mother, Anne, is an English nurse, and her father, Patrick Mbatha, is a South African doctor.
Mbatha-Raw played minor roles on television series such as Bad Girls (1999), Doctor Who (2007) and Marple (2007). One of her earliest breakthroughs in drama was in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester in 2005. Mbatha-Raw was nominated for best actress in the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards for her portrayal as Juliet and also played Cleopatra in the Anthony and Cleopatra at the same theatre in 2005.
In September 2010, she starred in the J. J. Abrams TV series Undercovers, which was cancelled two months later.
In June 2011, Mbatha-Raw was cast as the female lead in the Fox pilot Touch opposite Kiefer Sutherland.
She had a supporting role in 2011 romantic comedy film Larry Crowne, written and directed by Tom Hanks who starred in the titular role