Thandie Newton: 'Condi was my hardest role ever'

Bafta winner Thandie Newton's latest role sees her playing Condoleezza Rice in Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic 'W' – but don't expect to see a lookalike, she tells Sian Lewis

Thandie Newton has a knack of always looking at ease on the red carpet.

Her former dancer's figure is perfect for couture and she regularly eschews the services of a stylist, preferring instead to choose her own dresses by more obscure designers such as Jonathan Saunders and Jasmine de Milo.

Yet, despite the frequency with which she graces best-dressed lists, Newton doesn't want to be known for her looks. She is one of those actresses who seems to be running from her appearance, trying to lose herself in serious roles that prove she can act. And she's certainly made some varied choices.

Yes, she was the sexy accountant in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla, the love interest in last year's Brit comedy Run Fat Boy Run, but she also played Will Smith's harried wife in The Pursuit of Happyness, won a Bafta for her raw portrayal of sexual assault in Crash, and now she's Condoleezza Rice in the George Bush biopic, W.

But, try as she might, Newton can't escape that she is stunningly beautiful. Having spent five days in Africa with her earlier this year, I can testify that even after a sleepless night, hours on dusty roads and without make-up, she's quite simply one of the most gorgeous women I've ever seen. Huge eyes grace a flawless face, and her frame is so slight you wonder how she managed to produce two children.

This makes her even more of a surprising choice to play the US Secretary of State, alongside Josh Brolin's George Bush. Rice may be accomplished in many fields, but she's hardly known as a great beauty. And, if the blogs are to be believed, there were many American actresses clamouring for the part.

"When director Oliver Stone first approached me I knew nothing about Condi," she says, sipping tea in the kitchen of the north London house she shares with her husband, the writer and director Ol Parker, 38, and their two daughters Ripley, seven, and Nico, three.

"Obviously I'd seen her on the news but I didn't even know how many z's she had in her name. I felt sheer terror about whether I could actually unlock the character. She's right there on our TV screens. Everyone knows how she moves, how she speaks. And I am nothing like her. It's the most terrifying role I've had and that fear made me feel very alive.."

The 35-year-old actress says she used the research skills honed during her anthropology degree at Cambridge to study for the character.

"It felt like doing a PhD," she laughs. "I read everything I could on Abu Ghraib, Bush, the war on terror. I watched endless DVDs of Condi giving speeches while moving my face in front of a mirror. I wanted to capture her mannerisms. If you get that right it doesn't matter whether you look like the person you're playing, you will feel familiar to the audience."

And looking like Rice wasn't an option because the heat in Shreveport, Louisiana, where filming took place during the summer of 2008, meant any prosthetic make-up would simply melt. This simply added to Newton's terror. "Just six weeks before filming started, Oliver told me he wanted a feelalike not a lookalike, and I just didn't know if I could do that."

So Newton worked with fashion make-up artist Kay Montano to subtly change her looks, unleashed a dynamic speech-giving voice through work with coach Joan Washington, and even learned to play piano – although those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

"It's ironic that I put in all those hours of piano practice to have the scenes cut," says Newton. "But in a way that was good for the part, too. It was a discipline and Condi is a very disciplined woman."

However, Newton reveals that she felt disappointed when she saw the rushes. "I'd gone to such lengths to create this person, like crafting a sculpture, that I kind of expected to see her there on the screen."

So, what does she make of bringing such current events to the screen?

"Playing Condi is my contribution to human rights," says Newton, half-sarcastically. "It's audacious to make a film about events so recent, but we live in a society where challenging the way things are is, thankfully, a part of our lives. Oliver is a director who likes to do that. I'd never worked with him before and it's amazing that he simply lets you go out and play."

After a role which she says "made every ounce of my being sit up and work", her next project was always going to feel dull in comparison. Newton admits this was the case with 2012, a film about an academic battling to prevent an apocalypse predicted by ancient Mayans, in which she plays the president's daughter.

"It didn't help that work started on 2012 so soon after finishing W," she says. "I'd shot my last scene as Condi, then days later I'm stood in a different Oval Office playing the president's daughter. That was such a headfuck! You really need to lay low before you plant the seeds of a new character."

Even A-list actresses, it seems, need to think practically and take big budget roles when they're offered them. But in Newton's case, family life has often taken priority over career. Just as Hollywood had fallen head over heels for her sassy turn alongside Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II, Newton famously turned down a role in Charlie's Angels to spend more time with her husband of 11 years. She quit her agent and her manager and seemed to turn her back on stardom. Within weeks she was pregnant with her first daughter. Since then, she has run her career on her own terms. This means working around her family, who spent six weeks with her in Vancouver during summer while she worked on 2012. "We had a blast," she says. "Playing on the beach, eating oysters."

It also means applying a calm, calculated logic to choosing roles. "You should see the mental gymnastics Ol and I go through when I'm trying to decide what to take," she says. "Which roles will be good financially, which will be good for my career so I can keep doing this. I've got to make the right choices to stay in the game – I don't want anyone to get sick of me." This is unlikely as Newton, who got her first break at 16 starring opposite Nicole Kidman in Flirting, has been working solidly since leaving school, without anyone ever feeling they've seen too much of her.

When she's not working, Newton "nourishes her soul" with personal projects. She originally trained as a dancer and talks of going back to it professionally. She's written a screenplay – which she insists will never see the light of day – and has plans to open a children's boutique with a friend. It's exhausting listening to Newton talk, and you wonder if she somehow magically creates more hours in her day. At the same time, she also reveals her down-to-earth side and the kind of insecurities that the rest of us have. "I want to do everything now. I'm prone to anxiety and depression, I moan about having too much work, about how tired I've been with all the travel to promote W, about being away from my kids..." She checks herself for a moment, before adding: "Talk about high class problems! My mum grew up with no bathroom or toilet and she didn't own a pair of shoes until she was 10!"

Much has been written about Newton's African heritage. In fact, she was born in England, then lived in Zambia with her Zimbabwean mother and English father until political unrest drove them back to the UK when Newton was three. She hadn't been back to Africa for "many years, too many" until this February when she travelled to Mali with the charity World Vision to see their well building projects. The trip awakened her love of Africa. "It also made me feel ashamed of how little I live life," she says. "There's this sluggishness because we have everything we need. Although we rarely think we do. The people I met in Mali are so much more alive than we can ever be. I want to help them in my own small way. One of the only good things about 'celebrity' is being able to use it well."

Newton uses the word "celebrity" carefully. Almost turning it over in her mouth and mind. She may be one of Britain's most successful actresses, and wants to remain so, but the idea of becoming a household name clearly doesn't appeal greatly.

Suddenly voices in the hall signal the return of her daughters. "Well hello there, what would like for lunch?" she asks them. "Shall I make you a risotto? Or would you prefer crackers and fruit?" And with that Newton's gone, deep into another role. Her favourite to date.

'W' opens on 7 November; for more information on Thandie Newton's work with World Vision visit www.volvic1for10.co.uk or www.worldvision.org

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