Say It Loud
Whether pushing for greater diversity on screen or campaigning against abuse in the film industry and beyond, actor THANDIE NEWTON has never been one to go quietly. Here, she talks to ALICE CASELY-HAYFORD about power and prejudice – and reveals a serious case of motherly pride
With a name (Thandiwe) that means ‘beloved’ in the Zimbabwean language Ndebele, perhaps it was destined that polymath Thandie Newton’s varied work would touch audiences in a multitude of ways. Her role as Christine in Crash (2004), for which she received a BAFTA, resonated with many for the way it so masterfully encapsulated racial and social tensions in the United States. More recently, her standout depiction of sentient android Maeve in Westworld, a part she has played since 2016, has captured the attention of millions for her powerful and pertinent portrayal of a robot who revolts against the patriarchy. Away from acting, her tireless campaigning around violence against women and children, the climate crisis, sexual abuse, AIDS and poverty has raised awareness on a number of global issues and garnered her a loyal legion of supporters and collaborators. Not to mention her work as an executive producer on projects such as the 2017 documentary Liyana, about orphans in Swaziland.
In 2012, Newton, the daughter of an English father and a Zimbabwean mother, launched ThandieKay, one of her lesser-known triumphs, with friend and makeup artist Kay Montano – whom she’d met 10 years earlier on a shoot for British Vogue – setting out to create a community that represented and celebrated women of color. As a then-twentysomething black journalist working in fashion media, the platform, helmed by two incredibly successful women of color, was a revelation to me in its desire to include and champion different notions of beauty.
“I needed my work to serve me a bit more and to be more in line with the other stuff that I do, which is so much more compelling to me. Much more rewarding and enriching,” she says of the birth of ThandieKay as she peruses the menu of a low-key Japanese restaurant in west London that she and her family frequents. “So, I decided to quit [acting], in a very mellow way.”
“For 30 years I’ve WATCHED and AGITATED; I’ve DISRUPTED”
However, just as the site was really gaining traction, Westworld came a-knocking and Newton decided to park ThandieKay, returning to our screens as Maeve. Thankfully, the early tremors of a seismic shift in the industry were rumbling, meaning that more and more publications were following suit and displaying a more diverse world on their pages. “We don’t do it anymore because look what has happened,” Newton exclaims emphatically, referring to this shift in media, particularly in the beauty industry, to recognise and embrace diversity. “I feel like we made our imprint. Apart from anything, it brought a lot of people together. People in this country who didn’t realise we’re all here.”
As we tuck into a bowl of edamame beans, I ask Newton if she believes in the change or if, like me, she worries that much of it is only superficial? “Things just simply won’t manifest that quickly,” she says sagely, with the awareness of someone who has endured much prejudice and push-back throughout her prolific career. “I guess the reason my frustration is tempered is because for 30 years I’ve watched and agitated; I’ve disrupted.”
And bravely disrupt she has. Long before #MeToo and Time’s Up, Newton spoke out about abuse and misconduct in the industry. When she was 18, during a filmed audition, an unnamed male director asked her to intimately touch herself, which she agreed to as a female casting director was present. It transpired that this director had been flaunting this video to peers. For years, Newton has painfully recounted this incident and others, despite not always being believed and, at times, even being ostracized. Her courageous efforts cost her friends as well as jobs, and naturally Newton’s parents, who wished to protect her, encouraged her to stop speaking about it.
“I made a DECISION that it was more important to keep PUSHING forward, because I couldn’t BELIEVE this was allowed to happen”
“Both my parents have had to go through so much,” she says softly. “It was such a big deal, because nobody more than them wanted me to stop. I made a decision that it was more important to keep pushing forward, because I couldn’t believe this was allowed to happen. I saw it as permission, permission to abuse.”
“I could only speak about myself and I had to keep talking about my experience because I was hoping it would [help] the broader experience of so many people. I didn’t want anything done for me. It was about the culture and the system.”
Years on, and Newton is still using her voice for good. On the board of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against all women and girls, she stands in solidarity with survivors, not resting until the violence stops. “Yes, I am exhausted. That would be the word I use to describe myself right now. Exhausted.” However, she concedes that she’d feel even more fatigued if she weren’t standing for what she believes in. “My mental health would certainly be a lot worse if I didn’t do it. My work and good people are the best medicine.”
Despite there being much to fight against and for, Newton is optimistic. “We’re seeing beautiful things happen in the world that are completely counter to the shi**y things. People are so tender. All the negative sides of being terrified… on the flip side, look at our creativity, our courage. We have to keep looking at those things. Because a lot of the time, it’s where we choose to look.”
Regarding creativity, Newton’s role in Westworld over the past four years has propelled her to superstardom. Millions eagerly awaited the return of the third season, which premiered on HBO on March 15, with Aaron Paul, Lena Waithe, Vincent Cassel and Kid Cudi joining the cast, amongst others. “It’s a natural evolution from where we were,” she says animatedly. “It just gets richer and richer because the writers have known what they’re going to do for five seasons. I don’t know what happens from episode to episode. This season was such a gift for everybody. I’m so admiring of everyone involved. We have such earnest respect for each other. We’ve grown as people.”
The cast members may have grown throughout the experience, but it is Newton’s character Maeve who has been on the biggest journey, from a state of unknowing to fierce self-possession and power. “It’s the best role. The perspective she has [as a robot] and what that, as an audience, allows us to consider… What makes her strong are the things she’s copied or learnt from a human being. She’s cherry-picked the things she wants to keep. It’s really great this season. We have such good directors. We have eight episodes and five are directed by women. I’ve worked with so many women over the past 12 months.”
One of those women is Lisa Joy, the co-creator of Westworld, who Newton worked again with recently on Joy’s directorial debut, Reminiscence. The film, which wrapped in December, is set in the not-so-distant future, where sea levels and temperatures have risen. “She innovates with film. What she’s doing with the film, technically, is amazing,” Newton enthuses. “It’s incredible. It’s got all the ingenuity of Memento and Inception.”
“This season [of Westworld] was such a GIFT for EVERYBODY. I’m so ADMIRING of everyone involved”
In the sci-fi thriller, Newton plays lead Hugh Jackman’s best friend. I can’t help but ask what it’s like working with the Australian heart-throb. “Hugh Jackman is the loveliest man. He is kind, present, a devoted family man. Just a great guy.”
Reminiscence also offered the opportunity to work alongside her 15-year-old daughter Nico, who debuted on the big screen in the live-action remake of Dumbo last year. “It was like passing the torch on,” the 47-year-old actor states with palpable pride. “I hope she doesn’t have to run the sprints I had to run, though. I know she won’t have to. She’ll run different sprints. She’s amazing.”
Next up, after Reminiscence, is neo-Western thriller God’s Country, directed by Julian Higgins. “I said no at first because I’d just finished Westworld and I don’t really want to act as much. It’s tiny but expansive in the ideas it’s dealing with. It’s regular everyday people doing everyday things. It was like, ‘Oh my God, these are the things I would be thinking about anyway.’”
“I love DRESSING up. I love a beautiful GOWN because it’s a piece of ART. I love color”
A few days after our interview, Newton is off to Montana to start filming, but after that she will take a well-deserved break and return home to her husband of 22 years, Ol Parker, and their three children, Ripley, Nico and Booker. “We’re a unit. My husband has been writing feverishly since Mamma Mia 2 and he’s got a movie that he’ll be directing at the end of this year, so it gives me a wonderful opportunity to support him. I love being around when he directs.”
Family is quite clearly at the center of Newton’s world, and in April she looks forward to taking them with her to Buckingham Palace when she receives an OBE for her services to charity and film. What will she wear to receive her honor? “I want to wear Duro [Olowu],” she quickly answers, gushing about the designer’s talents.
She also cites Rejina Pyo, Erdem, Christopher Kane, Giles Deacon, Brandon Maxwell and The Vampire’s Wife as brands she adores. “I love dressing up. I love a beautiful gown because it’s a piece of art. I love color.”
As we finish lunch and Thandie pulls down her beanie, preparing to head out to buy party bags for her son Booker’s impending sixth birthday party, we turn again to the topic of change and the amount of progress that has been made during her career. “When I look at the film industry and the entertainment industry in general from year to year, [I see] an explosion of talent,” she asserts. “The demands from young people are having a huge impact. Humongous. Thirty years ago, getting into the film business, it was lean pickings. That’s only 30 years ago. The change is huge. We need to make sure that the public have their say. We have to hear them. We have to keep it going. If it does seem cosmetic, we have to then push that bit harder.” And we ought to be grateful that Newton’s leading the charge in that mighty push.
The third series of Westworld is released on March 15
She’s renowned for her impeccable red-carpet style, so how does Thandie Newton do when she’s put to the test in our Fashion Challenge? Watch and see…