Fine and Thandie
Last updated at 22:44pm on 6th January 2007
BAFTA winner: But Thandie puts her family first
After winning a Bafta last year, actress Thandie Newton is much in demand. But, as she reveals to Nancy Mills, Newton’s first law for a happy life is to put family first.
This is one of those schizophrenic days for Thandie Newton...
Up at dawn to get her six-year-old daughter Ripley ready for school, she happily worked her way through a series of mummy activities —feeding the neighbourhood cat, taking younger daughter Nico on a play-date, making lunch, overseeing Nico’s nap, then picking up Ripley and a friend from school.
She could be any mum, on any street, dealing with the minutiae of daily life. But she isn’t.
She won a 2006 BAFTA for her searing performance in “Crash”, and after our interview, as her writer/director husband, Ol Parker, takes over child care responsibilities for the evening, Thandie will transform herself into movie star mode to attend a Vogue magazine party at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
This once insecure and sometimes-fragile actress has now blossomed into a confident, radiant beauty. “I used to hate going to parties because I had pride,” she admits.
“I didn’t want to have to go talk to someone just to make a new contact. But now I’m very aware of ‘the game’ and I can do it. So tonight will be 50 per cent work and 50 per cent seeing friends.”
It may have taken half her life in front of cameras, a supportive husband, two children and that BAFTA win, but Thandie has now grown into herself.
She credits the teachings of Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron (“When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times,” “Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living”) with shaping her current thinking.
“It’s a matter of accepting what is,” she says. “Pregnancy and childbirth is where I learned to surrender and accept that what will be will be.
"It’s not a matter of confidence: confidence has got to be active. This is the opposite. It’s being interested in each moment and not thinking that far ahead.
"My goal is not to be super-happy but to appreciate what I have right now. The saddest thing would be always looking ahead and needing more.
“For me, success is working this year, being comfortable and having time with my husband and my children. Maybe if I’d had fame earlier, it could have become an addiction."
"But I don’t have expectations. When I got the BAFTA Award, it was so not expected or needed.
"I had come to a peaceful acceptance of the way things are, and I’d stopped giving myself a hard time about not being this or that. I’m not immune to feeling anxiety and insecurity," she adds, "but I can pop myself out of it.”
At 34, Thandie has starred opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible II," Nick Nolte in "Jefferson in Paris," Oprah Winfrey in "Beloved" and, next spring, Eddie Murphy in the comedy "Norbit".
But the movie that means the most to her right now is “The Pursuit of Happyness”.
Based on the true story of a family man struggling to get by, the film stars Will Smith, with Thandie as his wife, Linda, a depressed, overworked laundress.
When Will’s character can’t bring in enough money to help pay the bills, she leaves him and their five-year-old son to try to make a better life for herself.
For Thandie, it was important that audiences understand Linda.
“Depending on how the scenes are played, she could be an awful, one-dimensional bitch,” she says, “but I wanted to express the deep well of sadness inside her.
"One thing I’ve always loved about acting is what you can do without words, what you can do with your body, what you can do with stillness.
"Linda is an unsympathetic character,” she admits, “but when I read the script I felt so much sympathy for her. Having to leave your child is like suicide. She must have been so distraught and damaged.”
Thandie didn’t have to look far to get into character, because she experienced her own trauma in being without her elder daughter for three weeks during filming.
“Ripley was just starting her first proper school,” she says, “and I didn’t want her to feel like an outsider by leaving and coming back again. Some kids like to be gypsies - Ripley’s not one of them.
"So she stayed with her father, and I went to San Francisco just with Nico, whom I was still nursing.”
But the actress did not expect such a visceral reaction to leaving her daughter behind.
“I just shut down,” she says. “I had to numb what made me human. So I did experience some of what my character felt. I won’t leave Ripley behind again.”
Motherhood has given her a focus that may have been missing during her early years of fame.
When director John Duigan came to the Art Education School (her North London boarding school) looking for newcomers to appear in his movie “Flirting,” she was a sixteen-year-old dance student sidelined by an injury.
Duigin, then in his early forties, chose her for the lead and took her to Australia to shoot the film alongside then-unknowns Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts. He started an affair with her, and Thandie followed him to Hollywood.
A few years later she starred in his film “The Journey of August King”, but the relationship eventually ended.
Thandie has bad memories of the experience.
“It was an exploitative situation,” she says. “With an age difference like that, huge games were being played with power. But I grew up really fast. It afforded me wisdom I wouldn’t have had, no matter how painful it was at the time.”
To get away from Hollywood, she came back to England and took a degree in anthropology at Cambridge.
She continued to act when roles presented themselves and eventually received international attention as Cruise’s co-star in “Mission: Impossible II”.
Superstardom then beckoned with the offer to be a Charlie’s Angel alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz.
But in the end, Thandie declined because she feared it would affect her relationship with her husband. Instead, she got pregnant.
“You can have plans for yourself,” she says. “But if you’ve got a family, all plans are off. I never had that need to be a huge movie star.
"I realised that when ‘Charlie’s Angels’ came up. I realised there are two ways to be a movie star. You can work your way up. Or you can go to the right parties and have a rocking boyfriend.
"Turning down ‘Charlie’s Angels’ came out of the confidence that I’d be okay, that I’d always work. I think I’m a good actor, and there’s always work for good actors.”
Instead of “Charlie’s Angels”, she made a small film, “It Was an Accident”, written by her husband.
The couple met ten years ago on the set of “In Your Dreams”, a BBC film he also wrote, and they married a year later. Now, every career decision is based on how it will affect her family.
“My first priority is my elder daughter’s well-being,” Thandie says. “Very often if I’m feeling at my most complete and satisfied, that will make her feel secure.
"Or I might need to work because we’ll need the money next year or we won’t be able to afford her guitar lessons.”
She predicts that her husband’s work schedule will soon control the family dynamic. “Ol just directed a movie (‘Imagine Me and You’),” she says, “and he has two more possible movies and maybe something for TV. Our lives will be determined by his career now.
"It’s tricky and a constant re-evaluation. The main thing is that Ol and I want the same thing -to be secure as a family, for the kids to feel protected. There’s nothing worse than feeling I’m not doing right for my children.”
Will she have more? “Who knows,” she hedges. “It’s not that I think we will, but I can’t imagine not having another child. About one month after Ripley was born, I had an incredible need to be pregnant again.
"The same thing happened with Nico. It’s like an ache - a need to love. When you become a mother, it cracks you open.
"You have such sensitivity to nurturing, but I think that urge can be satisfied by helping other people, caring for other people or even fostering children."
Her yearning for a strong family life could come from her own childhood. She spent her first five years in Zambia, where her British father had met her Zimbabwean mother, a nurse.
Then the family moved to Cornwall, where Thandie’s grandparents owned an antiques business.
“It’s a struggle to be an African person in a non-African country,” she says about her mum’s adjustment to England.
“I think she had to make so much more effort to fulfill her life in the way she deserves. I haven’t had to put that much energy into establishing my dignity. I have the luxury of being second generation.”
Thandie has always insisted that she never experienced racism as a child. “I might have heard some comments,” she says, “but they didn’t strike me as racist. Racism is not fundamental in children. It’s created.
"But as an adult I can see how racism seeped into my subconscious: for a long time I felt the reason that people were looking at me funny in Hollywood was because I was black, when really they were thinking, ‘What the hell is this teenager doing with this filthy old bloke?’”
Now, as a parent, she is determined to provide her children with as much love and security as possible. Ripley is already thinking about wanting to be an actor, and Thandie says, “That would be cool. There are lots of different ways people get into acting. Some actors are technicians and are very secure within themselves.
"Others have a neediness that seeks validation, and as a result you’re in the worst place to be rejected. I’d like to think that Ripley is so loved that she’d want to be the technician – that she wouldn’t need acting to feel loved.”
Did she? “I’m reticent to say I was fragile,” Thandie says. “It’s not something to be ashamed of, but I become very uneasy because it’s a comment on my childhood. My parents did an amazing job, considering the restraints and difficulties.
"I spent a long time being judgmental, but lots of things have happened recently that make me appreciate how much the good things, strengths and kindnesses meant.
“Ripley will be pissed off for different things. ‘You were there too much. Be gone!’ I’ll be ready for it, and I’ll be ready to sign her up for therapy.” She laughs. “We can have lunch after her sessions.”
The Pursuit of Happyness opens on 12 January