Of all the roles she’s had in the past 20 years there’s one Thandie Newton naturally prizes above all others: being a mother. She talks to Lucy Cavendish about family, the fame game and how she healed her past
When Thandie Newton walks into the Electric Bar in Notting Hill, west London, all heads turn to gaze. She is, after all, instantly recognisable. She has been in so many popular films — Mission: Impossible II, Norbit, The Pursuit of Happyness — and award-winning ones (Crash received an Oscar), as well as guesting in ER as Noah Wyle’s love interest. There can’t be a person in this fashionable bar who doesn’t know who she is. But the fact that everyone turns to look might also be down to the fact that, at 36, in a simple blue dress teamed with high wedges, she looks stunning. She has an amazing face — fine-boned, high-cheeked, a graceful smile — long, slim limbs and beautiful, dusky skin.
Just as I am musing on this, Newton greets me warmly, apologises sweetly for being late, then suddenly grabs my bags. “We must move,” she says forcefully. Then she marches down to the other end of the room.
She doesn’t like being recognised, she says, by way of explanation, although she understands why people approach her. “It’s called the fame game, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s a difficult one. In my day-to-day life I feel I am a wife and mother [she is married to the writer-director Ol Parker and they have two girls, Ripley, eight, and Nico, four]. I take the kids to school. I pick them up. We go to the park. I make food, that type of thing.”
Her children are now her priority, she tells me. She had them both naturally at home and, when she talks about them, her face lights up. “I cannot believe how much I love them,” she says. “I fed them both and carried them in me. When I see women who have plastic surgery done to their boobs I think, ‘How can you when they have fed your children?’”
So would she like to eschew all the glitz for full-time motherhood? “No,” she says, looking horrified. “I like escape, just as everyone else does.” Does she like the dressing up and presenting of gongs? She certainly does a lot of handing out of Baftas and Oscars and the like wearing a variety of gowns. “Love it,” she says fervently. “I love the dressing-up bit. I don’t shop much but, when I do, it’s great.” At the moment she is promoting the Martini Stay Beautiful campaign. “Well, it’s great, isn’t it?” she says. “I remember the advertisements as a child … Lots of beautiful people hanging out on yachts in St Tropez or wherever.”
She says that her daughters love to watch her getting ready. “They say ‘Mummy pretty’ and all that. Nico watched Norbit the other day on DVD. I don’t think she understood it but she spent the whole time stroking the screen and saying, ‘Mama?’.” Ripley — named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien films — already wants to act, she adds. “That’s how fame seems to children. They think it’s all glamour and glitz, but it’s really hard work.”
She should know. Newton has been acting ever since she was chosen to play the lead in the film Flirting when she was 16, 20 years ago. “It was a total fluke I got the job,” she says. “I was supposed to be a dancer.”
I tell her that a friend of mine taught her at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire, where Newton trained. I remember my friend telling me that there was a girl there who, she thought, would go on to become a major actor. “She’s called Thandie Newton,” my friend said, “and she’s amazingly beautiful and talented.”
Newton laughs slightly nervously. “I wish I’d known that,” she says. “I could have done with hearing something like that. I didn’t have much confidence then.”
Most girls who went to Tring studied dance and, the way my friend described it, it was tough, with endless practice at the barre. “It’s true that life was hard,” says Newton. “I was 11 when I went there. We all put ourselves under enormous pressure because we all wanted to be successful dancers but, you know, it’s at a time when your body is changing. If you’re going to dance you have to be tiny but also fit and strong. I got injured. I couldn’t carry on. No one from my year at Tring made it.”
It was Flirting that changed Newton’s life, in more ways than one. For a start, it also starred Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts. “That’s amazing, isn’t it?” says Newton. “I went to film in Australia and there they were. We’ve all gone on to do well but Nicole was already a star. People followed her everywhere when we were filming.”
But the film also marked the beginning of a relationship between Newton and the director, John Duigan, who was 39 at the time. It wasn’t a happy period. Newton looks away when I ask about Duigan. She has talked a lot in the past about how her six-year relationship with Duigan damaged her, saying how she felt she should have been more protected. In a past interview she said: “It was unhealthy. I was separated from my parents and very young, and I ended up having years of self-doubt. I think I should have been more protected. It’s a profession that 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.”
Today she says, “I was 16. I didn’t tell my parents about it but really young people who are vulnerable have to be looked out for. I’ve just been out to South Africa to Oprah’s Leadership Academy [Oprah Winfrey is a long-time friend]. It educates girls from impoverished backgrounds and I was taking part in an arts week. I looked at the 16-year-old girls there. How can it possibly be right to start a serious relationship with someone at that age when you are so much older?” Was she dazzled by Duigan? She sighs. “I suppose so but … I’ve been through a lot of therapy so I sort of know why people do things now. I am aware of how complicated people’s lives are, so, while I don’t forgive him, I do understand a bit more. I have moved on and it feels as if it happened a long time ago.”
The relationship did leave her with scars — literally. She has talked in the past of being so unhappy that her eating patterns became messed up (not uncommon for someone training to be a dancer) and has always been very open about suffering from eating disorders. She has said that she still has scars on her hands from putting her fingers down her throat and the acid burning them with the reflux. I do find myself staring at her hands, but see nothing. “I think many young women have eating disorders, don’t they?” she says slightly defensively when I ask her about bulimia. “When you don’t like yourself or the situation you are in, you do not-very-nice things to yourself — I know why I did. I’ve talked about it a lot and now I wonder if I should have done.” In what way, I ask her. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says vaguely. “I’m always asking myself, ‘Do people need to know about this?’ I know lots of women have suffered and do suffer from eating disorders, so talking about it and saying there is no shame in it is good. On the other hand, I feel I want to leave it behind now. I want to reclaim a bit of me.”
Yet the past keeps cropping up. She says, rather elliptically, that she thinks part of her problems in later life were the result of the circumstances of her childhood. She grew up in Penzance, Cornwall, with her Zimbabwean mother, Nyasha, a Shona princess who came to Britain to work as a nurse, her English father, Nick, a lab technician-turned-artist, and her brother, Jamie, who is now a television producer. Her relationship with her mother could, she tells me, be strained at times.
“I remember sensing that my mother was holding something back from me,” she says. “I used to think I had done something wrong because she could be so distant. I knew there was something going on that I didn’t know about and, because I was a child, I thought it was my fault. It took me years to work out that she had actually been protecting me as a child.” Protecting her from what? “Racism,” says Newton simply.
“It was Cornwall. I don’t blame people. I don’t think it was truly nasty, but there were comments, and my mother kept that all away from us and, to do that, she had to keep herself distant in order to be a barrier between us and them.” She says that she and her mother have talked it through.
‘She has explained it to me and of course I understand. There were times when I was so unhappy no one could reach me. It’s like a madness. But my mother and father have always supported me in what I do, even when I have had my own distance from them.” They were incredibly proud of her when she went to Cambridge to read anthropology. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to go,” she says. “My acting career was taking off but my parents were so excited and they wanted me to have a fall-back if everything went wrong. Also, my mother had a very rural upbringing. She walked for hours on end, backwards and forwards, just to get an education.”
Newton divided her Cambridge years between studying and dashing off to make films such as Jefferson in Paris and Interview with the Vampire. “I was sure I was going to flunk my finals,” she says. “I was in Cannes promoting a film and then dashing back to the hotel to revise.” She pulled it off, though.
“I got an upper second,” she says proudly. She says that she is very happy now. She spends a lot of her time campaigning for charities — as well as supporting Oprah’s Leadership Academy, she campaigns to highlight and help prevent the use of rape as a tool of war. “I’ve been to fundraisers to help women in the Congo,” she says. “Their stories are truly horrific.
“I used to go back to Zimbabwe all the time to see my relations,” she continues. “I don’t go now because of the political situation. Because I’m well known I don’t want anything I say or do to be misconstrued.” She would, however, love to take her children there. “I think Africa is an amazing continent. People there know what life is about. They are warm and kind and tactile. It’s like what Bono said to me: ‘Africa’s sexy.’ People forget that, but it is.”
She is also happy to take a back seat in her career so that her husband can work more. “We juggle it,” she says. “I’ve just finished making a blockbuster called 2012, and he is making a film now, so I am more at home.” She famously once turned down $6m to be in the film of Charlie’s Angels (Lucy Liu ended up taking the part). “I had been away for a year making Mission: Impossible II and I hadn’t seen Ol much and he wasn’t keen to travel. It’s our marriage, you know. It’s important.”
Interestingly enough, there are two Ol Parkers: the director who made An Ideal Husband and her Ol Parker. “The other one lives on our street,” she says. “We keep getting cheques for him through the post.” Does she cash them in? “Not big enough,” she says, laughing. Then she looks a bit worried. “I’m joking.”