Thandie Newton: flirting with fame
She’s one of our most accomplished and beautiful actresses, yet Thandie Newton has struggled to balance blockbusters and babies. Now she’s upping her game with new star roles — and making peace with a troubled past
Giles Hattersley writes
Thandie Newton is in the throes of shooting a drinks ad when I tip up in east London for our meet, so I hang out for a bit, watching her enjoying glass after glass with some fake revellers as the flashbulbs pop. I try to order a drink myself, but it turns out the waiters are fake, too — damn cheek — so I stumble off to smoke on the roof until, two hours later, she’s ready.
Today, she’s in clipped, cool-prefect mode, though there’s an odd mix of over- and underconfidence about her that most actors work hard to disguise. Newton isn’t big on hiding, though. “I’m not very guarded,” she says. So, one minute she’ll be telling you that the upside to being both Cambridge-educated and utterly ravishing is that “it’s useful, because you can affect situations from all angles”, the next that she’s “chronically shy”. In person, she’s also shorter than you’d imagine, but thankfully less thin than in the days when it looked as if you could bash out a chorus of Chopsticks on her ribcage. Apparently, she has ditched a lot of baggage — eating disorders, destructive relationships — and reckons getting older is a treat. It’s a convincing argument, given she doesn’t appear to be physically ageing. At 36, she looks 23. “Good genes,” she explains with a shrug. “When my dad was 27, he couldn’t get served in pubs, and my mum is, well, beautiful.”
In fact, she’s such obvious movie-star material, it’s unsurprising to learn that it took some serious effort for her not to be a bigger one. In the late 1990s, she famously (stupidly, according to the Hollywood agent she later dropped) turned down a lead in Charlie’s Angels and its $6m fee. She’d overrun on Mission: Impossible II, with Tom Cruise, and decided that her marriage to Ol Parker, a British film and television director, could do without another year spent away from home. She returned to Queen’s Park, in northwest London, became pregnant with her first daughter after a couple of weeks, had a second a few years later, then chose to work only sporadically (a Bafta for Crash in 2006 was a highlight). For all the earth-mother vibe, though, the thing I can never work out is how she flits between rejecting showbiz one minute and gorging on it the next. She once described fame as “the toxic by-product of being an actor”, yet she’s forever dolled up in some Giles Deacon number on a red carpet. “It’s about being desperate to be loved — ‘Know me, know me,’ ” she says of the fame game, though she confesses to having used interviews in the past “to talk through my issues”.
Most odd. Especially as she’s now firmly back in sleb world. Last year, she played Condoleezza Rice for Oliver Stone in W, and a sexy accountant for Guy Ritchie, but her biggest multiplex outing for some time will be in the blockbuster 2012, released later this year. Presumably, it played havoc with this work/life balance of yours? “Well, it’s a riddle trying to keep your kids feeling they’ve got a secure life and at the same time literally dragging them across the world,” she concedes. So she took her hubbie and daughters — Ripley, 8, and Nico, 4 — with her. “We went to Vancouver for all the summer and a huge chunk of the winter.” What about school? “Ripley had a tutor, who was great,” she says, then, sensing an unintended accusation of selfishness, quickly adds: “It was necessary, so I had to do it.”
So, you get guilty? “I feel incredibly guilty,” she sighs. “I crave the time when I’m following Ol around, when it’s me keeping our little thing together.” But I suppose it’s not many wives who’ll give up $6m for some domestic downtime —and not many husbands who’d let them. “Yes, true. And I got Ripley,” she says. Is it true you named her after the Sigourney Weaver character in Alien? “Oh, yeah. Wouldn’t you? She is, like, the woman: kicks ass, saves the world with a kid under one arm and a huge weapon in the other.”
I’m not sure you could say the same for Newton. She strikes me as a worrier, though she’s protective of her brood. She certainly doesn’t like it when people confuse her husband with the other Oliver Parker, director of An Ideal Husband and St Trinian’s, who, by bizarre coincidence, lives on their street. “I was on a plane with Emma Thompson, who, for a 20-minute conversation, was talking about her ‘dear friend’ Oliver Parker,” she says coolly. “I thought she was talking about my husband, but actually she was talking about the other one. I was, like, ‘Babe, no.’ ”
Born in London to a Zimbabwean mother and an English father, Newton spent most of her early childhood in Cornwall before being sent to a boarding school near London at 11, to specialise in dance. The school didn’t allow younger students to call their parents. “I started to be much more introspective and rely on myself — which didn’t serve me well. I was very shy, very bright, so the way I dealt with my chronic shyness was to know the answers.”
A fluke audition for the Australian film Flirting, with Nicole Kidman, saw her saunter into movies. Then, at just 16, she began a six-year affair with its director, John Duigan, 23 years her senior. She says it messed her up big time, though she still managed to get through Cambridge — “I was studying for my finals at the Cannes film festival” — and clock up roles in Jefferson in Paris and Interview with the Vampire. She suffered from bulimia in her early twenties and — because of Duigan, she has hinted — had a generally dodgy relationship with her body for years. It was having kids that sorted her out. “Becoming a mum was the single most profound, self-adjusting moment in my life,” she says. “I birthed myself.” No surprise, given the tone of this, that she’s great mates with Oprah Winfrey. “It’s like I took back my life,” she continues of her pregnancy. “I took back the essence of who I am.”
Then, of course, she’s off to slink into another cocktail dress and down more Martini for the cameras. “Twenty years ago, you would not have recognised the person I am today,” she says — and I’m sure she’s right. With Newton, what you see is what you get. And it can change by the minute.