Thandie Newton on becoming Condoleezza Rice
She’s the British queen of Hollywood, but will America love or hate Thandie Newton’s portrayal of Condoleezza Rice? By Nicola Graydon.
Thandie Newton famously turned down a starring role in Charlie’s Angels to focus on her marriage. By repute, she’s generous, frank and swears like a soldier. But I’m wondering what I’ll find: our meeting has been pushed back several times, and Newton herself seems controlling, dictating the clothes, location, look and feel of the photoshoot. Her stylist was summoned from Los Angeles. The photographer was vetted. Had our girl from Cornwall turned a bit Hollywood?
I needn’t have worried. Dressed in flip-flops, a mid-calf sequined skirt and a powder-blue cardigan, she’s candid and personable, although she confesses to feeling “twitchy” about interviews. “It’s an odd thing,” she says, “I’m learning that they are usually more about you than me – you’re the filter. I’m a bit wary.” Then she relaxes, takes a gulp of tea and shoos away her assistant. We’re in Vancouver on the set of her latest project, a disaster movie, 2012.
Thandie Newton is that rare thing, an actress who can glide between Hollywood blockbusters like Mission: Impossible to edgy indies like Gridlock’d with Tupac Shakur. A Cambridge graduate who can do a glam turn on the red carpet and remain firmly rooted to her family life in west London. Now 35, she’s happily married to the British writer and director Ol Parker and is the mother of two girls, Ripley, 7, and Nico, 3.
She’s one of Britain’s most successful actresses, scooping a Bafta in 2006 for her star turn in Crash, which became the definitive performance of that Oscar-winning movie – but she’s been flying under the radar of late, “sleepwalking” in “creative middle-aged spread”, playing, typically, the arm-candy wife or girlfriend. “I’ve let it happen because my work serves my life,” she says, emphatically. “And that’s how it should be.”
Two new films are about to return her to centre stage. The first is RocknRolla, where she plays a crooked accountant in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants production directed by Guy Ritchie. “That perked up my appetite. Guy creates fantastic excitement on set and there’s an equality that allows you to do your best work.”
Thandie plays it posh and sexy: all sharp bob, slim cigarettes and ruthless heels, holding her own amid a sea of gangster testosterone. “Guy goes with accidents, he surrenders to the chaos. The ending changed on a dime. I’m in this scene with another actor who said something as a joke and Guy says, ‘Let’s go with it.’ It was fun, fun, fun. Throw the camera around. Just do it.”
Then along came Oliver Stone asking her to play Condoleezza Rice in W, his forthcoming biopic of George W Bush that promises to be the most controversial movie of the year.
“Oliver woke me up,” she says. Stone had an “absolute belief that I could play this character who was absolutely nothing like me. She didn’t look like me; she’s a couple of decades older than me. And I’m English, for goodness’ sake”.
When she first went to see Stone to discuss the role, she confesses that she didn’t even know how to spell Rice’s name. “I knew she was secretary of state and that was about it.” But the script was exciting, and at her next meeting with Stone she accepted the offer. “I decided to close my eyes and leap. I wanted to take the risk.”
So she took herself back to London and began working. “That was when it got really f***ing fun,” she says, rubbing her hands with glee. “It was like doing a really involved paper back at Cambridge and my paper was Condoleezza Rice.” She read biographies, articles, books on the Bush administration, on Cheney, on torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. “You name it, I read it,” she says. “I had two things going on: reading about this young woman, and the incredible story of the Bush administration. This gigantic beast, this machine and how it was cranking toward war. I wanted to become drunk with knowledge.”
Some weeks later, in rehearsals in Louisiana, it started to feel like a very bad idea. “I was thinking, ‘F***, have I made a mistake?’ The make-up team told her that prosthetics were out of the question because they would melt in the heat. “That was a bit of a blow,” she says, grimacing. “They told me they would do a ‘feel-alike’ rather than a lookalike, and I knew that was going to be a real problem for me.”
They were six weeks away from filming and she still had no idea how she was going to play this enigmatic figure. “I was only just feeling my way in.” She was convinced that Stone would lose faith, but he didn’t. “I was waiting for him to say, ‘Look, babe, this isn’t working.’ But instead, he said, ‘You’re a plodder, aren’t you?’ And I am like that. I am that kind of tortoise that just needs to take my time. He gave me permission to do that. I loved his relaxed belief that whatever I did, it was going to be good.”
In her early twenties she had played another iconic American character: the ghost-child in the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison. It was the role that thrust her onto the world stage – “astonishing”, according to The New York Times. She appears possessed throughout the movie. “I was,” she says. “There were moments when I was utterly transported. It was a gift to feel that so early in my career.”
In Beloved she found her solution in her voice. “I suddenly realised that I had this weird, very deep voice that I could use.” At a casting at Oprah Winfrey’s house, when they came to her lines she used that voice. “I remember Jonathan [Demme, the director]’s face when I started speaking. It was priceless. We didn’t need the voiceover.”
Finding Condoleezza was a similar process. She took herself back to London and started playing with the character in her mind. “I need to case the joint, check it all out and at some point, I never know when it’s going to happen, it all falls into place. I knew I was going to have to do this from the outside in. Usually, you look for those emotional beats that you connect to, but that wasn’t going to happen with her.”
She called a friend, Kay, a make-up artist from fashion, not film, and they sat around her kitchen table. “I thought we could create something with some clever make-up and shading. We just hadn’t got close to her in rehearsals and they were trusting me to come up with a character under my skin, but the truth is that I needed a lot on my skin. We spent the afternoon experimenting. By the time the kids came home from school I was all Condi’d up, complete with some fantastic false teeth. She nailed it for me. I was still terrified, but now I had the equipment.”
Then she began working on her mannerisms, the quirks and ticks that an impressionist might exaggerate to tell you as much about a person as the “inner truth”. She won’t tell me what they are. “Look, I do have a kind of reverence for who I am playing. This is a human being, and whatever you think, as an example of discipline, she’s unbelievable.”
But did she ever catch a glimpse of weakness, of humanity? “That was another thing. After watching all her official material – interviews, speeches and presentations – I started delving around in YouTube and finding this other stuff: Condi taken on someone’s mobile phone dancing to Shaggy, or Condi running from a building to her car. Seeing her in more undone situations, there was this difference in her. You can see her posture change at certain times. It’s almost imperceptible, but it’s there. I got a sense of the human being behind the construct. And I did feel compassion for her.”
It seems extraordinary that Oliver Stone should choose her, a British mixed-race actress, above hundreds of African-American actresses with a similar background and age to Rice. “You’ll have to ask Oliver about that,” she says. “But he was informed in his decision. He’d seen Crash and The Pursuit of Happyness and he liked the fact that the woman sitting in front of him was nothing like those characters. I’m a bit of a blank slate, and I think that helps. I’m not one thing or the other. People still don’t know where I’m from. Is she English, African, Asian? I still get asked and I really don’t mind. I’m like, phew, I got away without everyone knowing the width of my vaginal wall in a time when everyone knows everything about everyone.”
Newton is actually half British and half Zimbabwean. Her parents met in Zambia at a hospital in Lusaka where they’d both been posted. Her father, Nick, was a lab technician at a London hospital, but he wanted to go to the roots of the blues, so he asked for a posting somewhere in Africa and got Zambia. “I think that’s rocking,” Thandie says. “I’m pretty proud of him for having done that.” Her parents fell in love, her mum got pregnant with Thandie, and they married and came to England two weeks before she was born. “My mum’s very organised and she wanted to me to have my British passport quickly.” Then her parents went back to Lusaka and had her younger brother, Jamie, and lived there until Thandie was three years old.
“In some ways I think my parents are still living off their time in Africa. For a moment it was the future. There were all these different people from around the world – India, Hungary, Britain – working there, but gradually it all started falling apart. It was incredibly upsetting for them.” Meanwhile back in Cornwall, her grandfather needed help with his antiques business, so the family returned and that’s where Newton and her brother grew up.
She says she never felt any racism but might have asserted her Africanness as protection when boys didn’t seem to want to go out with her. Her most shocking moment race-wise was back in Zimbabwe at 17 when she was going out with a boy who accused her of being white. “I don’t think my brother or I felt like we really belonged anywhere. But that’s probably been helpful, in a way, with my career. Always looking for a place to find yourself.”
In the flesh, Thandie Newton is an absolute beauty. Yet she aspires to be a character actress. “It’s what acting is really about – finding those roles where you can disappear. It’s not about the celeb thing. There are those like Daniel Day- Lewis, Christian Bale, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, who transport you. They change themselves. That’s the mecca of my profession.”
For a brief moment, her flirtation with Hollywood looked like it might become a full-blown affair. She’d just finished playing Tom Cruise’s sexy sidekick in Mission: Impossible II and was about to start filming Charlie’s Angels with Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz.
“In career terms it was a platinum opportunity,” she says, ruefully. “Or, as my agent put it, ‘a one-two punch’.” But she turned it down. “I was going to do it for about 24 hours. But then I woke up and it just didn’t feel right. It would have meant entering that virtual world of stardom, but I’d been away from home for nine months and it would have meant another six months away.”
Soon afterwards, she left her agent and her manager. “They were appalled,” she recalls. “They thought I was committing career suicide.” Within a month she’d fallen pregnant with her first daughter, Ripley. “People talk about pregnant women as if they’ve gone a bit mad,” she says. “You know, ‘She’s a bit hormonal.’ But I felt as though I’d been introduced to myself for the first time. You become totally uncompromising, wild and fierce.”
She gave birth to both her girls at home in a birth pool. “Birth is very challenging in the best way possible. Every fibre of your being is alive. It’s like you are conducting electricity; literally creating something. I’d like to give birth every year if I could, just for that experience.”
No wonder her career has played second fiddle. She regrets that it’s she who has to work away from home, though she loves the relationship her daughters have with their father as a result.
She’s looking forward to more challenging roles. “When I come away from doing something I really love, I’m more alive, more self-aware, and that’s not a bad thing as a mum. It’s got to be better than slobbing along without being excited by what you’re doing. That creates an apathy and a kind of mild depression and it makes you too needy of that mothering side of life. I’m just going to have to figure out how to work the way I want to and be with the kids.”
But for now she’s having a blissful family summer in Vancouver, going with Ripley to horse camp, playing pirates on the beach, shucking oysters with Ol. “It’s been pretty idyllic,” she confesses. She’s clearly still besotted by her husband after 10 years of marriage. “We just appreciate each other. Co-dependency gets such a bad rap, but me and my husband are a glittering example of it.” If it seems like she’s got it all, then she has, but it hasn’t come as easily as it seems. Her mind can work against her, she says.
“I invite confusion, worry and self-doubt. Two years after Ripley’s birth and I was back in that brainstorm.” That’s why the absorption acting requires suits her. “It’s such peace. It’s like you’ve taken some crazy elixir. Your head goes completely quiet.”
Elsewhere, she’s a mass of over-thinking and second-guessing. Even as she is revelling in witnessing Ripley seeing her shadow for the first time she’s worrying about “how to introduce her to the harsher realities of life while respecting her innocence”. A trip to Mali for World Vision earlier this year brought some perspective – “Guaranteed that one day in their lives had been lived more fully than a year in mine. I felt ashamed”. She hasn’t been back to sub-Saharan Africa since she was 17, but she remembers Zimbabwe vividly: “It was so beautiful, lush, virile. And the people, the smiling and the sexiness. Bono said to me once, ‘The one thing that everyone misses is that Africa is sexy.’ And it is. It is life at its most raw.”
Our interview has now stretched to three hours and her assistant pops her head around the corner tapping her watch with some urgency. We arrange for a follow-up call before she returns to London. Three days later, I ask her how the photoshoot went. “Well, I’m not sure. The photographer was great, but it could have been much more simple. I should really have just been sitting there in a T-shirt, jeans and bare feet. You know, just being myself.”