Sophie Okonedo: The best is yet to come

From a childhood on a tough London estate to the Oscars
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The Independent Online

In January 2005, Sophie Okonedo was wandering around London's Kenwood House when her publicist phoned to say that she had been nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Hotel Rwanda. Okonedo and her mother jumped in the air for joy, and were promptly asked to be quiet by a security guard. "I don't give a fuck," retorted her mother, "my daughter's got an Oscar nomination." They were escorted out of the gallery, but the other visitors burst into a spontaneous round of applause.

A Rada-trained actress in her mid-thirties, definitely not part of the luvvie establishment (despite acclaimed performances with the RSC and the Royal Court), Okonedo was the first black British actress to be nominated since Marianne Jean-Baptiste in 1996.

At the time Okonedo was in the middle of filming the sci-fi blockbuster Æon Flux, with Charlize Theron. She was astonished by the nomination. But Theron, now a close friend, was more savvy. The day before the Oscars' news broke, she sent Okonedo a huge bouquet of flowers saying simply, "Congratulations".

At the Oscar ceremony Okonedo was pipped at the post by Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, but she looked radiant in a white Rochas dress. Then life went mad. Everyone wanted to interview her; scripts and invitations piled up. "The whole thing was a whirlwind, I had to take a step back." She did a few small jobs then took a year off. "I called it my little sabbatical. I'd love to say I wrote a novel in that time or read lots of books, but all I did was do the school run, make dinner and tidy the house. But what was good was all the fuss around me died down a bit. I thought if I don't go to any 'dos' or put myself out there, it will disappear."

This year the hunger to act returned. The catalyst was the script for Aftermath, a film about a group of people devastated by the 2004 tsunami, written by Sex Traffic's Abi Morgan. "I didn't want to read it," confesses Okonedo, "because I knew I'd want to do it. The next thing I knew, I was off to Thailand for two months."

But first we'll see her in Stormbreaker, based on the novel by Anthony Horowitz, about a reluctant teenage spy. Okonedo plays the enigmatic Mrs Jones. She loved the chance to play a posh woman in a suit after her more harrowing role in Hotel Rwanda. "I thought it was great they cast a black woman as Mrs Jones. She's tough, but with a maternal side. Even when I try to do cold I end up a bit warm."

Stormbreaker may be that rare thing: a great British blockbuster. The cast includes Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy and Stephen Fry, plus the American stars Mickey Rourke and Alicia Silverstone. "I think kids will love it because it's dangerous and a little bit out there. It was such good fun to make, so light and breezy. Alicia, Bill and I had a real laugh. We still keep in touch. Last night Bill sent me a text message from the film premier for Pirates of the Caribbean, saying, 'The red carpet is three miles LONG!' "

With her heavy-lidded almond eyes and wonderfully sensuous mouth, Okonedo is a real beauty (her mother is Jewish of East European descent, her father Nigerian). But she can also play plain, ordinary, stubborn. Crucially her characters are never just victims - from the single mother caught in the poverty trap in Tony Marchant's TV drama Never Never, to the fork-lift driver with a guilty secret in Paul Abbott's Clocking Off. But it was her role as Juliette, the prostitute with a heart in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, that launched her. The director Terry George saw her and cast her in Hotel Rwanda, as the wife of the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who helped save 1,203 Tutsi refugees during the 1995 genocide.

"She's a proper actress," says Frears. "Not precious. No ego. No bitching." Abbott adds: "She can shift the ground you're standing on with tectonic, disturbing insight into the human condition, then swagger into the green room with a plate of chips asking where the ketchup went." When I read this back to her, she grins: "I'm just playing myself."

We meet in Muswell Hill where Okonedo, now 38, lives with her daughter Aiofe, eight, from a previous relationship with the Irish film editor Eoin Martin. Today she is dressed down in black cords and a T-shirt. Even on the red carpet she won't wear anything ethically unsound (fur, diamonds). Her hair, usually worn as a sleek bob or a whoosh of static, can drive her mad, so she invests in hair pieces. But she confesses she never carries a make-up bag.

Does she have a Hollywood über-agent now she's a star? "You know, I find the best way is to use your own instinct. I think lots of voices in your ear don't do you any good - in work or anything else. If you listen deeply to yourself, you can really find the right path. Also I'm really impressionable. During my time in America, I began to think that playing so-and-so's girlfriend in a mini-skirt was an OK, feasible thing to do. Then suddenly I thought, 'No, that's not right!' I get very lost in things, which is good for acting, but not good for my real life because it makes you very vulnerable."

Okonedo was born in 1968. Her father, a government worker, left the marital home to return to Nigeria when she was five, leaving her mother to raise Sophie on north London's tough Chalkhill estate. She left school at 16 to work on a clothing stall at Portobello Market, then spotted an ad for a workshop run by the writer Hanif Kureishi at the Royal Court. When she discovered she was better at reading out the plays than writing them, she applied to Rada. After graduating, she landed roles with the RSC, the Young Vic and the National, where her 1999 performance in Trevor Nunn's Troilus and Cressida attracted rave reviews.

She became known for tough, gutsy TV, but film roles were more disappointing. "As a black actress all I was offered was the best-friend role." (She was cast as "Jamaican girl" in the Bruce Willis version of The Jackal.) When Frears wanted her for Juliette eyebrows were raised.

"Stephen told me later that Hanif said to him, 'You can't ask Sophie to play the black prostitute!' And I said, 'You can tell Hanif to fuck off; I want to play it!' I just thought she was a great character. I wasn't thinking about my colour at that point. In fact, I met a few women to research her, and none of them was black. They were all eastern European."

On set she amazed the film-makers with her intelligence, telling Frears, "You've rewritten my part. Now there's less of me but it's a better script." On Hotel Rwanda, she told George she could convey some scenes better with a look and suggested her lines could be cut.

Okonedo's childhood was character-building. Being born black and Jewish in the late 1960s can't have been easy. After the Oscar nomination the Daily Mail "helpfully" tracked down her father in Lagos, where he lives with his second family. Reporters stalked her daughter and harassed her 90-year-old grandmother. Words such as "tragic", "Cinderella" and "sink estate" cropped up regularly. It wasn't a happy time. But Okonedo is not remotely self-pitying. And these days she is one of a triumphant group of women (Ms Dynamite, Zadie Smith, Kelly Holmes) whose voice and talent come from their dual heritage.

For a time she worried about being seen as a spokesperson for Rwanda. "We're just bloody actors!" But today she says, "I think I have a responsibility to be politicised, that it's too boring not to be. So many people don't want to say anything. And it's good to speak about things that have pissed you off, or whatever. But I have to be a bit careful because I change my mind so much. I might have a completely different opinion next week."

After the Oscars she went to Darfur with Unicef, which she found profoundly moving. She initially worried that Aftermath would be similar territory to Hotel Rwanda. The film, which also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Toni Collette and Tim Roth, is set around a hotel in Khao Lak, Thailand. But the epic sweep of Morgan's writing convinced her. "I just couldn't get it out of mind, and I thought: it doesn't matter what I play, I just want to be part of it. It looks at grief, and how different cultures deal with loss, and how Westerners are treated differently to Thai people. There are just so many levels." Part of the draw was playing Ejiofor's wife. "He really is one of my closest friends. We spent the whole time together, on and off set. I think we both felt very blessed to have been a part of it."

Okonedo is delightful company: sparky and warm. Does she get recognised much? She laughs. "Well, I cycle everywhere so during the Oscars the bike shop put a thing in the window saying, 'Good luck, Sophie'. And also my mum lives here, so anyone who didn't know, she told. Honestly, the time it took her to walk down Crouch End high street. People used to stop her everywhere ... she became like royalty."

Oscars recognition can be a bit of a curse. One senses Okonedo may quietly drop Æon Flux from her CV. "I've had a couple of corkers come out since the nomination, but you think, well, sorry, I was just a jobbing actress then. I did it before I had a career," she laughs.

But she is building a new portfolio. Recently she shot The Martian Child with John Cusack about a writer who adopts a child who thinks he is from Mars. "It's a very small, arty movie, but the script is lovely. I did it to work with John, who I really liked. We've stayed in touch and he's coming over to London this summer."

Then there's a new film, Scenes of a Sexual Nature (starring McGregor and Gina McKee) by a first-time director, which follows seven couples during a single afternoon on Hampstead Heath.

"I usually go on the script first. I try as much as possible not even to look who's written it, or who's directing it. But financially I am going to have to do a money job at some point because it would be nice not to have a mortgage. Perhaps that's what I should have done last year, a couple of shit jobs," she laughs.

Although Okonedo gives everything to a project, she says, "I don't know how people can go from job to job. I need time to refuel. I'm such a sitting-around, watching-people person. And I like playing ordinary people, so you do need to know about them. I suppose that's why a lot of actors play superheroes and super-people all the time, because their life is quite super, they don't really have much normal life."

Her own private life remains exactly that, though she is currently rumoured to be single. "When I'm working I can't watch television. I find it hard even to read another script; I'm very focused on it. Any other time that I've got, I spend with my daughter; I don't have room for much else. I wish I could make more room," she says wistfully. But, as she acknowledges, it's still an unequal world. "No one ever asks any of the male actors I know, 'What are you doing with the children?' but I'm asked all the time."

She has a passion for new writing and sits on the board of directors of the Royal Court theatre. She'll do a play next year, but would prefer a low-key venue to a big West End opening. "So no money there, then!"

She's keen to work on more documentary-based drama. Last year she appeared in Channel 4's Born with Two Mothers, about an embryo mix-up between a black and a white couple, and earlier this year she filmed the verbatim piece, The True Voice of... Rape, based on real-life testimony. "What I'm interested in is pushing the boundaries of storytelling. That's why I like the Dogme stuff because you make these little rules, to which you have to try to stick."

Ironically, her new status means that life is far more uncertain. "In the old days I'd be the last thing cast, so they might even have started filming. But now that I'm at the beginning of it all, there are a million things that can go wrong. Up until two days ago I thought I was going on a plane to spend two months in Chicago. Now it's fallen through. But you know," she confides, "sometimes I get quite a sense of relief because it means I don't have to go to work. I can do my usual reclusive routine."

What she would get out of bed for is a juicy film lead. No more girlfriends or secretaries or supporting roles. "I'd like to do a really big part. I've never actually played the full-on lead. Maybe Paul [Abbott] could write me one. Tomorrow, I'm doing Jackanory," she hoots. "I hope I'm not supposed to have learnt it all, because it's a long story!"

I ask about an intriguing project listed on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). Is she really playing a Black Panther opposite Mos Def? "I might be tempted if they get the money together," she concedes. "That's the thing about Imdb; they do get things wrong. Gina [McKee] says they have her as four years older than she is. On mine it says I'm a year younger and that I went to Cambridge. I'm not changing that!"

'Stormbreaker' is released on 21 July

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