Posted: 03/31/2008

 

Thandie Newton Plays It Straight

by Paul Fischer



Exclusive Interview


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Thandie Newton laughs when asked about the challenge of playing straight girl to Simon Pegg in the David Schwimmer-directed romantic farce Run Fatboy Run. “David made a note to me, ‘Thandie, he left you at the altar pregnant.’ ‘I know, but he’s just so funny,’ because I just would forgive him anything, even when he’s being ridiculous, he’s a crack-up. So, yeah, I guess my comedic muscles haven’t been flexed enough, because, of course, I just assumed that I could just go with the flow and enjoy myself. But it definitely took efforts to remain firm in my derision of this charming, crazy, wonderful loser.”

Thandie Newton, whom this journalist first met when she was a shier 16-year old newcomer, has evolved into one of Britain’s foremost actors, prepared to take on films as diverse as Crash and Norbit. Newton admits that she doesn’t take on a Run Fatboy Run because of the meaty role, but of the experience she hopes she will gain by working with the likes of Pegg. “You know what, Paul, as you may have seen in the past work—which I was hoping was going to happen with Norbit—is I do like to be in the presence of greatness if it’s happening, which is a real privilege. I see myself as someone who can enjoy helping people deliver great performances, as well as being given the opportunity to do performances myself, but it’s always been about the material. I can find myself doing a couple of movies in a row, and then I suddenly think, ‘You know what? The next one, I want to be about what my character is doing every page.’ But in general, it’s just about the whole piece and it’s how that resonates. I mean, this movie made me laugh so much when I read it that I just wanted to be a part of it, in the same way that when I read Crash, I loved the piece. And I thought, ‘It’s a small role, but who cares? It’s great work.’”

The 35-year old mother of two has different priorities as she continues to balance motherhood and career, yet her decisions to take on a project she says, requires far less thinking than it used to. “It’s just a gut reaction to something. It’s funny, because in recent times I’ve been reading scripts and I’ve actually started to think, ‘Do I not want to do this any more,’ because I just don’t want to do any of this and then I’ll be up for a meeting for something that I’m not really that enthusiastic about, and I’ll still not want to do it. I’ll think, ‘Oh, my God.’ Then the next day I’ll read something that I love, and I just feel—‘I want to-do this.’ So I never really know, because sometimes it can be something that clearly will be popular, or it’s going to be successful. But 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 with Bertolucci, there wasn’t even a script, but I just loved the way he talked about what was going to be there.”

At 16, Newton gained attention as the foreign exchange student who falls in love with fellow outsider Noah Taylor, in John Duigan’s seminal Australian classic, Flirting. Back then, of course, the rather shy young actress had no idea what she wanted to-do with her life. “At that point, I was sure I was going to be a professional dancer. That’s what I’d put all of my energy and training into, so it’s a surprise to me to find myself doing something different. I don’t think it was until I was maybe 21, 22, that I thought, ‘You know what, this is what I’m going to do.’” She recalls changing her mind “when I felt able to do it alone. It was 1995’s Jefferson in Paris that was the turning point, she recalls. “But with that project and up until then, directors had been very hands on with what I was doing, so I suppose I learned a lot, but then with Jefferson in Paris, no rehearsal, and James Ivory didn’t say a word. There was one scene that he commented on that I was doing and other than that I loved it. But you know what? I know what I’m doing and I was very pleased with my performance and also, knowing that it was all mine, that I had been responsible for every frame of what I did. And that was it.”

Newton says her perceptions of acting developed and changed, but, she adds, “I’ve always been very confident that I can deliver the truth and I think after Beloved, when it wasn’t received by the popular audience I stopped thinking that I had any acuity at predicting what was going to be a success or not. So I think it shook my confidence, in terms of—I often picked roles thinking, ‘This is going to take me here, or this is going to further my career there.’ When that didn’t happen with that, I thought, ‘You know what I’ve got to do?’ I was so heartbroken by that that I realized that I had to make movies for the process of making the movie, not delay the gratification and not have a great time on a movie in order for the movie to hopefully do well. It was the same with Mission: Impossible [2]. It was a long movie, it was very challenging, backbreaking, very often, because it took so long, but I thought, ‘Oh, but it’s going to be a real hit.’ And it was a real hit, but the gratification never came, artistically. So I just thought, ‘It’s got to be about the material, and about the experience of making the movie.’ and that’s how it’s remained.”

Newton took a break from features in 2003 electing to spend a year on the hit series ER, an unusual career choice for an actress of her international stature, but she says it felt important to her at the time, “because I really liked the story line” and the perceived risk of doing television didn’t bother her, following her experience on the John Woo Mission: Impossible 2. “I just thought, ‘I don’t care. I want to do this as an artistic process; I want to do this story, this character.’ So it’s always been about that: Story, character, director.”

Newton relishes her next project which combines all of those elements, starring in Guy Ritchie’s crime thriller, RocknRolla. “I’m very excited by RocknRolla and had such a great time making it,” she recalls. “It was one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had, because basically, Guy didn’t really interfere and gave me freedom to evolve the character the way I saw fit. He kind of put his hands up to the fact that—look, this is a female role, and you’re a woman so get on with it. The character was set up as a very strong individual and when the shit hit the fan and the boys took over, she started going to this weird vulnerable place. And I said then, ‘That doesn’t smack of any kind of honesty to me.’ And so he said, ‘Okay. Well, let’s just interpret it the way you feel is appropriate.’ And that was so liberating, because it’s his material. He wrote it, he directed it, but he basically just said, ‘All right. This is your character. I may have written it one way, but I want you to do what you want.’ ” In Ritchie’s take on the gangster genre, Newton laughingly describes her character as “a crooked accountant” and enjoyed tapping into her dark side. “She’s a cold, cold, cold character and I loved playing her.”

As for leaving characters like this behind her at the end of the day, Newton says, “Any character, you leave behind, because I just love feeling like me. I can’t explain it, I just have felt, going through adolescence, you play versions of yourself and you’re always afraid to be yourself. Well, I was, anyway, for fear of being mocked, criticized, or rejected. So I just love being me.” And motherhood, she says, has helped her being herself. Even knowing what it is to be acting at a young age, she would never discourage her kids to act, “if that’s what they’re drawn to and I have a feeling that they’ll try it out. They go to a very artistic school, where I’m sure there’ll be lots of performances that they get involved in. We’ll just see what happens, but right now, it’s all about jujitsu and pottery.”

Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.



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