As outspoken as Thandie Newton has been throughout her career, there are still stories she’s been holding off on telling. Not because she’s shy, but because she’s waiting for the right moment. “So careful what you do, everybody,” she says. “Because you might find yourself fucking over a little brown girl at the beginning of a career, when no one knows who she is and no one gives a fuck. She might turn out to be Thandie Newton.” At 47, Newton feels she’s more powerful than ever, which manifests in our Zoom conversations as a kind of stunning vulnerability. It’s rare for an actress whose 30-plus-year career has ranged from odd art-house films with Bernardo Bertolucci to blockbusters like Mission: Impossible 2 to, well, Norbit to speak so plainly. She’s unsparing about her own career choices and yet maintains the wisdom and compassion to forgive herself. “We got to press on, haven’t we, my love?”
Are you in your bedroom right now?
I am. It’s very hard to find a quiet spot. We currently have my family in isolation. My son, who’s 6, my 15-year-old daughter, and my 19-year-old daughter, whose girlfriend is living with us too.
What were you doing when lockdown first started?
I was in Montana doing a movie, God’s Country. It’s one of the most inspiring projects. I was loving it, but also willing its end because it was that demanding. And I’d come off 12 months of pretty intense work with Westworld.
In Westworld, your performance is so poignant, both ferocious and beautiful. Do you have conversations with the showrunners around the arc of the season or where you would like your character to go?
I like to stay sane about my position, which is that I am being employed to tell someone else’s story. Where I do have a degree of choice is in taking the role, but once I’m in, I’m a team player. I do have frustrations with Maeve, but that’s part of her story line.
What are some of those frustrations?
Well, season one, the evolution of this robot who then has the revelation that she’s not human, and that she had a past that involved a child, and the betrayal of that, and then using information to empower herself — it was such a powerful story. I’m not surprised that it hooked people in. And then the second and third season has Maeve with a different directive, but it’s not her own. She’s following other people’s leads, by and large. In the first season, she was driving, dominating, pretty straightforward. I think Maeve is a metaphor for the dispossessed in the world, and she’s become that kind of leader, but she’s not had a chance to lead, and I don’t think she necessarily should. She certainly doesn’t want to.
When you were a kid, you said you didn’t feel like you were beautiful, but I think people consider you beautiful. When did things shift?
I think it’s hugely to do with my ethnicity. When I set out in the adult world, I was pretty young — 16 was when I started working in movies. I had no sense of myself. One of the reasons why is because I was not considered anything. There was a lot that people could have been interested in in me when I was young. They didn’t want to express it, because they didn’t want to praise the Black girl.
I had this dance teacher, ’cause ballet was my thing. I came from a very small town. We didn’t have capoeira and this and that. Not even like jazz or fucking modern — that would have been way too ghetto. Year after year, I was a star student. I’d always be given the solo to make the school look good. So at the end of every year, there’d be this big performance we’d all do in this dance school. The dance teacher — and I don’t mean her any ill, I’m not slagging her off, but it’s the truth — at the end of every year, she’d give prizes. She would give this ceramic ballet dancer, like a little kind of Oscar. It was screamingly obvious that I should have been given prizes. She never did. Not once.
I didn’t even think about it. Because, look, this all instilled in me a work ethic and perfectionism. It’s not pride in my work or pride in the perfectionism. It’s If I don’t do this, no one’s going to let me do anything else again, ever. It was out of survival. The last year I was in her school, I remember I didn’t get the prize, and my mom had obviously realized I wasn’t going to get it. We didn’t have much money, but when I got home, she had bought me this beautiful figurine of two dancers. Because she was so proud of me, she wanted to compensate.
We didn’t talk about it at the time, but the damage was so done. It just made me super-vulnerable to predators. That’s the truth. Because there’s so much about not having a sense of my value. I suffered quite badly for a couple of years from anorexia, and it all feeds into this. Just wanting to disappear. What happened for me was I had a very complicated relationship with … I never chose. I let other people do the choosing for me. That saddens me.
What were you going to say? That you had a complicated relationship with … ?
With sexual relationships. It was like I had to give something back for being noticed. You get predators and sexual abusers, they can smell it a mile off. It’s like a shark smelling blood in the water. All you need is one of those to really drive you into the dust. In a way, an eating disorder was just like, Okay, I need to finish myself off. I need to get fully rid of myself now. Unfortunately, that was while I was in an industry where a woman is utterly objectified. But a really key point, which began when I was like 21 and I met Eve Ensler …
You saw The Vagina Monologues and then you talked to her afterward.
She was performing in a pub in Islington in North London. Afterward, I saw her as she came into the pub and we chatted. I found myself telling her my story about being sexually abused. She didn’t look at me with pity. For her, it was like, “And you’re here.” It was the moment I turned from being a victim to a survivor. She just pointed out I was moving through it.
When you’ve talked about what happened in the past — getting groomed and sexually abused as a teenager by the director John Duigan on the set of Flirting — I noticed the language used by some journalists writing about it was quite odd. Some would call it an affair.
Yes. For years. I would talk about it a lot in the press, as you know. I think it’s because I was traumatized. If someone brought it up — and of course they’re going to bring it up in a fucking interview, man — if they spoke about it in a way that’s not sympathetic or they called it an affair, it was insult to injury. It’s like re-abuse. I think the reason I talked about it a lot, too, is I’m trying to find someone who understands. I’m looking for help. It’s so fucking obvious to me. What is the point if we don’t expose what needs to be exposed?
When I look at my career and see how affected it was by my speaking out about sexual abuse in the industry, it was massively affected in two ways. One, because I was dealing with my trauma, and talk about being in a triggering environment, right? Also, I’d come across people that were doing the same shit, and so I would challenge them, or want to get out of it, or not want to work with people. One of the biggest movies I didn’t end up doing was because the director said to me, “I can’t wait for this. The first shot is going to be … You’re going to think it’s like yellow lines down a road, and you pull back and you realize it’s the stitching, because the denim is so tight on your ass it’s going to look like tarmac.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t think we’re going to go down this road together.”
Then the head of the studio — I had a meeting with her, and she said, “Look, I don’t mean to be politically incorrect, but the character as written and you playing the role, I just feel like we’ve got to make sure that it’s believable.” I was like, “What do you mean? What changes would you have to make?” She’s like, “Well, you know, the character, as written, she’s been to university and is educated.” I’m like, “I’ve been to university. I went to Cambridge.” She went, “Yeah, but you’re different.” She’s like, “Maybe there could be a scene where you’re in a bar and she gets up on a table and starts shaking her booty.” She’s basically reeling off these stereotypes of how to be more convincing as a Black character. Everything she said, I was like, “Nah, I wouldn’t do that.” She’s like, “Yeah, but you’re different. You’re different.” That was Amy Pascal. That’s not really a surprise, is it? Let’s face it: I didn’t do the movie as a result.
What was the movie?
Charlie’s Angels. It was a big deal for me. Vogue had called to ask us to be on the cover, the three of us. But I just couldn’t do it. I felt scared. Did I feel scared? That’s not true. Look, no one was ever going to sexually abuse me again. But I didn’t want to be put in a position where I was objectified. That just didn’t feel good. This is a long time ago anyway, and all those girls are brilliant. But if that was me now, I’d want to disrupt rather than run away. I think that’s probably the change in me.
That’s not the only thing that happened. There’s the disgusting thing that happened with the casting couch. Just this grossness. I’ve got my little black book, which will be published on my deathbed.
Oh, of everything. Got to leave something behind, love. I’m not doing it when I’m alive. I don’t want to deal with all the fallout and everyone getting their side of the story. There is no side of the story when you’re sexually abused. You give that up.
I’m also a Black girl, and I absolutely [felt like I was] being passed around. Being Black is important. Because certainly at the beginning of my career, when it was just, like, me and Halle Berry in our age group going up for every role: “Oh, this is novel. This is a little quick flash in the pan. We’ll let you come in for a minute.”
It’s interesting how you two were positioned by the industry.
She’s so cool, man. I’m sure she has all her own things. We’re very different. Quite interesting that we both have one white parent. I’d like to just look at that. All these Black people in the public eye who are Black, and you don’t think about their white parents. Like on my Instagram, it’s always my mum. I don’t put my dad up much, and that’s because I want Black people to feel they can trust me and feel safe with me — that I’m not a representative of this Establishment that degrades people of color. All my fucking career, I felt like, to Black people, I’m not a legitimate Black person.
What I am evidence of is: You can dismiss a Black person. If you’re a young Black girl and you get raped, in the film business, no one’s going to fucking care. You can tell whoever the fuck you want, and they’ll call it an affair. Until people start taking this seriously, I can’t fully heal. There are so many problems to feeling disenfranchised. But I keep finding myself alone. There is now an appetite for listening to women, but there’s women and then, right at the bottom of the pile, is women of color. So careful what you do, everybody, because you might find yourself fucking over a little brown girl at the beginning of a career, when no one knows who she is and no one gives a fuck. She might turn out to be Thandie Newton winning Emmys.
How do you feel about the movie Flirting? People sometimes bring up how it’s an “underrated gem.”
I think it’s lovely. It’s beautiful.
Is it complicated for you at all?
I haven’t watched it again. I don’t really want to talk about it. It doesn’t make me feel good to think about it, really. Just in that moment, my stomach went a bit weird. Because of my loyalty to the film, to the people in it, to my performance in it, it feels a little bit like I approve of what happened to me during it, and it’s simply not true. It would be so much easier if the film was shit. I’m good, though. What a shame I wasn’t a shit actress. But it had Nicole [Kidman] in it as well and Naomi Watts.
There are definitely movies I regret, particularly the films I continued to do with the director I first worked with. Because I never really wanted to do any of them. He would bully me into them. He would shame me into doing them. I was in my early 20s, but when I read The Journey of August King — all respect to John Ehle, who wrote it, all respect to everyone who got involved — I remember saying to him, “I just feel like it’s very simplistic.” He criticized me for having an opinion. And I immediately felt like a little girl. Because, you know, when you’re abused, it’s mental abuse as well. And we weren’t even together at the time — I’d finally managed to leave, and I still wasn’t on the other side of judgment. I just thought I was fucked up; I didn’t think that he’d fucked me up. And that’s not to say … I did my best. I tried to do well. I wanted to give that character as much intelligence, humanity. Oh, and then I did another movie that his sister wrote. Oh!
Wait, what was that?
It’s called The Leading Man. Well, it gave me a down payment on my first flat. First ever. But that was fucking gross. And then there was one particular time where … I mean, this is what I’m talking about, where he lied about what parts of my body were being seen in the shot.
That was him?
Yeah. And, like, this was supposed to be someone that loved you. And not just that, personally, as in a relationship, but also you’ve helped make his career. He’d be nowhere without me. For a number of years, there was a grain of hope that that person would atone, become someone on International Women’s Day who’s out there campaigning for women. Like, of course, you hope people will change, right?
So what changed? How were you able to say “no” and break free?
Oh, by literally extricating myself physically and mentally from that individual. But I realize it’s not just an individual; it’s a system. That’s why I don’t particularly like talking about the individual, because it makes that person more special. It’s a whole fucking system of abuse, exploitation. That’s why watching [Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich], I couldn’t even get through the first episode. I was just so undone by that. Just in terms of grooming, that’s the closest to what I experienced. And it’s like, Oh my God, it’s so textbook.
I’m curious about some other early roles, like Jefferson in Paris. How do you think about that now with the years gone by?
I love James Ivory. He has his quirks, but I really enjoyed his kind of old-school gentleman director. I would definitely approach that film in a completely different way now. I would push for the film to be more about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. And I think that had the DNA tests been done before the movie, they would have definitely wanted to make it more about that. But it would have turned out to be a horror film, because you can’t not have scenes of the two of them sexually, because obviously, let’s face it, that’s the main reason for that relationship. It wasn’t like he was marrying her or even making his children free. His children would wait on tables and people would be like, “Whoa, that looks like Thomas Jefferson.” So I would want to try and focus on that if I were me now in that 21-year-old body and mind. Whereas when we made the movie, the DNA stuff was still controversial. Do you know that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister?
Her dad was Jefferson’s father-in-law. She would’ve looked a bit like his dead wife. Her children were his father-in-law’s grandchildren, right? Or his nieces and nephews? They’re all fucking related. I mean, she was his slave. It was rape.
It was my first big film. I don’t want to name names and put words in people’s mouths, but any number of African-Americans take a shot at me for that one. Do it. I’m here.
You mean they have or they should?
Well, I don’t think it’s paranoia. Spike Lee and I had a little moment. We’re always respectful when we see each other. But he wasn’t exactly knocking on my door asking me to work with him. I can’t put words in his mouth of what he thought of it.
I know the nature of this business has had me play roles that I’m embarrassed I played. It’s had me misrepresent African-Americans. Because I didn’t know. I have not been of great service in my career. I guess it’s been of service in one respect, because there’s a person of color in a movie, but that can do more harm than good — let’s face it. Anyway, sorry. God, wow. I’ve never cried in an interview before.
I’m trying to understand the box that people put you in in those early years, and if you felt that colorism was a part of that.
Oh, yeah. Crikey. I mean, I was perceived in so many different ways, and it was always about the individual who was perceiving. It was very much on the spectrum of Is she Black enough, or is she too Black? And the number of times I would put on a fake tan or take it down or up —
When would you do that?
Like the Sally Hemings story, with that movie, she had to be super-pale. With Beloved, they wanted me to be a lot darker. Jonathan Demme directed it. If he had been an African-American guy, would he have … Oprah, I think she was concerned about me being light-skinned.
Did you ever talk to Oprah about it?
No. When we were making the movie, we were all, “Woo!” We were in. I was Beloved to all of them. They deeply appreciated how far I went. Once I started croaking like a demon and made scenes that we were doing … And Jonathan was extraordinary, how he created the context for your work. Nothing like it. No rehearsal. You came ready and open.
I remember another time it came up really strongly. I did this movie, Half of a Yellow Sun,which is one of my favorite characters I’ve played. That, Beloved, and Maeve in the first season of Westworld. Half of a Yellow Sun is based on the book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a stunning book. I was talking to Chimamanda about it because, again, I’m on the paler side. I think there had been mutterings online when they found out I was being considered: “Oh, she’s so light-skinned.” Chimamanda and I became friends very easily. She’s from Lagos, Nigeria, and she showed me a picture of her family. Her siblings ranged from pale like me to darker than Chimamanda. She just said, when she realized and looked to her own family, “Why can’t Olanna be me, be this color?”
Nowadays, there is regret for me. I recognize how painful it is for dark-skinned women, particularly, to have to deal with being substituted or overlooked. For example, you watch Queen & Slim. I look at Jodie [Turner-Smith]. Or, you look at Lupita [Nyong’o]. To see a woman of color, to see that dark skin, that beautiful chocolate skin, my mother’s skin, onscreen … It’s holy. I do see so clearly why there’s been so much deep disappointment.
Did the reaction to Beloved disappoint you? It was supposed to be such a major movie, an Oscar contender.
We were on the floor. I was like, “Oh God, I’m so depressed.” It had had some good reviews, but it hadn’t done well at the box office. And Jonathan was like, “Shame on you for not witnessing all the people for whom this movie meant so much.” That’s so Jonathan. And Oprah took to her bed and just ate mac and cheese. It was hard because we put everything into that movie. I’d love to see it again. Jonathan was fortunate in that he was working in a time when budgets went into the art. There were no actors there being paid extortionate figures. It all ended up on-camera.
I’ll never forget Oprah saying to me … She was the cover of Vogue. And apparently, she said, they had 20 meetings to decide whether she should be on the cover. Twenty. I was like, “That’s disgusting. What is the issue?” And Oprah, her response was, “Thandie, these things take time.”
To switch gears slightly, I wanted to talk about Crash.
Crash. That’s got a chapter in my black book, I’m afraid, babe.
How the sexual-assault scene got shot sounded dodgy, to say the least, and it was not clear to me what happened. I wanted to ask you what happened.
I wouldn’t say it was dodgy. It was certainly not from Paul Haggis’s point of view. Everything that he did was right on. The irony is that in the script, it wasn’t specific what his hand was doing inside her skirt. It was just, “His hand goes up her skirt,” and that’s it. And then in the later scene, when she’s screaming at her husband, she says, “You just let him finger-fuck your wife.” I thought she was being ironic. I thought she was saying the worst thing she could imagine because she was trying to make a point to her husband. Because frankly, if I’d been finger-fucked by a cop, I wouldn’t even be able to talk. But we’d shot the argument scene already. So weeks later, we came to shoot the scene, the last scene for me, the scene with the cop. At the beginning of that night, oh God, Paul Haggis got me and Matt [Dillon] together, and in front of Matt, he said to me, “Are you wearing protective underwear?” And they’re both like looking at their feet. I’m like, “I mean, I’m just wearing under … yeah. Why?” “Because I really want this to be as real as, you know — I really want to go there.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” “Because I just want Matt to feel like he can … ” And I realized what he was saying. I wasn’t even thinking about the [earlier] scene that I’d said “finger-fuck.” It wasn’t until I saw the fucking movie, I’m like, “Oh, fucking hell!”
I went into the makeup trailer and burst into tears. I was really worried, and I was upset. Not that I had to do the scene, but I was upset that I had no idea that that’s what we were going to be conveying in the movie. Because as far as I was concerned, to insinuate that a cop would hand-rape a woman in the streets, and in a racially charged way, too, I felt this fear that I didn’t want to be part of putting that out in the world, because I thought it couldn’t possibly be true. Here I am now working with Kimberlé Crenshaw for the African American Policy Forum, her amazing “Say Her Name,” which is basically a whole campaign trying to raise awareness of the fact that, yes, Black men are being killed by the police and it’s horrific, but the numbers of Black women who are sexually abused by the police, it is actually a phenomenon. There are so many cases, but you don’t hear about them. But that’s how much I’ve grown. You could say that Paul Haggis knew a thing or two more than I did.
The movie has been very polarizing since its release. I don’t know if you’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece about it. He really hated the movie.
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t respond to me on Twitter. I’m not kidding.
He called it the worst movie of the decade.
I assumed because it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates that [his piece] would be pithy and interesting, but it was pretty ineffectual. It felt, to me, like the movie wasn’t that bad really, because if it had been he would have taken more time and effort to defang the movie. I think he’s an extraordinary thinker and writer, and I’ve been deeply comforted and changed by his work. I don’t take things personally if someone doesn’t like the work I’ve done. I blame the movie. The movie made him write a shitty piece.
One of the main criticisms of the film has been that it gives Matt Dillon’s character this redemption arc just because he saved you from a burning car.
Yeah. That’s something even at the time I didn’t buy into. There was a moment I remember, being taken away from the car, and I had to turn around and look at him. I had a sense that that look was supposed to be a look of connection, like, You saved me, but for me, the look to him was, Oh, okay. It turns out I got saved by the worst person in the world. Like, My trauma does not end here. That’s for sure. I didn’t feel that it was redemptive. Certainly, not from my character’s point of view. It’s complicated.
Part of why it’s complicated to me is that, not to gas you up too much, but you are really good in the movie.
I’m quite good.
It is weird because I think the movie does have this very deep white liberalism it’s trying to protect. Your character gets kind of swept up in that narrative, which is, to me, Matt Dillon’s redemption narrative.
I completely agree with you. Even with Ludacris and Larenz Tate, when they’re annoyed about being treated as stereotypes, but then it turns out that they are carjackers. I feel like that was just for one joke. It was literally for that one joke, which is like, Ooh! Wow! You’re going to put that label on these guys for one joke?
The movie was clever and witty, but it basically stopped the judgment. It neutralized the very real rage that African-American people feel.
Post-Crash, I feel like you should have been in prestige vehicles. What happened after, in that period up until Westworld?
I’ve had a number of breakdowns, I guess. I remember going to the audition for the new Bond movie, the first one with Daniel Craig. I’d just done Crash, and yes, I was really hot, and it was my moment. And I remember going into that audition, and I was so thin and so messed up. It doesn’t have as much to do with the business as you might think. It was stuff going on in my life that was way more important and difficult than whether I was going to work. It’s interesting to think of what I did do at that time.
Is that how Norbit happened?
Norbit was in that time, yeah. The only movie my kids have seen that I’m in.
Yeah. Isn’t that terrible? Oh my God. Eddie Murphy. They made me jump through hoops for it, too. “Can you really be funny?” People love Norbit, though.
I haven’t seen it for a very, very long time. I mean, it’s so offensive that it’s not offensive, I guess? Because I remember when we first did it, the background to Eddie writing the script was that he found himself watching these online home movies where really large women, African-American women, would beat up their tiny husbands. There was just this spate of stuff online. Eddie found them hilarious. That’s what the movie was born out of. When I went to talk about the project, the first draft I read was way darker. It was about this woman fucking abusing this guy. I think it was always supposed to be a comedy, but you can imagine how twisted that would be. That’s why I wanted to do it. And then it just got very … I don’t know how to describe it … It’s like it turned into a kind of Baskin-Robbins commercial. Eddie was hardly ever there, which was really sad. He has the best stand-ins you’ve ever seen. Literally, from five feet away, you would think they were Eddie. I think I probably did most of the movie with his stand-ins.
What was one of the first decisions you felt you made where you were in control?
Oh, that’s such a lovely question. Oh, let’s try and think of a good one. I was doing a show — and I feel sad saying this because I really loved the writer — it was going to be something for British TV, and then it didn’t happen, and then it got picked up in America, and we were so excited about it, but then a producer and showrunner was just sexist. I refused to do a scene where I’d have to take my top off. I just thought, It’s not that kind of sex scene. It was the first sex scene in the whole series. I was the lead in this new TV show.
Yeah. And I didn’t want to do it. It didn’t make sense for the story with the two characters playing husband and wife who are kind of estranged. I was like, “It just doesn’t make any sense to take it off.” He goes, “Listen, kid. Thandie Newton. Top off. Ratings.” And I laughed. I was actually really grateful for the honesty. And I’m like, “Well, listen. Then definitely fucking not.” But he still got the other actor to pull my top down in the scene. And that’s what’s there.
That’s really fucked up.
And then we were shooting in Canada. I guess it’s hard getting extras, people of color. And it was supposed to be set in Oakland, and I’m continually saying, “We’ve got to populate this cast with more people of color. It doesn’t make any sense. You can’t get more fucking African-American than Oakland.” He said, “But we cast you. So we took care of that.” This is the producer. That was in the second season. I thought, I can’t do this. I just can’t. We had this sort of sexist, casually racist idiot, you know? I had an agreement at the beginning of the second season because I was pregnant with my last baby. I was going to be in my third trimester when I made the show. And I said, “Look, if you want me to do another season, I want to be released from my long-term, six-year contract if I come back.” He refused to put it in writing but agreed.
And you know what happened. They got picked up for season three, and I said, “I want to go,” and then, of course, they’re like, “You can’t.” He had a gentleman’s agreement with my agent, and it was all very respectful, apparently. And I went through fucking hell because he hadn’t told my dear friend, who was the writer of the show. So I ended up losing his friendship too, because he assumed I was just going, “I don’t want to do it.” Obviously, I did get out of it. I just had to do a few episodes, which wasn’t easy. Everyone hated me for leaving, but no one knew of the agreement a year before. It was extremely painful. I actually thought I might retire then, because I had my baby and my husband’s career was doing great.
Then Westworld was sent to me. And if it hadn’t been for Rogue, I wouldn’t have wanted Westworld so much. But I’ll tell you, this was so hideous. On the last days of doing Rogue … I got killed miserably. I get dumped in a laundry container by this nasty guy, who’s a great actor. I get taken down to the bowels of the hotel, where we had this huge fight where he strangled me to death, and then I get dumped in this garbage-disposal tank, and the last shot of me is sinking down into garbage, like into sewage, babe. But listen to this: On the side of the garbage-disposal tanks, it says WESTWORLD GARBAGE DISPOSAL. They all knew I was going to go on to do Westworld because I’d already signed up to do it.
That’s so petty.
Isn’t it? I ended up in the fetal position, weeping, sobbing. I had put two years of hard work into that show. And there I was: Westworld Garbage Disposal.
I’m curious if you could talk about one mistake you made that you felt like later prompted growth.
It’s very difficult as an actor to know. You have so little to go on. You have the script and you have the director. There’s a lot of the other way around, where I did something and then it ended up not doing what I’d hoped it would do. Doing something with all the best intentions and then feeling frustrated. I felt a bit like that with W., I must say. I really thought Oliver Stone was going to stick it to the administration.
But you felt like the film didn’t?
Yeah, very much so. We were making it, he was like, “We’re going to have this post-credit sequence. They are all going to be in cages in the Hague.”
Okay. A mistake that ended up being a good thing.
Or one that made you think.
I did a movie with Bertolucci [Besieged, 1998]. What a privilege. He’s a filmmaker.
I was trying to watch it. I couldn’t find it.
No shit. It’s kind of beautiful. But that was supposed to be a one-hour movie made for television, based on a short story. I wanted to work with Bertolucci. And it was really great. Went to Rome for eight weeks. She’s an African student in Rome, a medical student, very bright. And there were a couple of dream sequences where she’s in Africa, and there were a lot of problems wherever she was from. We went to Kenya to shoot for a week briefly for the dream sequences.
Anyway, when it came to editing and showing, he showed a few people, and it became clear that this movie was going to be more than a TV movie. It ended up being a feature, going to festivals, highly praised. Which you’d think is a good thing. And I was proud, obviously. So he used all the footage from Africa, and [the film] ended up being an hour and a half. The footage from Africa was a big old chunk. But they never specified where in Africa it was. It was a generic African country in a state of serious unrest. And I remember being on a panel in Cannes with Bernardo and the producers. A journalist said, “Isn’t it offensive that you’ve painted such a broad stroke across the whole of Africa by making this generic African state?” I remember saying, “If that’s what you perceive, it says more about you than it does about the movie.” I was just defending the movie because I was so horrified that it could be perceived that way. But the truth was I actually agreed with the journalist. You can see how it happened because it was supposed to be a one-hour movie and it was supposed to be a little poem. But it’s not good enough. Certainly not now. And not then either. The casual ignorance of that is damaging.
I did want to know what you thought about Paul Haggis specifically.
So I heard about Paul and the — what’s happened so far?
I think it’s stuck in the legal system, but multiple women stepped forward about rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Did that surprise you?
Nothing surprises me, Alex. It really doesn’t. If someone’s a colleague, you don’t want to massively think about what they’re like as a partner. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t apparent to me. He wasn’t saying that my jeans are going to be so tight that it would look like tarmac on the road. I told you that with Paul, he was concerned that I was going to feel comfortable in that scene. I didn’t feel anything predatory about him. Here’s the other thing: I was only on the movie for a few days. So the time I’ve spent with Paul has not been so much, but obviously we did the press thing together. I certainly didn’t know him well. I was aware of his being a Scientologist, which was surprising to me. Just any person who’s really smart, I find it strange. I’ve worked with Tom Cruise, and he was very generous and open about sharing Scientological stuff. Christmas gifts would be something to do with Scientology.
Like a book with the greatest hits of Scientology, a bit like a Bible kind of thing. I was curious, because it’s like, Wow, if it’s going to attract people, powerful, high-profile people, there’s got to be some glue that sticks this shit together. Didn’t find any.
What was your experience like on Mission: Impossible 2? And why didn’t you do another one?
Oh, I was never asked. I was so scared of Tom. He was a very dominant individual. He tries superhard to be a nice person. But the pressure. He takes on a lot. And I think he has this sense that only he can do everything as best as it can be done. There was one time, we were doing this night scene, there were so many extras with pyrotechnics and you name it, and it was a scene with him and me on the balcony. And I don’t think it was a very well-written scene. I get angry with him. We’re frustrated with each other. And we’re looking out over Spain. It wasn’t going well. And John Woo, bless him, wasn’t there. He was downstairs looking at everything on a monitor. And John had made a decision at the beginning of the movie, unbeknownst certainly to me, that he didn’t speak English. Which I think was very helpful to him, but it was extremely unhelpful to the rest of us. So this scene was happening, and Tom was not happy with what I was doing because I had the shittiest lines.
And he gets so frustrated with having to try and explain that he goes, “Let me just — let’s just go do it. Let’s just rehearse on-camera.” So we rehearsed and they recorded it, and then he goes, “I’ll be you. You be me.” So we filmed the entire scene with me being him — because, believe me, I knew the lines by then — and him playing me. And it was the most unhelpful … I can’t think of anything less revealing. It just pushed me further into a place of terror and insecurity. It was a real shame. And bless him. And I really do mean bless him, because he was trying his damnedest.
I remember at the beginning of the night, seeing this slight red mark on his nose, and by the end of the night, I kid you not — this is how his metabolism is so fierce — he had a big whitehead where that red dot was. It would take anyone else 48 hours to manifest a zit. I saw it growing, and it was like the zit was me, just getting bigger and bigger. I remember calling Jonathan Demme. I described the night to him: “A nightmare.” As I was describing it, it was clear that I thought I was the big fucking problem. And Jonathan was like, “Thandie, shame on you for not backing yourself.” He was really sweet. And then Tom called and I thought, Oh, this is it. The apology. No, he was just like, “We’re going to reshoot this next week.” I’m like, “Way brilliant.” And the next time we shot it, I went in there and I just basically manifested all the — because I realized what he wanted. He just wanted this alpha bitch. And I did as best as I could. It’s not the best way to get the best work out of someone.
He wasn’t horrible. It was just — he was really stressed. I had the most extraordinary time, and you know who got me that role? Nicole Kidman. I’ve never actually outright asked her, but when your husband is like, “Who would you mind me pretending to shag for the next six months?” You know what I mean? It’s kind of nice if you can pick together. Nicole was a huge advocate for me.
It sounds like a difficult experience, but I have to say it’s very funny.
That was more just surreal than anything. Look, creative stuff is difficult. I was so tender and sensitive. And, also, if you think about the timeline of that, it was still early in my healing, in my recovery. I’d had good therapy. I’d realized that I was precious. If it was me now, I would want to go in and go, “Hey!” I’d be it. You wouldn’t need to play me and I play you on that balcony. And I would have squeezed that spot. Bam!
*A version of this article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!