‘It’s my body, my choice, my terms’: Activist and actress Thandie Newton says her new role as a robot sex-worker is her most empowering yet
Her role as a robot sex worker in the much-anticipated sci-fi series Westworld is already stirring up controversy. But actress and activist THANDIE NEWTON believes it’s her most empowering yet. She puts her case to Jane Mulkerrins
'When I read the first Westworld script I was horrified,' says Thandie, 'but the point of it is to shock'
I am fishing the plastic lining bag out of an empty ice bucket so that Thandie Newton can fill it with the tiny foil-wrapped sweets from the decanter on the table. ‘My kids love these little sherbet pips,’ she says when she spots them. ‘They’ll be over the moon if I take these home for them.’
Her three children, aged between two and 15, are in London, while Thandie and I are in a hotel suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where she is also threatening to swipe the array of high-end toiletries from the bathroom – if I can find her another plastic bag.
The British actress has seemingly boundless, dervish-like energy, even in the middle of a long day of media obligations. When her kale salad arrives (she’s vegan), she delivers an impromptu lesson about the way we’re all getting conned by the food industry.
‘Do you know that you can’t get rid of kale? It’s so hardy, it’s basically a weed,’ she says. ‘That’s why we’ve all been sold it as this incredible superfood that’s going to save the universe – because you just can’t stop it growing.’
She waves her fork in the air. ‘It’s all b******t! And pomegranates are everywhere. That’s because they grow practically overnight and are sold for 500 per cent more than it costs to cultivate them. But they take water away from villages [in developing countries].’ She fixes me with a serious stare. ‘It’s all about profit and it’s going to destroy the planet.’ Her indignation at such short-sighted capitalism is one of the reasons she’s so excited about Westworld, her much-anticipated television show. ‘It deals with this stuff,’ she explains. ‘Not kale or pomegranates – but the cheapness of human life.’
Thandie as Maeve in Westworld
Animated and opinionated on myriad topics, the 43-year-old star of films including Flirting, Crash, W and Half of a Yellow Sun is far from your average showbiz interviewee. First, she has a degree in anthropology from the University of Cambridge, and is, by her own admission, ‘a total anthropology nerd’.
And, although she has been cast in hit films since she was 16, screen stardom doesn’t come top of her list of self-definitions. ‘Over the past few years, I’ve let my life as an actress take fourth place at least,’ she has said. ‘I now see myself as a mother and wife first, then a human-rights and animal-rights activist.’
Her new role, however, not only puts her acting centre-stage again, but also supports her anthropological and activism interests more than any part she has previously played.
‘I work hard to try to end violence against women,’ she says. ‘Human trafficking, sexual trafficking… it is an epidemic, and I do a great deal of campaigning against it in my spare time.’ (Thandie is on the board of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, which founded the One Billion Rising mass-action campaign; one billion being the number of women worldwide who will be raped or beaten in their lifetime.)
‘I am naked almost all the time in Westworld,' says Thandie, 'but it is not titillating in the slightest. I have been in shows in which I have been fully clothed, but felt more exposed and exploited’
But then, she says, she would find herself going to do her ‘real job – the one for which I get paid’ and betraying those ideals. ‘The amount of times I have found myself saying to a director: “This woman isn’t a bitch, she is a misunderstood person.”’ She rolls her eyes.
‘I was constantly playing these female characters who were written in one dimension. And then, on Westworld, every day I was a human rights activist, I was a social activist, I was empowering women just through the words I was saying.’
A lavish remake of a 1973 film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton (the original starred Yul Brynner and James Brolin), Westworld arrives on UK screens on Sky Atlantic this month, with a big-name cast including Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood.
Set in an unspecified time in the future, Westworld is a vast theme park where visitors can live out their basest fantasies, raping and killing seemingly with no consequences – like a darker, more twisted version of Las Vegas, with even fewer rules and no police.
The park’s inhabitants, or ‘hosts’, are advanced robots, programmed with artificial intelligence, that behave like humans, even displaying emotion.
‘They have created a world that deals with precisely the issues that I’ve struggled with all my adult life – exploitation, ignorance and a culture of complicity and disconnection,’ says Thandie, who plays Maeve Millay, a quick-witted, sharp-tongued robot madam who falls foul of the park’s powers-that-be when she begins to go rogue and fails to fully satisfy some customers. ‘It was deeply empowering for reasons that will hopefully become apparent for an audience watching it,’ she says.
Playing a prostitute robot might not, at first glance, seem a particularly empowering move, and Thandie initially had doubts.
‘When I read the first script, there was so much that I was horrified by, but the point of it is to shock us into the awareness that this is what we do to each other,’ she says. ‘And this is robots, who can get reprogrammed, patched up and turned off after traumatic experiences; real people can’t.’
She spends a great deal of the ten episodes naked. ‘Oh, I am naked almost all the time in the show, but I am calm about it because it is not titillating in the slightest,’ she says, making further headway with the kale. ‘It was my body, on my terms, doing what I chose to do with it. I have been in shows in which I have been fully clothed, but felt more exposed and exploited.’
The ever-present undercurrent of sexism and exploitation in the industry is something Thandie refuses to keep quiet about. She tells me of an incident, not so many years ago, in which a director told her to take her shirt off for a scene. She felt it was unnecessary, and said so. She puts on a gruff man’s accent: ‘He said, “Come on kid, let’s get real: Thandie Newton, top off – ratings.”’
She also recently spoke out about the sexual abuse she suffered in the audition process – when she was just 18, a director had a cameraman film up her skirt and made Thandie touch her breasts and ‘think about the guy making love to me in the scene’.
It was not until years later, at the Cannes Film Festival, that she discovered that the director had been showing the tape to friends after poker games at his house.
While such abuses undoubtedly continue, Thandie believes the landscape is changing, and that recent high-profile cases have helped foster a culture more receptive to reporting it.
‘The bravery of women in, for example, the Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile cases has marked a sea change,’ she says. ‘It has given others courage to come forward and say “enough”. I do feel a catharsis in what’s happening. A degree of justice is at least being fought for.’
When it comes to combining her work as an actress with activism, she has a powerful mentor. ‘Oprah Winfrey is my mum in a parallel universe,’ she says. ‘Our time on the movie Beloved was like becoming blood relatives.’
Based on Toni Morrison’s novel, the film starred Oprah as Sethe, a former slave, and Thandie as the title character, Beloved, a young woman who is the reincarnation of Sethe’s dead daughter.
‘She’s always been there for me, like a tree giving shade with its branches,’ says Thandie of their relationship. ‘And I try to do the same for others now – I taught an arts workshop at her school near Johannesburg [Oprah invested $40 million establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which teaches 380 girls in state-of-the-art classrooms] and I am continually inspired by the projects she undertakes to help people lead better lives.’
Raised in Penzance by Zimbabwean mother Nyasha and white British father Nick – who met while they were working at a hospital in Zambia, before moving to London, where Thandie was born – Thandie was an aspiring dancer and, at 11, won a scholarship to a performing arts school in Tring, Hertfordshire.
A back injury wrecked her dancing ambitions, but at 16 she won her first acting role in the Australian coming-of-age film Flirting, alongside Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts. She also began a relationship with its director, John Duigan, 23 years her senior, which she has since described as ‘unhealthy’, saying that she ‘wasn’t in control of the situation’.
She went on to appear in Interview with the Vampire and Jefferson in Paris – while studying for her degree at Downing College – and, later, in blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible II and the Oscar-winning ensemble film Crash (also starring Matt Dillon and Sandra Bullock), for which she won a Bafta for best actress in a supporting role.
She was 22 when she met her now husband, the writer and director Ol Parker, 47 – who scripted The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – on the set of TV drama In Your Dreams.
Nothing more clearly demonstrates Thandie’s priorities than the names of their children: 15-year-old daughter Ripley is named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien: ‘feminine but empowered, kicking alien arse with a baby under her arm’.
Ripley’s 11-year-old sister is called Nico, partly after the 1960s singer-songwriter and partly because ‘it is the name of many boys in Europe – it’s about not letting her feel “less than” in the gender competition’. Their brother Booker, two, is named after the African-American educationist and speaker Booker T Washington.
This summer, Thandie posted a photograph on Instagram of herself breastfeeding Booker at Latitude festival in Suffolk. ‘He’s my last kid, I didn’t want to stop after just nine months or a year,’ she says. (She’s spoken about the fact that she wanted a third child for a long time and had a miscarriage before having Booker.)
‘It stopped being about nutrition, it was just about comfort – for both of us. But I’ve finished now because it’s exhausting and I want my energy back.’ The photograph provoked support and criticism in equal measure. ‘Of course, it’s bound to,’ she shrugs. ‘There are people who find it challenging because of the idea that women’s breasts are sexual objects.’
And, she believes, it’s not just a male notion. ‘There are lots of women who don’t like public breastfeeding because they are afraid that their sexuality – this kind of manipulated sexuality – is their only power, and it’s not.’ She is
self-deprecating when she uses the term ‘empowered’ about herself, making quote marks in the air, as though the phrase is so overused that it is redundant. ‘I mean, of course I’m an empowered woman,’ she says. ‘I wanted to do Westworld for my kids, too, particularly for my girls.’
Five years ago, Thandie used her own childhood experiences of growing up constantly questioning her identity in her Ted talk Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself. ‘My skin colour wasn’t right. My hair wasn’t right. My history wasn’t right. My self became defined by otherness, which meant that, in that social world, I didn’t really exist,’ she said. ‘And I was “other” before being anything else – even before being a girl. I was a noticeable nobody.’
Dancing, and then acting, gave her an identity that she could control, and then a thriving career. But nonetheless, ‘[I was] a car crash, and I wound up with bulimia and on a therapist’s couch,’ she said.
She is now keen to take the ideas contained in her Ted talk – that race is merely a concept projected on to us by others, a label created by colonialism in order to enforce control – to a younger audience. ‘I really want to write a workshop on race for schoolchildren,’ she says.
‘It’s a question my daughter [Nico] asks me all the time. She’s got my face and light, curly hair. My other daughter [Ripley] has got my face, too, but is darker, and she asks me: “Mummy, am I black?”’ Thandie throws down her fork in frustration. ‘These notions come out of slavery, apartheid, Nazism, and we’re still using them.’
Thandie’s passionately held politics are also what inspired her to create her blog, thandiekay.com. ‘It’s a beauty blog, because that is how you get people to look at it, but it’s about lots of things, including cultures and how we adorn ourselves,’ she says. ‘It was my response to mainstream publications that have been slow to recognise ethnic diversity, and is possibly the creation that is closest to my heart – outside my children.’
Her partner in the project, Kay Montano, is a make-up artist and friend, whom she met when shooting for Vogue after Crash was released. ‘Kay celebrated my skin colour in the way she used the make-up. She brought out the richness of my skin tone and its depth,’ Thandie has said.
The blog is self-funded and not beholden to any advertising or corporate sponsorship, meaning that they can exercise complete creative control. ‘We want to look at how we define beauty and to try to reimagine what that term means,’ says Thandie. ‘We were keen to be real and to create an authentic place for individuals who shun those hideous identity boxes: “black”, “white”, “other”.’
'My blog thandiekay.com is all about defining beauty,' says Thandie
Early next year, Thandie will begin filming another all-star production, The Death and Life of John F Donovan, the story of a movie star (played by Game of Thrones star Kit Harington), who finds his correspondence with an 11-year-old actor exposed. The film also features Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, with a rumoured cameo by Adele.
But before that, Thandie will be starring in the next season of the award-winning UK police drama Line of Duty. ‘I’d never actually seen it before they sent me the script,’ she admits. ‘I was like, “Woah, this isn’t like television – this is just incredible.”’ The storyline and her role will, she says, be ‘hardcore. But I am just taking a deep breath, and off I go.’
The series – the plot centres on an anti-corruption unit – inevitably got Thandie thinking. ‘So much of the world’s population is involved in corruption and making millions from it, and here I am, worried about paying my parking ticket on time, and my tax, sweetly keeping the status quo. It’s the world we live in,’ she sighs. ‘And obviously I’m not hard up. It’s not as if I have to steal sweets or anything…’
And, with a grin, she heads off, swinging her bag of purloined sherbet pips, a thoroughly hardcore anthropologist, activist – and actress, too.
Westworld begins on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday at 9pm
Make-up: Kay Montano. Hair: Patricia Morales
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