Born in London on November 6, 1972, Thandiwe Newton spent some of her formative years in Zambia with her Zimbabwean mother, Nyasha, and her British father, Nick. However, political unrest would prompt the family to relocate to England where Thandiwe would attend the University of Cambridge.
After a back injury curtailed her plans for a career in dance, she dropped the ďwĒ from her name when she turned her attention to acting. In 1991, the regal beauty made her screen debut in Flirting, an Australian film featuring another then unknown, Nicole Kidman.
Thandie has since proven herself to be one of the most talented thespians around, delivering very memorable performances in such pictures as Crash, Beloved, Besieged, Jefferson in Paris, Mission: Impossible II and The Pursuit of Happyness. Recently, the versatile actress has even mastered comedy, first as the object of Eddie Murphyís affection in the $100 million hit Norbit, and now as a pregnant woman left at the altar by Simon Peggís character in Run, Fatboy, Run.
As for her private life, Thandie has been married for ten years to writer/director Ol Parker. The couple lives in London where they are raising their two daughters, Ripley, 7, and Nico, 3. Here, she weighs in on everything from family life to her new movie to colorblind casting to the candidacy of Barack Obama.
KW: Hi Thandie, Iím honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
TN: Really? Thatís so lovely.
TN: Nice. Is Kam short for something?
KW: Funny you should ask. Yes, Kamau, itís an African name.
KW: I was given the name when I was a jazz musician back in the Seventies. We were getting ready to record an album and the leader of the group didnít want any slave names on the record cover.
KW: Over the years, people sort of Anglicized it by dropping the ďauĒ off.
TN: How amazing! ďKamĒ is gorgeous. I love it. My name, Thandie, is an abbreviation, too, of Thandiwe.
KW: I knew that. And that it means ďbeloved.Ē Ironically, Beloved might have been your breakout role.
TN: Yes, I think it probably was.
KW: I also thought you were terrific in your next picture, Besieged.
TN: I loved that film.
KW: Why did you decide to make your second comedy in a row with Run, Fatboy, Run?
TN: Well, I made Norbit, but I still felt that I hadnít really been involved in a comedy in terms of having the experience of just witnessing comedians at work. Norbit just felt a little claustrophobic. It didnít have the kind of freedom or camaraderie that I thought a comedy should have. And I was keen to work in England, as I always have been, because my children go to school there. Plus, Iíve been a fan of Simon Peggís for a number of years. I love the work that heís done with Nick Frost, like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. And I just got a sense of [director] David Schwimmer as a really well-rounded, decent guy from when he did a play with a friend of mine, Saffron Burrows. I like working with first-time directors because itís often a risk well worth taking. And I loved the material. So, it was fun!
KW: One of the things I love about this film is that itís hard to pigeonhole.
TN: I feel the same way. Itís not a romantic comedy. Itís not a straight drama. It feels much more true to life than a formulaic comedy. But I also think that Simon has great timing and a unique kind of humor, reminiscent of Peter Sellers or Jack Lemmon. He reminds me of those old school comedians whose brands of humor were much more authentically a part of their personality, not anything generic. Simonís is a combination of physical, creative and intelligent. His other gift is that he can move from a strongly comedic moment to one of complete earnestness which draws you in much more. Ordinarily, comedy is a detachment from feeling where you turn something into a joke instead of express how you really feel. That kind of protects you from being the one with an opinion, if you know what I mean.
TN: But Simon can get right into earnest emotion very easily, so the comedy almost allows for the sentiments to go deeper. I think heís unique in that respect. In England, itís been a while since weíve found someone who could cross over and be an international success in movies. And I just think Simonís it.
KW: I think youíre obviously ďitĒ too. I felt that your performance in Crash was pivotal, and providing that Oscar-winning Best Picture with its most riveting and social significant moment by far. Thatís why I said you deserved an Oscar for it.
TN: Well, there were a large number of very strong performances that year. I donít know, ever since Beloved was snubbed by the industry, and not taken seriously in that respect, I donít feel impassioned with either joy or sadness by getting or not getting accolades. Itís not part of the way that I value myself.
KW: I also think that many of the challenging, iconoclastic characters that youíve played, in films like Beloved and Besieged and Crash, arenít the types of roles ordinarily recognized by the Oscars.
TN: The thing about all of those roles, and The Pursuit of Happyness, as well, is that they make people uncomfortable, because it goes right to the marrow of the truth. That is not a popular place to be. With Beloved, it wasnít popular to take the lid off denial. But I like to put myself in that area of discomfort, because thatís what truly reveals the essence of what we really are, those areas that youíd rather ignore and get away from. Theyíre the ones that I just want to stare at as long as I can. So, I donít mind, even though the Oscar has become the absolute benchmark for filmmaking talent. I think we can sort of promote ourselves as individuals. If we feel privileged to witness a great performance, then that in itself is enough to feel validated.
KW: I agree. Plus, the job that you do as a mother is far more important than acting.
TN: It is and it isnít though, Kam, because the truth is that if you want to be a movie star, youíve got to work at it. But Iíve found that in order to ensure longevity, itís better to avoid the highs and lows of success. Itís sort of like surfing where if you stay in the middle of a wave, youíre going to stick around longer. But if you get into the dizzying heights, youíve got to maintain, and thatís a tough thing to do. IĎve got two kids, so Iím quite happy to stay on in the middle, burning my light a bit brighter here and there. But I love what I do.
KW: The Tao teaches that both the very heights and the very bottom are to be avoided.
TN: I think thatís true, but Iíll get the old Oscar for all of us one day.
KW: Iím sure. Given that you have a parent from Africa, and one whoís white, Iíd love to hear what you think of Barack Obamaís candidacy.
TN: I think that itís wonderful for America to have these rich choices in whom they vote for. It feels like thereís evolution happening right in front of us. And I donít think itís just about America but an international vote for life to have these exciting choices available. Once a pick has been made, whatís important is to commit to the changes that these people actually want to put in place. I think that how Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or anyone else is going to benefit the country is far more complex than the color of their skin or their gender. So, in a way, itís been a distraction from whatís truly necessary which is to get in there and make real changes.
KW: Iíve read that you were born in England, and also that you were born in Africa. Which is correct?
TN: I was born in London during a brief trip back from Africa which is where we all lived at the time.
KW: How do you think growing up in Africa and England, and having both a black and a white parent has shaped you?
TN: Oh, God, that would be an hour-long answer to your question. It provided challenges which have made me who I amÖIt provided great wealth in terms of having this great-colored skin, and looking exotic, and different. However, it also made for a very lonely disposition as a child, at times. Being an outsider has its good and its bad. Thereís a ying and yang to all of it. Having to negotiate that kind of winding road has made me much more inquisitive about psychology, and interested in investigating myself and the parameters that people set up around themselves and others. Itís a privilege, in a way, to have had to question my identity. By virtue of being unconventional, I was exploring that from a veryyoung age. And I feel glad about that. But by the same token, if I hadnít had the strength of character and some real pluses, like getting involved in the arts, for example, where differences can be celebrated, I could have been a very depressed, a very closeted, and a very unhappy person. But I see these challenges and negative experiences as gifts, at least I do now, anyway. [Laughs] So, Iíve been showered with gifts, and Iím glad of that. Life is about being uncomfortable and about how we deal with those areas of discomfort. Iím sorry Iím not answering your question, but itís such a gigantic question, and one that I canít answer briefly.
KW: No, this was an excellent answer, given our time constraints. Another thing I really liked about Run, Fatboy, Run was its colorblind casting.
TN: I love that not one journalist has questioned my son in the movie looking so light. In real life, I have one blonde child, and one dark-haired child. One of my daughters is olive-skinned, like me, and my other is very pale-skinned. Their faces are similar, but they have different coloring. 30 or 40 years ago, it would have been noted, and someone wouldíve complained, saying, ďShe couldnít have a kid that color.Ē So, I do love that the casting hasnít been questioned in England [where it opened last September] and Iím interested in seeing how it is accepted in the United States. I wonder whether black audiences will want to see the movie.
KW: I certainly hope so, not only because itís very funny, but to support colorblind casting and the idea that you can have you and Simon Pegg paired in a romantic comedy without skin color having to be the theme. So, Iím asking all my readers to support it.
TN: You do it, Kam!
KW: Bookworm Troy Johnson was wondering whatís the last book you read?
TN: Oh my Lord! What was the last book I read? Oh, it was a book by my friend, Justine Picardie, called Daphne. Itís about Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte family.
KW: Lastly. are you ever afraid?
KW: Well, thanks again for the interview, Thandie, and best of luck in the future.
TN: Thanks you so much. Take care, bye!
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