Monday, April 19, 2010
Thandie Newton interview: her best films
Thandie Newton interview: her best films
Thandie Newton will be a judge for this year's Virgin Media Shorts film competition, so we took her through a selection of the best - and not so best - parts of her film career.
Published: 9:00AM BST 18 Apr 2010
Thandie Newton is judging the Virgin Media Shorts annual film competition, which launched with this photoshoot by Lorenzo Aguis in tribute to the sex symbol of the short and silent film era, Theda Bara. It celebrates Bara's 1917 movie Cleopatra Photo: Lorenzo Aguis
Thandie Newton can boast that rarest of combinations - leading-actress looks with a character-actress CV. Since making her acclaimed debut in 1991's Flirting, she's been as hard to pin down as her cultural heritage (mother African, father British, raised in Cornwall, courted by Hollywood, living in North London), meandering from blockbusters to indies with ease, picking up Baftas, and working with everyone from Tom Cruise to Oprah Winfrey and Oliver Stone. Her career path suits her fine. Using the excuse of Thandie being named as a judge for the Virgin Media Shorts film competition, we took her through a selection of the best - and not so best - bits of her prodigiously varied portfolio, allowing her to elaborate on motivation, the art of vein-bulging, and the incongruity of Tom Cruise's 'modesty cup'. . .
FLIRTING (1991; Thandie Adjewa)
Q. You were only 16 when you made your debut - were you going into it wide-eyed?
A. Very much so. I only got into the movie by chance. I was taking time out from my dancing studies; the idea of acting had never crossed my mind. The chance to audition for a movie came along, and they wanted an African girl, and at the time I was the only dark-skinned girl in school. To me, it was just a nice day out in London, very posh hotel, all fabulous. I read a scene through, and the director (John Duigan) said I was awful. Then he gave me a very brief summary of what film acting was about: to make someone believe that what you're saying is occurring to you at that very moment. And that just clicked.
Was it the best possible start for you, with hindsight?
I was so eager. It was a cast of unknowns, apart from Nicole Kidman - she was already a big star in Australia. I kept every page of the script when we finished, and tried to keep in touch with every member of the cast and crew. There's this manufactured intimacy on movie sets, and I was so naïve, I thought we were all friends for life. Now I'm big on boundaries.
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994; Yvette)
A slightly different prospect to Flirting?
Yes. It was the first time I worked with Tom Cruise, though I knew him already, through Nicole. You could practically feel Tom's glow before he arrived on-set. And I mean that with reverence. I had posters of Top Gun on my wall. He's a presence.
Was it your first taste of a major Hollywood production?
In terms of star wattage, yes. But it happened in such a whirlwind. I was in New Orleans for a night shoot, went to bed for two hours, and had to go back to England to work on another film. Kind of appropriate for a film about the undead. The rest of the movie was shot at Pinewood. The veins on my neck were supposed to bulge, to attract Brad Pitt, and draw him into vampire-land. I'm like the bait. They tried to put me in a whole body-cast, and I had this massive neck with my tiny head coming out of it. And I told the director, Neil Jordan, that I could do it without the prosthetics. This is what comes of being a dancer for so long; I'm so body-conscious, I can make my neck vein bulge on cue. Neil was ecstatic.
BELOVED (1998; Beloved)
Where does this one rank?
It's my favourite. Of everything I've ever done. The book is my favourite novel ever. And it's the one that thrust me onto the world stage, though it wasn't half as successful as we thought it would be. Another valuable lesson learned; don't think about awards while you're working.
Did you feel an onerous responsibility to the material?
Oh my God, yeah. But also from just being on the set; this is (co-star, executive producer) Oprah Winfrey's love child. And (director) Jonathan Demme. And let me tell you, he made me feel like I had to really earn the right to be in this movie. I had the audition, and he didn't tell me for two weeks whether I had the role. So I called him, and he's like oh yeah, I knew two weeks ago. He's very controlling. But then again, I've been on movies where the director isn't in control, and it's terrifying. There's got to be someone at the tiller. Movies made by committee are s___.
A lot of people found you quite scary in the movie; you appeared genuinely possessed. . .
I did so much research, because I didn't really know who she was. So I made up a subtext; she was a woman who'd somehow been invaded by a malevolent spirit. And they'd got some speech-altering device that would make my voice go into a growly-deep timbre. So we had a read-through of the script, before we started shooting, at Oprah's ranch in Indiana. Jonathan was so shifty; he'd said we wouldn't read the script, we were just there to enjoy ourselves. So after supper, and wine, Jonathan says hey, let's read the script! And I'd been working on the voice; I can do crazy things with my voice and body. I should have joined the circus. So I did the voice without any artificial aids at all.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 (2000; Nyah Nordoff-Hall)
Was this a sort of busman's holiday after Beloved?
Not exactly. I knew Tom Cruise already of course, and Nicole said he should cast me. And I think [director] John Woo's a genius. I went to LA for the big audition. John Woo put a deck of cards in front of me, and said, I want you to improvise a scene with Tom, where you're looking at these cards and you see your future. And I was like, what the hell is that? But I thought I'd make it romantic and tragic, and I actually brought myself to tears in this nonsensical little scene. They called me that afternoon and said I'd got it.
Was it your first genuine romantic Hollywood lead?
I guess so. I mean, I had to be gorgeous all the time. A sassy, fabulous minx. A real Barbie role. But it wasn't that much fun. It was stressful. John Woo didn't speak English - although I discovered at the end of the movie that he did actually speak English. And there were times when Tom would be frustrated by lack of direction, and I'd be stuck in the middle. And it was a long movie - it took nine months. I could have had a baby in that time, for Christ's sake. But then, there was the love scene between Tom and I, where we were in bed all day. We laughed till we cried. As soon as he got into the bed, I thought he was really aroused. It was terrifying. He was wearing one of those modesty cups. And it was massive. It was almost more distracting than if he'd actually had an erection. Which I certainly didn't expect him to have - I've never done a love scene where that's even been a remote possibility. So hysteria seemed a perfectly logical response. The whole thing, in the end, was like 100 movies in one.
CRASH (2004; Christine Thayer)
Is it true that you chased the role in Crash?
Not exactly. I was in Australia doing MI2, and I got a lovely letter from [director] Paul Haggis, saying I'm trying to put this together, I'd love you to play Christine, there's no money, blah-de-blah. I was technically the first actor to come on board; it took another 18 months for the thing to come together, and by then the script was legendary. Every actor in Hollywood had seen it; for Matt Dillon's role alone, you'd had John Cusack and Sean Penn expressing interest at one time. We all knew it was a movie we were doing for the love of it; we didn't think anyone would actually see it. I paid my own air fare to go out to LA for it. I knew that, even if I waited years and years, I'd never get a scene in the like one in the car again. It's an actor's dream to be so raw and intense and unwound.
Was it a pretty full-on experience?
Oh, utterly. For the scene in the car, I was upside-down all morning, unbuckled for lunch, and upside-down again all afternoon. I was so vulnerable and exposed in every way. This is a woman who was hand-raped by a policeman, and she's so angry with her husband that she causes their car to crash, and the guy who comes along to supposedly protect her is the guy who committed the original offence. My last scene of the movie was the one where I'm violated by Matt. When I read the script, I hadn't read it as him going all the way; it just said he puts his hand up her skirt,' something like that. So now Paul's saying, Thandie, you know we need to go all the way with this; it's what the whole movie pivots on. Matt was shuffling his feet, staring at the ground; and I suddenly saw it as this really hideous exploitative vile scene, and I went into the make-up trailer and burst into tears. I was freaked out. I felt so torn. But I had to admit that I'd misread it, and there was no time to suggest an alternative and come back with it the next day. I was really unsure, and it comes across in the performance; I'm not in control, and I'm hating it. If that was me in that scenario, I'd have kicked Matt's character in the bollocks and gone to prison. But I had to trust Paul Haggis. And we ended up with something that was incredibly powerful.
And it went on to sweep the Oscars, while you picked up a Bafta. . .
Yes, and I so nearly went to the Oscars, but my agent was like, don't bother, it's so not going to win. And I was genuinely shocked about the Bafta. But it's great to pick up an award for something you're genuinely proud of.
CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (2004; Dame Vaako)
Talking of things you're genuinely proud of. . .this was your Cruella de Vil moment?
Camp as a row of tents. I remember [director] David Twohy about the role, and saying, I'm really intrigued, I'd never have cast myself in this, I admire your boldness. And he said, oh, it wasn't my idea, it was the head of the studio. So I thought f___ you, I'm going to do this film whether you like it or not. And I like being challenged and doing unexpected things, and I also love not being pigeonholed. All I was hearing when I was starting out was that if you're a black actor in England, you play pimps or policemen. Things have changed, and I'm really proud of that; I'm a champion for defying convention and challenging stereotypes. And I loved sashaying around in what they called my 'mock-odile.'
RUN FATBOY RUN (2007; Elizabeth Olivia 'Libby' Odell)
You were the self-elected unit prankster here, according to legend?
Simon Pegg is such a perfect victim. I felt like I was back in school or something. It wasn't the most taxing work; a very reactive and gentle role. So it started off with ice down Simon's back in our domestic scenes; simple. Nothing major. Then I started sewing up the collar of his t-shirt, and leaving Mars Bar 'stools' in the toilet. He would never react; that was his way of getting back at me. The best one was, when we were doing the movie's press junket, I turned up with two massive bottles of cheap vodka, and replaced all the still water in his hotel room. I could hear this cry from up the corridor: 'Thandie!' He'd taken a swig, burned his throat, reached for the bottle to calm himself, taken a bigger swig, and burned himself some more. Genius.
What did (director) David Schwimmer make of all this?
Dear David. He was so busy trying to figure out what on earth everyone was doing…he's very serious. Not at all like Ross. He had to play the stern dad.
W (2008; Condoleeza Rice)
How centred is (director) Oliver Stone in comparison?
Well, he's mellowed. He still gets grizzly. But it was such a leap of faith on his part, casting me in this. He loved the thought of me doing it. I thought he'd been smoking his wacky baccy a bit too much.
Is it true that you didn't know how to spell her name at the start?
True. I knew she was Secretary of State, but my attention hadn't been drawn to her. But I loved sinking my teeth into her. I'm so unlike her; I had to utterly transform. I don't sound like her, I'm 15 years younger, my body's different, my skin colour's different, my voice is different, my sensibilities are different. So I created a costume, head to toe, and stepped into it.
Isn't it tricky, playing someone who's current and well-known, not to slip into a Dead Ringers-style impression?
I didn't want it to be comedy, but I wanted a satirical element. I wanted to express the sycophantic nature of her relationship with Bush, the pseudo-intellectuality of dropping some French and Russian into her conversation. I had six weeks to prepare, so I read about 20 biographies, but I also got into deep YouTube. It was more revealing watching a grainy phone recording of her dancing to Shaggy than seeing any number of talk show appearances. I wanted people to think of her, warts and all, not of me being her, because I wanted this movie to judge these people. I liked to think of it as my personal contribution to the end of the Bush administration.
2012 (2009; Laura Wilson)
You've said that people sometimes give you roles that are underwritten, and you have to flesh them out - would this perhaps be a case in point?
Yeah. It was really an opportunity to be around really skilled craftsmen. There was a lot of blue-screen stuff, and a lot of scenes inside the pod-thing where we'd have a tidal wave coming towards us, which was real, and which would somehow magically disappear when they said ‘cut', to be rolled out again for the next take. The mind boggles. I mean, I love 2012, and I always knew I was going to be a puppet on a stage. At times I felt my life draining away. But you know what? You learn something from every movie. That's why you keep on doing it.