ComingSoon.net talked to the beautiful and talented actresses about the role and about the surprise success of her last movie.
ComingSoon.net: Why did you feel you had to have this role?
Thandie Newton: For the story, the overall story, and also I didn't want someone else to play this role and for them to be able to justify what a b*tch is that left her child. I wanted her to be a sad, messed-up woman who committed slow suicide by leaving her child, and I knew that was me that could do that. Once I read it, I knew I had a responsibility. Sure someone else could have done it, but I didn't want to take the risk of this being left.
CS: Did you get a chance to meet or talk to Chris Gardner's real ex-wife before doing the movie?
Thandie Newton: No, she didn't want to have anything to do with the movie. She had other things going on I guess. It wasn't about that family. It wasn't about Chris Gardner making a movie about his life. It's a story that had been bought by 20/20 and that's how it happened. Chris Gardner wasn't looking for a way to have his life made into a movie; it was an accident. The movie is very separate from them as a family, and the character I play, Linda, I don't even know actually what Chris's wife is like, because the character was fictionalized. So we had free reign to create her but place her into this slot that the movie needed. The character, for the purpose of the movie, needs to bring them down so low so that he would have somewhere to climb from for the rest of the film, and that was really hard for me. When I first the script, I thought, "No way" because I would want to explore the sadness that this woman is going through, the pain that she is going through, and what would make someone self-destruct to such a degree that they would leave their child. I think that is a slow form of suicide, and I'm a mom and that's all that there is.
CS: Did you talk to Chris about what happened to his wife and her story? I thought they actually got back together at some point after this movie.
Newton: Well, it was so long ago, so I think they are both still living out their storyline right now. They had another child in a brief interlude. I was around Chris a lot during the rehearsal period, and I didn't talk at all during the rehearsal process. I didn't even want to see him actually. It wasn't a conscious choice. I was finding it hard because I felt I was battling with the story, which wasn't going to allow this woman's story to come out, and also, I just desperately didn't want the character to be this awful woman. I honestly felt like I was there for all of womankind. I was the one opportunity in the story to reveal that there are greater forces at work, deeper, darker and sad things. It's funny on how some people just watch the movie, and they see me playing such a bitch, really unsympathetic; and some people really do feel the pain. It's whatever you bring to it. That's really the best kind of movies, where the character really taps into how you feel. "Crash" was very much like that. People would come out of it raging angry and some people crying and happy. It's whatever touches in your history, your family, your personal history.
CS: Since the character of Linda is fictionalized, how did you go about creating her?
Newton: I read the role in the book, and it doesn't say enough about why a person would do this. There has to be a hint as to why or how she could leave her child and that must be some psychological breakdown depression. I spoke to Gabriele on the phone, and I said, "This is my problem with the story" and he absolutely agreed. We need to rehearse. We need to find moments where we can reveal the depression and the instability. I couldn't believe how much time and energy they were putting into this part of the story. I rehearsed for one week, every day with Will and Gabriele, to try and find the moments where you saw their relationship falling apart, the misunderstandings. There are so many things that had to be involved and I do think we managed to do it. I really do. It's that social situation. It's his lack of work opportunities. It's the fact that they put all their savings …it was a moment in time where it just broke the back of their opportunities as a couple. That was there whether I tried or not. There's one line in the story where I say, "You said it was going to be okay even before I got pregnant". We tried really hard to quickly communicate huge things.
CS: Is it harder to find your character when playing an American?
Newton: Each character I play the accent is going to be quite a different American accent. Just when I thought I can do an American accent, I get a role where the woman is based from San Francisco, so I have to do a whole lot more work now. I come to each one as if it were a whole different country, because when you are in America, there are so many different worlds. To make that believable, I couldn't use my "Crash" accent. It wouldn't have been right. There was a woman working in the costume department who had the most fantastic voice, fantastic accent. She lived in San Francisco all her life, a black American woman, so I just interviewed her over a couple of days and listened to her and talked to her, and that's how I got that accent.
CS: Is doing an American accent always an extra obstacle?
Newton: The funny thing is, bless their hearts, but the producers on our movie were so concerned about it. I think it's because if I put on a little bit of eye makeup, I can look nice and demure, and it was the idea to entirely strip away all that civilized and be someone who is just low in class, never had any opportunities, just depressed. It was more about that and the only way they can draw attention to their concern. It was never a problem, and I really, really enjoyed working on that accent because it was something different for me.
CS: Did you create a back story for her?
Newton: No, I didn't. I just wanted to know where she was from. I imagine that she had a troubled time growing up, as most people do, but I think if you are in a lonely part of America, it's tough, because you are right up next to people making a good living. There are different lives just living and finding each other. It was about that and where she is from. Like I said, I was with this woman and that was very helpful. Just having a view into a typical young person's life growing up, black and in San Francisco.
CS: What was it like working with Will?
Newton: I was bummed out that the one time I work with Will, we just shout at each other all day, and it was one of those movies where we were already getting into it. Not that we didn't get along in between, but when you shout at someone all day, you can't look them in the eye at the end of it. It was really raw and intense, and it was for hard for them to go out and have a good time. On the other hand, I really felt privileged to be around someone who… you think you know what Will can do. He is so known in the world. He's revealed so much of himself through music and everything. His TV shows have gone and on. And yet here he delivered something new, and he went deeper. I think he brought a lot of his own personal stuff to the story. It was a huge challenge and I think that one of the reasons why I wanted to do the movie because I was really in awe just to champion someone like him. He doesn't have to do this. He doesn't have to take the misery every day to play this role, but he wanted to be challenged, and I think that's very admirable.
CS: Would you ever consider working with your kids the way Will did with Jaden?
Newton: I was amazed that Will had so many roles on this film. He was an actor. He was playing someone who is already living was going to honor that. That's another layer to the performance and he's being a dad and being an acting coach to his son. Unbelievable. I wouldn't seek out an opportunity for that, but neither did Will. It was an accident.
CS: What do you think an outsider like Gabriele Muccino brought to the movie?
Newton: It's interesting. I was talking to Will about it and Will was hugely instrumental in Gabriele being the choice. I think the studio execs were perplexed about it, because many well known American directors could've been the director of this film. Will had a very strong instinct that a non-American should make a movie about the American dream. That's what the movie needed, and I think he was right. I know I've done that, played a role where because I'm not American, there's more of a truth to it which can make it painful in a way because you are not trying to be loyal, so it's harsher as a result, more truthful. That's what Gabriele did and Will was adamant that Gabriele was going to bring his vision brought to the screen. There was going to be no meddling from the powers that be, and the way to achieve that, which was so clever, was always letting Gabriele having the last word on everything. There were days I would be like, "I don't think I should be doing that" and Gabriele and Will would just give it up. That's a tough thing to do when you are a big star, but also someone who has proven themselves many times and what you know is right. He is a very clever guy, Will. He really knows what he is doing. As a result you've got Will in an uncomfortable place and that's what partly makes this movie. The characters find themselves in uncomfortable places, and that always gives an edge to a performance I think. That's what great directors are, and that's the difference. When they make you do something that you don't necessary want to do and then you watch it, and it's the questioning and challenge and discomfort that gives the film that extra something.
CS: Obviously, Will is being given a big awards push for the movie, but do you think they might do the same for your supporting role?
Newton: I'm just glad to be sitting here right now, really, and for the film to have turned out so beautifully. I could be really political about it, and if there's lots of supporting actresses out there that delivered very strong roles, it's probably unlikely, because it's a very small role that doesn't have that nice tying it up at the end. I don't come back. If it's a lean year, than who knows? But it's not hugely important to me. I had an amazing year last year. "Crash" did really well, but I'm always surprised about what happens. Sometimes you can really predict things but that's not what it's all about. I know it's a cliché but it really isn't. After "Beloved," I was so gutted that the film didn't have any attention, I just thought, "I don't know anything," so I don't have any expectations.
CS: It must have been nice to see "Crash" get the picture award after that long journey it took.
Newton: Oh, listen, I'm very, very proud, and I will weep and weep (with joy obviously) if anybody is celebrated in the way that I feel I was celebrated. It's always wonderful when someone you think is great gets recognized.
Source: Edward Douglas
The Pursuit of Happyness
opens on Friday, December 15