Tuesday, May 27, 2008
'I was so incredibly self-conscious'
Thandie Newton is a refreshingly unpolished Hollywood star. She tells Laura Barton about playing Condoleezza Rice, being unknown in Africa and how she had to struggle for her sense of entitlement
Wednesday May 28, 2008 The Guardian
Thandie Newton stands in her hallway apologising. "The house smells of wet dog!" she cries, looking somewhat bemused and partly distressed. "I lit some candles, to hide the smell," she adds. Her dog, Maggie, sniffs the air obligingly. Through in the kitchen we sit at the table, shoot the breeze, wait for the kettle to boil while Maggie curls up in her bed and looks at us damply. "I made a note to myself," Newton says, and her voice is calm and clear: "Talk about water."
We are indeed here to talk about water; Newton, at 35 one of Britain's most successful actors, is the recently appointed face of a campaign by the bottled water company Volvic and the charity World Vision to provide clean water and mechanised pumps to the drought-stricken regions of west Africa. It is precisely the type of project - a marriage of celebrity, charity and a multinational company - that on first hearing rather makes one bristle. "I was a bit sceptical about it at first," Newton admits. Not only because of the environmental implications of encouraging people to buy bottled water but "because the teaming up of Volvic and World Vision seems ... well, you know, how much is Volvic really committed to making a difference, or is it really about boosting sales of Volvic?"
But in February, Newton went on a trip to Mali to see World Vision's work first-hand. She wasn't, she says "feeling that groovy" - three weeks earlier she had undergone surgery for an ovarian cyst "and I'd had endometriosis as well, and I'd just been feeling like I was in my first trimester of pregnancy for six months - I mean the number of pregnancy tests I took knowing that I wasn't," she sighs. "So I still felt pretty shaky, and if it had been going on a trip for Chanel or something I wouldn't have done it, but there was an added incentive with this."
The incentive was not just World Vision's work, but Newton's own connection with the continent: her mother, a healthcare worker, is Zimbabwean (her white father is an English lab technician and artist). Newton also lived for a while in Zambia. "I've been to Africa many times," she says, "and also I'm educated about Africa, in terms of just reading about the political situation and colonialism, and how that continent has suffered, but also about how it has endured and survived."
In Mali, she went to a village without a mechanised pump, "where every day people generally queue for between three and six hours for water. And they walk at least half a mile - sometimes as much as four miles - to get there."
She spent a while with the women in the queue for the manual water pump. "It's not misery," she says, "they're chatting to each other." Like at the launderette? "Exactly!" she cries. "They were teasing me about the fact that I would never be able to pump with my scrawny arms." Newton laughs.
The community was in the throes of celebration having learned that they would soon be receiving a mechanised pump from the charity. "I felt really kind of ashamed because I had nothing to do with it," Newton says, "but they kept introducing me, saying: 'This is a very famous actress. She is extremely important!' and I thought, 'Oh please don't do this! They've never heard of me!'" She was taken into the local school to explain her work to the students. "And what was so cool was I went into the classroom thinking this is going to nail it: 'I've worked with Tom Cruise.' Silence. 'Will Smith.' Silence."
Newton has indeed worked with many of Hollywood's leading stars. She made her debut in 1991 in the Australian coming-of-age drama Flirting, starred in Interview with a Vampire, Beloved, Mission: Impossible II, The Pursuit of Happyness and Norbit, and won a Bafta for her role in Crash. More recently she starred alongside Simon Pegg in David Schwimmer's directorial debut Run Fatboy Run, and will soon be seen in Guy Ritchie's next cinematic outing, RocknRolla. But for all her impressive on-screen appearances, for all the truth in the fact that she is "a very famous actress", Newton is disarmingly unlike most Hollywood stars. She lives in north London with the writer and director Ol Parker, with whom she has two daughters, in a house where there are dog prints across the kitchen floor and the front hedge sits joyously unkempt. For all her incredible beauty and fancy red-carpet turns, there is something less immaculate about her demeanour; in conversation she flits moth-like from subject to subject - "Sorry," she says, "if I keep darting about," - and she has a tendency to spill personal details in a way that most movie stars do not: in the past she has spoken openly about her teenage bulimia, playing tasteless practical jokes on Pegg and the repercussions of having a relationship with an older man - Flirting director John Duigan, 23 years her senior.
At present she is knee-deep in preparation to play Condoleezza Rice in Oliver Stone's film W, about the Bush administration. "I've been very grumpy all day," she laughs, "doing my work." Does she like her? "Uhm ... I er ..." she says and frowns, "that's too black and white. I don't see people or the world in terms of good, bad, those polar opposites. I keep trying to restore the correct view of things after my kids watch Disney movies: 'Is he a baddie? Darling, there is literally no such thing.' I am fascinated by her. Spend three months thinking about anybody and they're fascinating. People are fascinating. We have a huge and complex capacity to be all kinds of things. And you look at someone like Condoleezza Rice and you see an example of just how far a person can stretch themselves. And I don't mean that in a good or bad way, but she is an ..." Newton hesitates, "... oh God, I really want to get this right ... she is an incredible example of discipline."
Much of that crisp, Ricean discipline will be conveyed physically. "I loved Oliver Stone for seeing beyond the obvious with me," she says. "I think that because, since Crash and the Bafta and stuff, I go to more ceremonies than I ever used to, it's almost like I'm trying to ..." she pauses, "that you know, being presentable and attractive and all that is of the highest importance. But actually with my work I regard myself as a character actress."
It has been a challenge, she admits, playing a highly disciplined individual "when my maturity and wisdom as a person has been the absolute opposite of disciplined. It's been about surrender, accepting what we can't change and finding strength in that, and in realising how weak and inconsequential we are but at the same time how gifted we are, and how grateful we should be. I'm a Buddhist in my thinking I suppose, and she's a strict, disciplined Presbyterian. But here is a person who is doing her level best, all the time. And I don't know whether that has been for the greater good, but that is not my task; my task is to appreciate how she has become what she has become."
I tell Newton how I came across an article by the actor David Harewood, which claimed that Britain's black actors had to go to America to find success, and cited her as an example. She frowns. "I tell you what," she says after some thought, "I couldn't get employed here for a long time, so he is right. Until I won a Bafta." There is simply more work in America for all actors, she says. "And it's easy for me to say, but I do feel that moaning about it doesn't help anything. People are allergic to moaning."
It is easier now, she says, thanks to technology and the internet, to make and distribute films on a smaller budget - "and just ... do it!" she declares. She looks a little regretful. "I know that's easier said than done. For a long time I used to complain and people would say, 'Oh just do it.' But if you don't feel good about yourself and if you don't feel that you've been supported and encouraged as a kid, you do tend to carry that attitude around. You know people who say 'Go on, just do it!', that person clearly feels able to." She smiles faintly. "I remember, when I first met Gwyneth Paltrow, we were both 21 and working on Jefferson in Paris, and she was just this luminous, effortlessly cool young woman. And I was so incredibly self-conscious and shy. I was for a long, long time. And we were so similar and yet so different. And she just felt entitled. She had an entitlement about her which I didn't have. I mean, look, it's complex, all kinds of reasons. But that's what I'm talking about."
I look at the luminous, effortlessly cool young woman across the kitchen table. How did she acquire that sense of entitlement? "Oh so many things," she says. "And I actually feel really grateful to have started out young because I feel I went through my mid-life crisis when I was in my early 20s. I think a lot of women spend their 20s thinking 'I don't know what am I doing, do I like myself?' And I had that to an extreme. Run as fast as you can from your 20s!" she laughs. "Why does everyone tell you they're going to be so great? But I think you can be given entitlement or you can claim it. And I claimed it."
And perhaps this is what is so charming about Newton; that she is such a pleasing jumble of self-consciousness and entitlement. She is the type of person who lights candles to hide the smell of wet dog, but then tells you about the wet dog smell anyway.
· Thandie Newton is supporting Volvic's 1L-for-10L programme. For more information visit volvic1for10.co.uk