Jasper Gerard meets Thandie Newton
Jilting Hollywood for her own £6m baby Aficionados of this rather macabre sport know there are two types of speech from scrumptious film stars accepting the supporting actress award: gushing or blubbing. Thandie Newton, the only only British actor to bag a Bafta at last Sunday’s ceremony, went for the gush. “And I didn’t even get you anything!” was her response to receiving a Bafta for her film Crash, before assuring us the gong was for everyone, not just her. Which, of course, it ain’t. So her ample physical charms aside, my hopes about Newton were slim. I’ve interviewed enough of them to know that the best an actress quote usually gets is, “It was such an honour to work with X,” and ending with a declaration that winning the award was “humbling”, at which the star normally commands her terrified PR to summon a limo “like now”.
But once Thandie (pronounced Tandy) is all gushed and humbled out I discover she has decidedly more whirring away upstairs. Not only did she study anthropology at Cambridge, she talks movingly about how she was sexually abused as a young actress by a much older film director and how this blighted her twenties; about how, being mixed race, she cannot find work in Britain as our films tend to be period — that is, white — romps; and about that perennial work-life balance question – shucks, you know: should I become a Hollywood megastar like my mucker Nicole Kidman, or a housewife in London’s nappy valley supreme, Queen’s Park?
Newton may have turned down 6m big ones to take the role in Charlie’s Angels then hastily accepted by Lucy Liu, but the slight figure buried in a frayed overcoat who bundles into the Notting Hill bar looks less starlet than student. It is only when partially disrobed that you see why the camera loves Newton, who starred opposite Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II: dark, piercing eyes, delicate face and the longest neck found outside a zoo.
Appropriate, really, because Crash was decidedly animalistic. After touching down in Los Angeles to begin filming, the first question Newton was asked was whether she had any protective knickers — for a scene in which she was to be sexually assaulted by a cop. “When the film came out I felt undressed, and not just because I was sexually violated,” she says, toying with her fruit salad. “I felt emotionally vulnerable, too.”
For the film awoke unsettling memories for Newton, who aged 16 embarked on a traumatic relationship with John Duigan, the director of her first film — called, innocently enough, Flirting. She was at acting school in Tring, Hertfordshire, and he was 23 years her senior. “Shame,” she says, “can take you to places you have never been.”
But why should she have felt shame? “Sexual abuse is shaming. I was in a relationship with a much older person and in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced.”
Did she report it to the police? This is, after all, a serious allegation? “I am my own supreme court,” she fires back passionately. “I judge that one. And in a strict legal way there might not be a case.” She pauses: “I can feel compassion now for all those involved, including for the person I was.” For all those involved? “Well, all right then, for him.”
The relationship, which continued for six years, threatened to consume her, darkening her varsity days. “I was not a functioning person, I was a zombie,” she says. “Still, I think I might avoid my midlife crisis. I have had my trauma.” For ages she “demonised” her former lover and became “self-destructive” with “low self-esteem”. Hard, surely, for an actress meant to exude sexual confidence?
“Funnily enough, no: acting was the one thing that gave me peace; the chattering voices stopped.” Newton, 33, now euphorically married with two children, insists she has put this demon to bed, but has decided to speak up “so teenagers can see they can resist and can gain self-awareness”.
Her travails with Oliver Parker, her screenwriter hubbie, are happily more banal. As the main breadwinner only offered work in Hollywood she does not know what to do with her two girls, who seem to flourish at home in London.
Ripley, 5, had just started school when Newton won a plum role opposite Will Smith in a forthcoming flick, Pursuit of Happyness, filmed in Los Angeles before Christmas. Newton took her toddler Nico, leaving Ripley with her husband. The separation proved traumatic, for mother and daughter.
“It was terrible,” she grimaces. “You could feel the crystals had formed. I had to massage the trust back into her.” So did she feel maternal guilt?
“No, because I won’t let it happen again. Besides, Oliver had not been paid for a film he had worked on and we needed the money.”
She wishes there were more British studios offering diverse parts. Still, she can’t resist a dig at Joe Wright, director of Pride and Prejudice, who vowed to stay working in Britain. “I thought ‘good for you’,” she says a touch sarcastically. “But is the opposite, to work abroad, wrong if you have no job offers here?”
Her annoyance might have been stoked by her failure to land the role of chief Bond babe in the next 007 caper. It is probably inevitable that she is “highly attuned to race”, the subject of Crash. Contrary to earlier reports Newton was born in Britain — “I couldn’t be more British,” she splutters, sounding rather Nancy Mitford, “my father’s family were in Cornwall before the Vikings.” But she spent her early childhood in Zambia with her British father, a lab technician, and Zimbabwean nurse mother.
As Zambia grew more unstable the clan returned to Cornwall in 1977 — and mummy Newton found herself the first black in the village. “My mother has told me of challenging situations,” says Newton, who describes her childhood self as “an earnest little person” who made mama cook “mushroom bakes” as she refused to eat meat.
“Mostly it was wide-eyed ‘Ooh, do you know the African woman down the road’, which is offensive in one way but can also be celebrated.” Observing her daughter, Newton notices she groups dolls according to length of hair rather than skin colour; our obsession with racial difference is learned rather than innate, she suggests.
There aren’t many actresses who would turn down £6m for Charlie’s Angels, but she says casually: “We had decided we wanted to try for a family and that isn’t going to happen if you spend 10 months in terribly tight jeans. The difficulty was feeling I’d let people down: Drew Barrymore had been very warm.”
She admits it dented her career: “Vogue wanted me on the cover, then when I turned down the part it didn’t ring back.” She draws up her short but shapely legs, shod in tracksuit bottoms and Converse trainers, and smiles: “Films are pretty disposable. I tend to regret films I have done rather than those I haven’t.” Pause.
“Still, now we have our children through those early stages I feel a revival of interest in my career; I no longer feel embarrassed to have ambition. If I crash very visibly, I am comfortable with that.”
It seems an unlikely scenario. She has not been nominated for this year’s Oscars next Sunday. But let’s hope she can repeat her Bafta triumph in Hollywood some day soon.
credit goes to the times for london for this interview