Saturday, August 23, 2008

Scotland On Sunday 23 August 2008

Newton's theory - Thandie Newton interview

As she prepares to portray the most powerful woman in the world, Thandie Newton tells Siobhan Synnot why she has decided to finally put gravity to the test
USUALLY cast in sympathetic roles, Thandie Newton gets to show her wicked side in the upcoming RocknRolla. Guy Ritchie's return to the scene of the crime genre has plenty of stylised violence and machine-gun dialogue, and at its centre is Newton playing an egg so hardboiled that even 300's Gerard Butler cracks up in her presence.

"She's a cold, cold woman," says the butter-voiced Newton cheerfully of her femme-fatale accountant – possibly the most unlikely hybrid since alcohol-free lager. And she wouldn't have her any other way. Despite the shadow of his high-profile wife, Ritchie isn't known for his powerful women characters, and Newton freely admits she pushed him to toughen up her character.

"The character was written strong in the first half and then just dwindled away when it had gotten more serious so I basically said, 'Look, think of me as a guy.' From the middle of the movie to the end, I would change things and he was totally open to it, and that was so liberating, because it's his material. He just said, 'All right, this is your character. I may have written it one way, but I want you to do what you want."

Newton now counts Ritchie as a friend – and his wife as a fellow martial arts sufferer. Newton and Madonna have become "jujitsu mums" together, cheering their offspring from the sidelines. "Madonna was on set a lot with the children. We all spent a lot of time together," says Newton, who has now signed up for the next two films for a planned trilogy.

Newton has a beauty that is singular, a kind of unshowy flawlessness courtesy of her ancestry – she's descended from Zimbabwean royalty on her mother's side. Unsurprisingly then, Condoleezza Rice has let it be known that she's not unhappy that she will be portrayed by Newton in Oliver Stone's upcoming film W, about the Bush administration, although "she's way too beautiful to play me".

Well quite. Dick Cheney played by Daniel Craig has more plausibility on paper but Newton also brings a keen intelligence from her pivotal appearance to the film's first scene and the picture's account of the Iraq war. Biting satire? Political hatchet job? First draft of history? American audiences get to cast their vote once the film has been rushed through post-production for the run-up to the presidential elections. It's the sort of chancy provocation that many actresses would avoid in order to preserve a broad-based appeal, but Newton is more interested in the challenge of Condoleezza than crowd-pleasing.

"The truth is that if you want to be a movie star, you've got to work at it, but I've found that in order to ensure longevity, it's better to avoid the highs and lows of success," says Newton.

"It's sort of like surfing where if you stay in the middle of a wave, you're going to stick around longer. But if you get into the dizzying heights, you've got to maintain, and that's a tough thing to do. I've got two kids, so I'm quite happy to stay on in the middle, burning my light a bit brighter here and there. But I love what I do."

Her personal life changed when she filmed In Your Dreams for the BBC in 1996. On the set, she met Oliver "Ol" Parker, the film's screenwriter, and within a year they married.

"I'm really lucky we became so inseparable before pressure like marriage, children and work came along," she says. "In this business it's very hard for a relationship to survive." Now a mother of two, she lives in what she makes out to be a slightly chaotic north London household with husband, two children and a dog. She also just finished her first script.

Newton has been in 1998's Beloved, 2000's Mission: Impossible II and 2004's Crash, but her film work now causes her less angst and soul-searching than before she met Parker. "I'm not as fascinated by this job any more, and I know it has to do with the material. I'm not going to chase it," she says. A rare exception was her pursuit of Crash, in which she played Terrence Howard's infuriated wife, who is groped by Matt Dillon's racist cop.

In order to get the film made she worked for less than her usual fee and paid her own plane fare from London to LA, where they filmed her scenes. She won the Bafta that year for the performance, but appreciates the irony that her stock has risen thanks to one short stint on a no-budget film.

"Crash was two weeks of my life. The roles that fascinate me have been teeny; some people get to do great work and be really impressive and wonderful like Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, Isabelle Adjani. And then there's a lot of rubbish. I'm not moaning, because that's how it is, so I've built up life to compensate," says Newton.

"If I don't feel like I'm going to enjoy the process, I just don't want to do it. So I am selective, but in an indirect way. There's no formula to how I go with it. Sometimes it can be because I think the director is really inspiring. I remember when I did a movie (Besieged] with Bertolucci, there wasn't even a script, but I just loved the way he talked about what was going to be there."

Like Halle Berry, she seems to transcend the colour barrier, and even in less worthy feature films she can be a rare bright spot. In The Chronicles Of Riddick she was all high slithering camp, delivering Flash Gordon lines such as "Take him back to the ship for mind regression" as if Cleopatra had just returned from having her claws sharpened at a day spa.

Sometimes it's not even about the work. Her last role, playing Simon Pegg's long-suffering ex-girlfriend in Run Fatboy Run, is largely a reactive one, but on set Newton cast herself as the unit prankster.

"The annoying thing is that Simon would never react. Even when I'd sewn up the top of his T-shirt and knew he'd been struggling with it in his trailer like a tortoise trying to get its head out, he just wouldn't let on because he knew I was watching."

She finally got the response she was looking for by arriving at the film junket hours beforehand, emptying every one of the 12 bottles of water he had in his TV interview room, then refilling them with neat vodka: "On camera, he took a swig and – phwoooooh."

• RocknRolla is released on September 5

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