Thandie Newton Interview

By Drew Hunt

The Chronicle recently chatted with the actress Thandie Newton about her new flick “For Colored Girls”. She discussed the challenge of bringing poetry to the big screen, her personal reaction to Ntozake Shange’s original play, and what it’s like for a Brit to play a streetwise American.

Chronicle: Were you familiar with the play before you signed onto the movie?

TN: I hadn’t read the play before, and I can only put that down to being British and it’s not part of my cultural heritage and so on. But when I read it, I read Tyler’s first draft first and I wondered, “wow, where is this poetry coming from?” Then I read the book, and I was blown away. The language is electric and sensual and the rhythms are just perfect. It has such a unique voice and it’s just so exciting. It felt like the beginning of a movement, and I guess it was in some ways in the 70s.

Chronicle: Your character Tangie has a very distinct dialect. With you being British, was it difficult to maintain this dialect amidst such an emotional role with a lot of yelling and screaming?

TN: When you’re emotional, shouting or screaming, it’s difficult to sustain the accent, since an accent is purely an intellectual thing. Whenever I’m emotional, my British accent shows since it’s emotional and not intellectual. So you’ve always got to be aware.

Chronicle: With always having to be aware of the accent, does that add pressure to not only conveying the appropriate emotion, but having to maintain the illusion?

TN: Well, because, I think it has a lot to do with how many times I’ve had to do it in the past, use an accent. It’s not just about using the accent; it’s about relaxing while using the accent. What the distraction can be is, “did that sound right? Was that OK?” I’ve just got to not check myself and allow the director or other actors to do that for me. When I do that, funny enough, the accent is better.

Chronicle: Tangie does some nasty things in this movie; she’s swearing at her neighbors, attacking her mother. As an actress, is it difficult to find that level of wickedness within yourself?

TN: Honestly, it’s not a part of me, and that’s what made it very difficult. Also, it’s not always the case, but I felt it was hard to sympathize with Condie Rice in W but I still played her. And similarly, I found it hard to sympathize with Tangie, really hard. It wasn’t until I was involved with the movie and embarking that journey and speaking the truth on her abuse and so on that I started to feel sympathetic. A persons only as violent as the abuse towards them, but there are often times people who have had horrible experiences that don’t reek havoc and alienate themselves from people by being cruel. This was her trick, something that I realized in the last couple of days that I think is largely responsible for Tangie’s behavior is her lack of education. And it’s touched on in the movie when Tangie’s sister Nyla talks about how she needs money to go to college and it gets absorbed in Tangie’s dismissal of Nyla I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I mean, here’s someone who wasn’t given the tools of self discovery through education, cause I think education gives someone an anchor and a sense of identity and just tools to reason stuff out. So, now I feel huge sympathy and empathy towards her. I think her behavior was only gross and uncomfortable as the struggle that she’s in.

Chronicle: At which point did you start sympathizing with her? Was it while reading the script or in the middle of shooting?

TN: Well, one of the reasons why I hadn’t come to that place is because I only knew I was going to do the movie two days before I had to get on the plane. They already started shooting. So, it was also just because I hadn’t had time to get in there. You know, I have a very peaceful life: I’m a mother, I’ve come through my mid-twenties angst, etc. So to be playing this person who is calling Phylicia Rashad a piece of shit, I mean god almighty. I needed to know where this behavior was coming from, otherwise it was just, um, it was sensational and just manipulative and not real. I quickly came to understand what she was dealing with. Partly, it was my own denial. I didn’t want to be in that place of unconsciousness. She’s utterly unconscious. Again, I think it’s lack of education and the level of abuse she had to suffer. It’s a hard thing to have to deal with at work, cause it was different from anything I’ve done. In the past when I played a lot of violence and anger, it’s been because I’m in the victim’s place. Tangie’s not a victim, she’s empowered. But she’s empowered by a toxic reality, it’s not who she should be or really is, or the pure spring of life that we should be aided by.

Chronicle: What was it like incorporating the actual poems of author Ntozake Shange into your dialogue?

TN: In Ntozake’s (the author of the original play) words, it was like a fairy godmother that kind of came down and spoke a truth for us at certain points. What’s beautiful is that all the poems are in Ntozake’s words and it’s her voice. It’s like we’re all speaking in her voice in the most intense times of our evolution in the movie. I think it comes to symbolize the oneness of women, that we come to experience the same pain. We all have within us a voice of wisdom and a spiritual guide. By spiritual guide, I don’t mean religion, I mean love. If we tap into it, it’s going to liberate us from a very difficult place. The poetry became an intimate, private moment that the actresses are sharing with the audience. I just thought each actress, when they were doing it, feel so relieved to have her words to say.