The story begins with the thundering mist of Victoria Falls, 1972. A Zimbabwean princess and a lab technician from Cornwall were driving along a bumpy road about to enjoy a sardine snack. When the sardine can was opened, the oil spilled all over the woman’s dress and she laughed her head off. The man thought, “I need to be with this woman,” and there were rainbows criss-crossing the sky from the magic of the mist and the sun above the crashing water. On that trip, contained in this magic, a child was conceived. They named her Thandiwe, meaning beloved in Zulu. She grew up to be one of the most successful Black-British actresses of her time.
Switch now to Cornwall, three years later. “I mean holy hell,” she says. “We may as well have been the first Black people anyone had ever seen. We didn’t have conditioner. We didn’t have anything.” There her mother, the granddaughter of a Shona chief, hence her royal lineage, became an NHS health worker, while her father took over his family’s antiques business. Meanwhile Thandiwe and her younger brother attended a Catholic primary school run by joyless nuns, where she was once excluded from a class photograph for sporting cornrows and made to feel like an in-house missionary project, and where the W of her name drifted inward, out of sight and earshot, in a futile hope to make her feel less different. She eventually replaced the greens and shores of the West Country with the urban smoke of north-west London.
I first interviewed Thandiwe Newton around 20 years ago in the lobby of a Covent Garden hotel, for the cover of Black women’s magazine Pride (this cover story is about that much time overdue). She was wearing gym clothes and looked wistfully childlike. Nowadays you won’t see her in a gym, you will not see her jogging (“I hate exercise”), but back then she was preparing to star opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II and had to do stunts. She played the beautiful thief and love interest Nyah Nordoff-Hall; a couple of years before that she had played the title role in the Toni Morrison-adaptation Beloved; a year before that the waifish, moody singer in Gridlock’dalongside Tupac Shakur. She later won a BAFTA for her performance in Crash and became the first Black woman to play a prominent character in a Star Wars film.
Despite these achievements she has never quite received the glory she deserves as a British national treasure and screen icon; that coy and elfin face, the dignified grace and the remarkable versatility of her talent, this is a career both long-standing and long undervalued. Her roles have been varied and cross-genre – among her favourites is Olanna in 2013’s Half of a Yellow Sun – spanning three decades and gradually becoming aligned with her political activism, culminating in her Emmy-winning and Golden Globe-nominated performance as the android brothel-madam Maeve Millay in the HBO hit sci-fi series Westworld, this year shooting its fourth season. “I can tell when people haven’t watched Westworldbecause they just think I’m being naked and sexy in it,” Newton says. “But I love how subversive it is. Wherever I position myself now, I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution. I’m not for hire anymore. I’m not going to speak your story or say your words if I don’t feel they could’ve come from me.”
This time we meet in the flattening sphere of Zoom on the day that Trump defiled the Capitol. The streets of north-west London are spare. Britain is in its third national lockdown. Approaching the screen from across her warmly lit bedroom she arrives as a light, bright presence, wearing hoop earrings and an orange sweatshirt, looking, at 48, basically unaged. “I’ve changed a whole lot,” she laughs knowingly. “Many lives have been lived since then.” She is a passionate and expansive conversationalist, leaping from one subject to another (factory farms, colonialism, motherhood, literature), easily moved to tears and somehow tactile, even in this format. She is a vegan on political and humanitarian grounds, and counts among her heroes the Congolese gynaecologist, human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Denis Mukwege.
In other parts of the house are her children – Booker, seven, Nico, 16, and Ripley, 20, whose girlfriend is staying with them during lockdown – and her husband of 23 years, the screenwriter and director Ol Parker, who pops into the room occasionally to bring her a drink or remind her about a meeting – she’s in discussions about adapting the story of a black-versus-white shoot-out in 1940s Cornwall between American soldiers, and is due back on set for the forthcoming CIA thriller All the Old Knives. This year also sees the release of sci-fi romance Reminiscence, the directorial debut of Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy, in which she stars with Hugh Jackman, and the completion of the timely neo-Western God’s Country. When offered the Westworld role in 2014 Newton was close to retiring from acting, having just had her last baby and quit her role in the Canadian police drama Rogue because of mistreatment, and was turning her attention to writing. Now, with Hollywood knocking more loudly than ever, it seems likely that we will see her ascend to middle-age thespian darlinghood, like a Helen Mirren or Regina King, starlit in maturity.
While amazed at her resurgence she is mindful of its shadow. “I find that acting takes more and more away from me,” she says with candour, “because I’m more connected to myself than I’ve ever been, whereas before I was delighted to get an excuse to go off to another personality. I couldn’t wait to get away from myself, truly, I had such low self-esteem. Acting was where I felt whole.” The nuns hadn’t helped. Nor had the dance teacher at her extracurricular lessons in Cornwall, who’d annually bypassed the brilliant brown ballerina at trophy time. Newton pursued her dance aspirations at a performing arts secondary boarding school in Hertfordshire before moving to London, but was curtailed by a back injury and switched her focus to acting. It was disconcerting, too, that this same brownness was to become a site of manipulation, confusion and psychological violence on entering the movie industry.
The summer she took her GCSEs, when auditioning for her debut role, alongside Nicole Kidman in Flirting, the Australian director John Duigan was not quite satisfied with her shade. “Can you be a bit darker?” he said. “I dunno,” said Thandiwe. “Be darker by Monday,” he said. So she spent the weekend covered in coconut oil and frantically bronzing. “Got the role. Colourism has just been the funniest. I’ve been too Black, not Black enough. I’m always Black. I’m just like, whadda you people want!” It was Duigan, incidentally, who went on to play the real-life role of sexual predator to that darkened, virginal 16-year-old schoolgirl more than 20 years his junior once filming began in Australia. That definitely didn’t help.
Newton has been a staunch and persistent whistle-blower on the subject of sexual violence and harassment, in Hollywood and beyond, for decades. Long before #metoo and Time’s Up, she was challenging the great wall of silence and enablement surrounding the high crimes and misdemeanours of the entertainment moguls, the Weinsteins and Epsteins, the Cosbys and Kellys, while meeting angry rebuff and gaslighting along the way, at one point terminating a contract with a publicist who begged her to stop talking about being sexually abused because it was “not good for your reputation”. For her, silence was not an option. Speaking out was a reflex, a reach for what had been lost and some justice to cushion the void. “There’s a moment where the ghost of me changed, you know,” she says thoughtfully, zoning back in time, eyes hardened, “and it was then, it was 16. He derailed me from myself utterly. I was traumatised. It was a kind of PTSD for sure. I was so distraught and appalled that a director had abused a young actress, and that it was happening elsewhere, minors getting abused and how f**ked up it was. I was basically waiting for someone to come along and say, ‘Well, what shall we do about this?’’’
No longer is Newton afraid of the red carpet because of how much it reminded her of her invisibility, and she looks forward to a future where the illusion of race will no longer narrow who we are. “The thing I’m most grateful for in our business right now is being in the company of others who truly see me. And to not be complicit in the objectification of Black people as ‘others’, which is what happens when you’re the only one.” All her future films will be credited with Thandiwe Newton, after the W was carelessly missed out from her first credit. Now she’s in control. Many lives lived and she’s come out triumphant, preserved in the magic of the mist and sun that made her, and wanted her to shine. “That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.”