60 SECONDS: Thandie NewtonBY SCOTT TENORMAN - Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Actress Thandie Newton was born to a Zimbabwean mother and British father and grew up in Cornwall. She was 16 when she made her first film, Flirting, and has since had success in Mission: Impossible II and Crash, where she played mouthy Christine Thayer. She plays opposite Will Smith in her latest movie, The Pursuit Of Happyness, released nationwide on Friday.
You play another unlikeable character in The Pursuit Of Happyness. Why do it?Because it’s a really good film. I saw it for the first time recently and I was so alarmed by finally seeing my performance in relation to the rest of the movie. It was the same with Crash. I came in isolation and did my bits really quickly, one after the other. It really wasn’t my character’s story but I was worried about her being demonised. I said to the director: ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’
Will Smith comes across as a super-nice guy. Is he?I didn’t get to know him. Working with him was special, even though part of me was pretty bummed out because I had to shout at him in all my scenes. At the end of the day, when we’d been horrible to each other, it was very hard to then just be sweet and nice.
Had you met Will before?No but there was one time I could have met him. I was working on the  film Beloved in Philadelphia. That role kind of knocked me about and I found it hard to let it go. I’d had a massage in the hotel and got into the lift. I looked an absolute state and in those days I was shy. Will and [his wife] Jada got into the lift on their way up to see Oprah Winfrey in the penthouse. I knew who they were and they probably knew who I was. But I just pretended they weren’t there. I think I closed my eyes, pretending I was in a post-massage reverie. I’ve had shame flashes about it ever since.
Don’t you famous actors say ‘hi’ to each other automatically?It’s funny you say that. The other night I went to this pasta place in New York and George Clooney walked in. It was as though we were old friends. I’d never met him before. But he is the most charming, lovely man, a complete sweetheart. He even bought me and my girlfriend dinner.
Is it true that people can’t differentiate between the real you and your Crash character?Totally. Crash was very controversial and people got really angry. Black men in particular have a problem with that role. There was one guy recently at the Black Entertainment Television Awards in the US and he said: ‘You’re her, aren’t you?’ I knew he meant Crash. He said: ‘I know you’re an actress and everything but if you’d just shut up, none of the sh*t in the film would have happened.’
Sometimes you see people and think: 'Well, how much time can they really spend with their kids?'
Are you supposed to be flattered that he thought your character was a real person?People do say that. But playing another role like that in The Pursuit Of Happyness was an issue. Just because I get it and I feel sympathy and compassion for my character, it doesn’t mean everyone else does. I wondered whether I could play another unsympathetic role but knew I had the Eddie Murphy film Norbit coming up.
What was Eddie like?He’s very sweet. Very quiet. Quite shy on set. We had nice times. We ended up talking about this and that. We’re both parents. And we giggled. He found my English background very funny. And if I’m in the presence of someone who’s either very shy or needs to be brought out of their shell, I just become an absolute idiot. The English toilet humour just whips around the place. Whatever it takes to break the ice.
You have another film coming out this year, Run, Fat Boy, Run. Is it a good time to be you?It is a good time but now I want to have a break.
The Pursuit Of Happyness is about a man who keeps going despite horrendous obstacles. What keeps you strong-willed?Being a mum.
Your friend Cate Blanchett said you would say that.She and I are similar in that we’re able to take our careers very seriously but also it’s absolutely not a question that the kids come first. Sometimes you see people and you think: ‘Well, how much time can they really spend with their kids?’ But with Cate, she’s got that balance so right.
When you don’t work, do you miss it?I miss the idea of it. But then it’s that first day of getting up at 5.30am to go to set and I remember why it’s OK not to do it as well. It’s like any job. There are those days that make you realise why you put in the hours.
Your son in The Pursuit Of Happyness is played by Will Smith’s real son [seven-year-old Jaden] and you were only 16 when you made your first film, Flirting. Do you think being a child actor is potentially detrimental?I don’t know. I was thinking the other day about Jamie Bell and Billy Elliot. That was a huge showcase for him, then he tootled along getting on with life and now he’s back. The same with Mischa Barton. I remember her doing childhood roles. There are so many things that kids do. Doing a film is like going to camp in a way. It doesn’t have to suddenly be: ‘Right, you’re an actor now.’ I remember Flirting. I didn’t expect to make another film. I thought: ‘Well, this is cool. I’m a dancer but I’m not doing anything else this summer and, crazily, they want me to do it.’ So I went and did that in my summer holiday and went back to school.
How did it turn into a career?Another offer came along and again it fell during the summer holiday, so I thought: ‘I’ll do it again.’ By that time, I’d given up dancing and gone more into academia [she studied anthropology at Cambridge] and then the parts kept coming. I was a student and could do with the extra cash. I didn’t really want to work in the local bakery for next to nothing. And then it just sort of became a career.