Saturday, August 25, 2007
Times 25th August
August 25, 2007
Thandie lightens up
British star Thandie Newton has negotiated personal trauma, a Cambridge degree and motherhood to become an A-list Hollywood star by stealth. And now, with a new direction in comedy, she’s looking on the bright side
Thandie Newton can do intense (Beloved), troubled (Crash) and downright tragic (The Pursuit of Happyness) with a commitment that makes Hollywood beg for more, please. “God, yeah, I’m good at playing the emotionally strangled person,” she says. “The woman who is in the worst place in her life. That’s me!” Off camera, she’s far from emotionally strangled – she laughs easily and chats happily about anything you care to mention, with the savvy of an actress who has not only survived but thrived at the top of her industry for a long time. For while we’re used to the fuss being made about Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley, Thandie Newton has been quietly carving out an international reputation for herself with big-budget Hollywood movies and Oscar-contender roles. Remarkably, she’s well into her second decade of making movies and she’s only 34.
But Newton is drawn to exploring darker characters, pointing out that, even though her life is happy now, this wasn’t always the case. In her early twenties she emerged from a relationship with an older man feeling guilty, so she went into therapy to get herself “sorted”. Today she is “fascinated by the darker sides of people. I feel such sympathy. I can’t stand serial killer movies, seeing all these one-dimensional baddies. Life is about shades…”
Her best performances have come from examining such territory: a good example is the Oscar-winning Crash, which deftly dissected racism in Los Angeles. Newton was brilliant as a woman sexually assaulted by a white cop, who later saves her life.
“I so love that film,” she says. “I waited 18 months for the role and it was worth it.” Newton’s performance was arguably the most memorable of a stellar ensemble cast and rightly won her a Bafta for Best Supporting Actress.
She followed Crash with another tough role in The Pursuit of Happyness, playing a young mother at the end of her tether who walks out on her husband (Will Smith) and their son when he loses his job and they face economic ruin. It’s a measure of Newton’s clout and her personality – she’s certainly no pushover – that, although she wanted to work with Smith, she argued for a radical script change in the way her character was portrayed and won the day.
“The Pursuit of Happyness was miserable. I could barely get to grips with the idea of it. But I realised that if a woman wants to do that, she’s at the end. If you leave your kids, you want to die. That’s the only way I could think of it and that’s the way I played it. I hope that came across. You should have seen the script when I first got it. I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got to do this. I can’t let someone else portray this character as a one-dimensional bitch.’ That would be another strike against women. To give them credit, the director and Will knew that.”
It’s hardly surprising that she decided to follow these two films by turning to some lighter fare. There was the Eddie Murphy star vehicle Norbit, which was critically mauled. Next, she stars alongside British comedy’s man of the moment, Simon Pegg, in Run, Fat Boy, Run, directed by David (Ross from Friends) Schwimmer.
“It was like, ‘Oh yeah, please, I want to play a girl who has it sorted.’ I realised that I wasn’t making films that reflected my joy and my optimism. Simon made me laugh and I needed a laugh.”
Newton is delighted with the film. “I thought it would be entertaining and Simon is hilarious. But it’s more than that; it has depth and a heart. That was David’s big thing. He kept saying, ‘Look, we can do a comedy but can we do a drama with a real story and real people that is also funny?’ It’s very funny and very poignant.”
Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) plays Dennis, a commitment-phobe who jilted his pregnant girlfriend (Newton) on their wedding day. Five years later, as she is about to marry her American boyfriend (Hank Azaria), he wakes up to the fact that he is about to lose her – and his son – for ever. “It’s about him growing up,” she says. “But for my character, when you are eight months pregnant, compassion for that kind of behaviour goes out of the window. It’s like, ‘Step up to the plate or sod off then…’”
We meet in the Electric, a private cinema on Portobello Road, near her home in West London. She’s small-boned and delicate; in the past there was speculation that she was unhealthily thin. It’s not the case, she says; she’s always been tiny – although she did once admit to struggling with bulimia in her early twenties. Born in Zambia, to a Zimbabwean district nurse, Nyasha, and a white English lab technician turned artist, Nick Newton, Thandie and her younger brother Jamie, a TV producer, grew up in Penzance, the only black children in the area.
“I don’t remember racism. Just cruelty, the usual kids’ stuff, you know ‘big ears’ or ‘big nose’,” she says. “But my mum and I have talked about this and my parents kept us safe from a lot of crap. I knew that, as a girl, none of the boys wanted to go out with me, it was too extreme.” Mostly, she has happy memories of her early childhood and is close to her parents and her brother. Now she has a family of her own – she is married to the British director Ol Parker and they have two daughters, Ripley and Nico. She delights in taking them down to Cornwall. “Ripley loves it there. It’s where I grew up and it wasn’t that I became jaded by it but, you know, you want to move on from where you grew up. Because she’s a Londoner, Ripley has a much stronger appreciation of it, and I love seeing it all through her eyes.”
A talented dancer, at 11 Newton won a scholarship to the Arts Educational School, an all-girl boarding school on the outskirts of London. Although she loved the fact that she could dance every day, the downside was being separated from her parents. At 16, she had already picked up a succession of dance-related injuries that prevented her from dancing for three months. Post-GCSEs, she was facing a long summer of boredom when one of the teachers suggested she audition for a film that was holding open casting sessions in London.
“It was totally out of the blue,” she recalls. “I’d never acted before and was convinced I couldn’t do it. But the head of drama said: ‘Come on, Thandie, they are paying for us both to go on the train to London, we may as well go. Here’s the script.’ I only read my page, I couldn’t see the point of reading the rest. I went up for the audition in my school uniform and got the part. That was it.”
Weeks later, she was in Australia filming Flirting for director John Duigan, joining Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, who were both equally unknown at the time. Newton played a schoolgirl who falls for an awkward youngster (played by Noah Taylor) from the nearby boys’ school. The film literally changed her life: “I was 16, for Christ’s sake; it was everything, a huge watershed: being in Australia, working on a film. My dad came for a month and after that I think he was bored and needed to get back to the UK and I was on my own after that. He thought I was fine. Little did he know.”
For not only did Flirting introduce Newton to acting and lead to the professional life she has now, she and Duigan – 23 years her senior – began an affair that would dominate her life for the next five years. She now feels that the relationship was unhealthy for her. “It has no bearing on who I am now but it did for a very long time. It’s pre-history. But once you gain consciousness about something and get perspective – especially an adult perspective – it can be shocking. I was angry with myself. And there are young people who get into this business and they need to be protected. It seems fun, but it attracts unconventional people who pride themselves on being unconventional, because that’s sometimes an asset to being an artist, right? But sometimes conventions are there for a reason and they are conventions because they work, because they are more healthy.”
Her parents were mostly unaware of the affair. “They didn’t know about it for years,” she says. “There were a few foggy years, where I was sort of conducting my life based around the shame I felt. There was a lack of self-worth and it took me many steps backwards. But I was fortunate that I could get therapy and that helped me to deal with what had happened.”
I ask her if she ever felt the need to confront Duigan. “Oh, no. Well, I spoke to him on the phone. He tracked me down because he said that he didn’t like the way I was talking about him in the press. And then Ol had a word with him,” she says, raising her eyebrows.
“But I don’t condemn. I feel so much compassion for people who harm other people because they are harming themselves through other people. I’m well adjusted, and I’m in touch with the whole spectrum of how complicated people are. To go around being afraid of certain people, and saying, ‘That person is bad,’ just closes you down further and further until you only exist in a little box.”
Remarkably, through all of this, Newton managed to finish her schooling, read anthropology at Cambridge and make films. “I didn’t want to do English or drama, because I already had my snout in the door with that,” she says. “I wanted to do something that fascinated me and anthropology did that. Cambridge was amazing. But I never really got into the social side of it. I was making films – Jefferson in Paris, Interview with the Vampire, The Journey of August King. I remember studying for my finals at the Cannes Film Festival. I probably ended up working as hard, if not harder, than the others. And I got a 2.1, which I was pretty pleased with.”
Newton has always been admired in Hollywood. She has worked with some of the biggest male stars, including Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Will Smith, and combined roles on blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible II and The Chronicles of Riddick with edgier films such as Crash and Beloved (in which she played the ghost of a slave).
“I don’t put the pressure on myself to be a very successful movie star,” she says. “I want to enjoy being an actor and I want to be challenged by the roles I take. What is lovely is that I’ll get sent a small movie, and you know that by virtue of me being involved they get their money and that's fantastic.”
Earlier in the summer, she finished filming Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, playing a crooked accountant. “It was great fun,” she says. “And we were filming in London, so I was at home every night.” Newton met Parker a decade ago on the set of the BBC film In Your Dreams, which he wrote, and they have been married for eight years. Giving birth to Ripley changed her profoundly, she says, and helped her erase some painful memories.
“Having children is life-changing, to state the obvious. It’s a gigantic shift in your life and I welcomed it. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s something about the shame that goes with sexual exploitation, deviance, whatever. As a woman, having a baby psychologically erases it all from your body. And that, for me, was incredibly important.” She shows me a picture of two girls. “Aren’t they beautiful? They’re my life, they really are.”
So that angst on screen doesn’t equate with the contentment she feels at home. “But that’s all right,” she says. “It’s called acting, isn’t it?”
Run, Fat Boy, Run is released on September 7