Thandie Newton: Newton's Laws

Thandie Newton would rather make films like Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged than big-budget Hollywood fare. But that didn't keep her from saying yes when Tom Cruise asked her to star in Mission: Impossible II.


Anyone with a good eye who saw the little Australian movie Flirting back in '92 and took note of the teenaged Thandie Newton's startling film debut has been waiting ever since for the promise shown there to pay off in a bigger arena. Newton has done many films in the intervening years--_The Journey of August King_, Loaded, The Leading Man, Gridlock'd, Interview With the Vampire--and has earned enviable reviews. She's even had showcase roles in prestige films. One, unfortunately, was James Ivory's deadly misfire Jefferson in Paris; the other was last year's surprise bomb Beloved. None of these efforts lived up to expectations created in Flirting.

Newton devotees may find their faith affirmed, however, with the release of Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, Besieged. The piece springs so deeply from a European sensibility it's likely to be confined to art-house audiences in America, but Newton is so striking and affecting as an African woman with whom David Thewlis falls obsessively in love that her currency in the film world is bound to rise. Then again, does her career actually need help? She's already been cast as the female lead opposite Tom Cruise in the upcoming Mission: Impossible II.

When I meet Newton at London's ultra-exclusive Blake's Hotel, I'm surprised to find not the sensuous adult woman of Besieged, but someone who could pass for the teen she played in Flirting. Dressed in faded jeans and a truly ancient sweater, wearing not a trace of makeup, she looks 18 rather than her actual 26. There is, however, no disguising the worldliness of an actress with Newton's unusual background and experience.

The British-born daughter of a Zimbabwean mother ("A princess of the Shona tribe") and an English father, Newton spent her first years in Zambia until political uncertainties drove the family back to Cornwall on England's south coast. There, amid the rugged cliffs and majestic seas where King Arthur once held his court, the appearance of a black person was still considered exotic in the mid-1970s, but the locals were fascinated rather than hostile. "I've never really experienced racism," she avers. "My parents protected me, and as an actress, being black has been an advantage. You're different, so you get noticed, and in this business you need something to get you noticed, don't you?"

At age 11, having left her parents and brother in Cornwall, Newton studied modern dance at London's Arts Educational School. After a back injury put her out of action, she was perfectly happy to audition for director John Duigan, who fortuitously arrived at her school looking for a young black actress to play the lead in his film called Flirting. Although she'd never had drama training or the slightest interest in becoming an actress, Newton got the part and, at 16, found herself in Australia working with Nicole Kidman.

She returned home bitten by both the acting and travel bugs, and promptly went off to visit her then-boyfriend who was working in L.A. He suggested she find an agent and, with the almost casual insouciance that characterizes her approach to show business, she picked up the telephone and in a mere three days had an agent, an audition and a film offer. The latter was withdrawn when the producer, confronted by her English accent, lost confidence. Back home again, and "a little scarred" by that experience, Newton decided to get some "real" education ("I owed it to myself, and to my parents, who had sacrificed so much for me").

She chose the august halls of learning at Cambridge and emerged a few years later with a degree in anthropology. "It gave me such an eye into different cultures, and that's given me confidence for the different roles I've chosen to play," she says. In between semesters she made a number of the 10 films that span her 9-year career.

"I'm always searching for interesting little roles, for the alternative to the big American movie," Newton says of her ambitions now. While her role in the upcoming sequel to Mission: Impossible could hardly be described in those terms (more on that later), the six-week shoot she did for Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged fits the bill. Little wonder then, that in the process of making the film she came to worship Bertolucci: "It's the way he looks at the world and digests things, the way he thinks and speaks. He has such a beautifully sexy take on things, but it's not creepy or invasive. There's always a glint in his eye, a sparkle. He's just delightful, gorgeous, a poet. And Besieged is like a poem."

Besieged is the apex of Newton's unusual achievements so far. "I love being involved with stories that I think should be told for social or political reasons," she says. "I don't believe I would ever accept a film just for the money and I can now afford financially to be even more selective in the roles I choose. If I became a really big movie star, it would be an accident."

Which brings us to Mission: Impossible II, a gigantic Hollywood film which any actress would sign on for in hopes of becoming a really big movie star. Why did Newton decide to play the international thief who may or may not have a romance with Cruise ("we're going to work that out as we go along") in a story which is unlikely to probe political subtleties or emotional depths? "Tom Cruise is such a classic movie star," explains Newton. "No affectations. He's just one of those good people. When they called me for an interview, we just talked and talked about everything, our lives, stuff like that, and I wasn't at all nervous. And my character is strong. I'll play any kind of woman in a film as long as she's got strength and challenges stereotypes.

"I don't really mind what happens," Newton continues, "as long as I'm happy in my private life. And, to be honest, right now I've never been happier." The overwhelming reason for this is her marriage to English writer/director Oliver Parker. "He's my best friend and we completely fancy each other. And I really respect his work." Newton met Parker (who, she doesn't mention, has devastating movie-star looks) when she starred in a date-rape drama he wrote for the BBC.

From what Newton has had to say, I expect her to dismiss the notion of celebrity as another irrelevance in her life plan. "Oh, but I am interested in celebrity," she exclaims. "Absolutely! It's not about celebrity as such, but how you can affect things. Someone in the public eye, I think, has a massive responsibility, and it allows you to do so much more than just be an actor. I read a lot about child abuse when I made Beloved, and I was so alarmed and disturbed at the statistics that when I got back to England I called [the charity organization] ChildLine UK, and now I do a lot of fund-raising for them. I also want to get involved with Amnesty International. I think we should challenge people's prejudices and preconceptions. If becoming a big star can help me do that, I'll be happy to be a star. Meantime, my husband makes me feel like one."


Robyn Karney interviewed Dougray Scott for the February 99 issue of Movieline.