LONDON - Donna Langley is a woman with big plans, not least to send Tom Cruise into space. As the chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, she’s the first British woman to run a major American film studio. It makes her one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Not bad for a Brit from the Isle of Wight who arrived in Los Angeles in her early 20s with no contacts in the movie business at all. Thirty years on - and now a Dame - Langley tells me she still feels “culturally very English, even though my accent slips in and out a bit”. She does sound more transatlantic than Isle of Wight, but as we ride together on the back of a golf cart around the Universal lot, she assures me: “I still like my Marmite sandwiches and a good packet of crisps.”

Langley has turned Universal’s fortunes around, and has been steering the oldest surviving US film studio through the difficulties of a pandemic as well as the rise of the streaming platforms.

Langley tells BBC News that Cruise plans to take a rocket up to the International Space Station. The movie plot, which Cruise and director Doug Liman pitched to her on Zoom during the pandemic, “actually takes place on earth, and then the character needs to go up to space to save the day”.

The hope, she adds, is that Cruise will be “the first civilian to do a spacewalk outside of the space station”. For Universal, the space film is clearly still an aspiration at this stage. More definite is the slate of 44 movies announced for release in 2022/23 as the industry tries to get back to pre-Covid levels.

There will be the lucrative franchise stalwarts (among them another Trolls movie; the 10th Fast and Furious, shot in the UK; and then Despicable Me 4 in 2024). But there’s creative range too.

Langley’s wooed Steven Spielberg back to the studio where he made Jaws and ET. The Fabelmans has just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Christopher Nolan will release his next movie Oppenheimer with Universal after he dumped Warner Bros for Langley.

The forthcoming She Said stars Carey Mulligan as one of the journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Picking which movie pitches will fly is “gut instinct”, she tells me in a lengthy interview for BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show. Rather than rationalising decisions through a business model lens, it’s about “feeling the story on a very human level”, she says.

Her USP in part comes from learning early in her career to “make films that were aimed at a specific audience”, often people traditionally ignored by Hollywood. She found that movies appealing to women or people of colour, for example, were “good business. 

The amount of money the films make is relative to what they cost, so they’re hugely profitable.”

She championed Straight Outta Compton, the movie charting the rise of hip-hop group NWA, which took $201m at the box office worldwide.

Famously, she fought for Mamma Mia when others weren’t keen. The movie, based on Abba’s back catalogue, was a smash hit, with global takings of $600m.

“They are films that I didn’t see as inherently risky. It’s easy for me to sit here with you today and say that, when the proof is in the pudding.”

But for Langley, there’s a common thread to that success, even if others didn’t see it. They were universal stories audiences could relate to.

Phyllida Lloyd, Mamma Mia’s director, praises Langley’s “clarity and calm”. She told me the Universal executive had “a business-like approach. She really did not sweat the small stuff.” Sharon Waxman, editor in chief of The Wrap, one of Hollywood’s most influential publications, describes Langley as “hugely respected”. 

Of course not everything is a hit and Waxman points to the disappointing opening weekend for Bros, Universal’s gay romcom. They are the first major studio to make a movie of this kind.

But she credits her with taking risks. She Said, for example, “is not a movie that every studio would decide to green light”.