Saturday, October 23, 2010
From the Vault: Thandie Newton
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 16, 1995
It's been a short trip for Thandie Newton from the small Australian film Flirting to the Hollywood mainstream in films such as Interview With the Vampire and, now, to a major role in the Merchant Ivory production Jefferson in Paris. However, her budding career still won't help with the college finals she faces in June at Cambridge University in England.
Newton, 22, the daughter of a Zimbabwean nurse and an English medical technician, lived in Zambia until she was 5 and now lives in England, where she is set to graduate from Cambridge with a degree in anthropology in June.
Newton found the dialect necessary for her role rather easy to slip into. She plays Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, the subject of great dispute among historians who debate whether or not she had an affair with the future president that resulted in several children. The film takes the point of view that it definitely happened.
"For some reason, I found (the accent) very easy to slip into a Southern American accent. Of course, the Southern American accent is slightly different from the black Southern American accent, so for me it was more of a question of me getting the African element more richly incorporated into the accent."
Newton managed to capture Sally's voice, thanks to what she was reading at the time she won the role.
"At the time, I was reading a lot of Toni Morrison novels and her characters' dialogue tends to be in dialect. Finally, just reading those pieces aloud, I found I was able to inhabit the physicality of the character."
Newton was educated at an all-girls boarding school in England and had no American history, so her knowledge of the times and people presented in Jefferson in Paris was limited.
"In terms of the origins of black America, that's really out of reach in English textbooks."
However, in working toward her major at Cambridge, she confronted some of the issues the movie addresses.
"As an anthropology student ... the whole issue of slavery, colonialism, the imperialist exploration of the New World, has been something we've dealt with quite significantly."
Following graduation, Newton said she is eager to leave school behind to concentrate on her burgeoning career.
"I really do want to leave academia behind for awhile. I need to remember how I felt about things because I've been looking at everything from a clinical, academic point of view and just playing devil's advocate ... and I really want to wipe the slate clean and get back in touch with how I instinctively feel about things. With anthropology, I've become quite disillusioned with the human race. ... You look at people as masses and gross generalizations ... I don't want to save the world anymore. It's too big a project."
Newton calls working with the Merchant Ivory team "an exceptional experience."
"With all due respect to people I've worked with since, after (Jefferson in Paris), I really felt that if I never worked in another film again, ... it would be OK because I'd done this film. It was that important to me and I respected it that much. I enjoyed the experience that much."
Newton's praise extends to her co-star, Nick Nolte, as well.
"He's the best actor I've ever worked with. I have worked with a few, very fine actors and Nick's incredibly receptive and very malleable; if you change your performance or want to do something new or different, he'll change with you."