Sophie Okonedo on Race, Obama, and New Film Skin


They say that in the specific you find the universal, and Sophie Okonedo can relate. The actress was raised in such a very unique household, having been born in London's East End to a Nigerian and an Ashkenazi Jew, yet from those particular roots, Okonedo's found herself able to play cultural realities that are very far afield from her, whether it's a Tutsi wife (her Oscar-nominated role) in Hotel Rwanda, a genetically modified super-agent in Aeon Flux, or even Winnie Mandela in the upcoming film Mrs. Mandela.

Okonedo's current film is Anthony Fabian's Skin, the devastating true story of Sandra Laing (Okonedo), born to two white Afrikaner parents in Apartheid-era South Africa yet torn asunder by a legal system that couldn't fathom such a possibility. It's a meaty role for Okonedo, and one I tried to convince the reticent actress to open up about.

It struck me that for as much as this film is about racial inequality in this South African time period, it's also about gender. Sandra's home life is wrecked because her mother will not stand up to her husband, and Sandra almost makes the same mistake when she gets married.

That's a really good point, actually. I think I didn't acknowledge it in a way -- I almost don't know what to say about it! I see that when I see the film myself, but at the time, I was concentrating on the inner working of Sandra's mind. Often, when I'm acting, I kind of don't know how it will all "come out in the wash," really. When I do the film, I just concentrate on being inside the character, if that makes sense.

Where do you think Sandra finds the inner strength to break that cycle, considering that she's been beaten down so much already?

When things get deeper and deeper, you're either going to bury yourself or you're going to get up. These things happened to her so much that at some point, she just had enough.

And you just finished playing Winnie Mandela in another film, didn't you? Talk about going from one South African extreme to the next.

I did quite a lot of films in between. Skin was two years ago. So it's been quite a lot of time since I did it?

Still, it must have been interesting to have gone from playing this victim of apartheid to playing Mandela, who overcame it.

Totally different movies. I mean, it might as well have been different countries, really. It was a completely different angle.

You grew up with a white mother as well. Could you relate to Sandra and those moments where she knew people were sizing up and judging her family?

You know, it's just so different, mine and Sandra's lives. It's really different.

How so? I mean, other than the fact that we now have a very famous mixed-race man as the president of the United States. That has to open a lot of people's eyes.

It's fantastic, I have to say. [Laughs] It would have been very nice to have him around when I was a child. You really do feel it, and also, this is a time when so many people are mixed race. It's very common, nowadays. Then again, Sandra wasn't mixed-race. So let's get back to the film.

Well, can you tell me about coordinating your performance with the young girl who plays your character as a child? She seemed perfectly cast.

Great, that girl. The film was made really fast. I didn't really see her, except for this one time we crossed over on the same day. So there was no coordination, really.

You still play quite the age range in this movie. What was it like to play Sandra as a young schoolgirl?

That was rather embarassing. [Laughs] I didn't feel that young! Very embarassing coming out in a school uniform. Highly embarassing. My daughter thought it was very funny, though.

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  • Chicago48 says:

    Hmmm...I don't see her as Winnie Mandela, not at way, but she's a darn good actress.

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