When I sit down with actress Thandie Newton at her amazing home in Malibu, California, it is not just her angelic beauty that is mind-blowing, so too is her depth of knowledge of Africa (her mother’s homeland) and the position of women on the continent. This revealing interview is proof that there is more to the formidable and talented mother of three than you will ever read on Wikipedia.
Thandie Newton’s filmography is perhaps one of the most unsung. Having appeared in more than 25 Hollywood blockbusters since her debut role in Flirting in 1991, she is now one of the most prolific actresses of African descent in Hollywood.
Her defining roles include Beloved in the highly acclaimed eponymous movie (alongside Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover); Linda alongside Will Smith in In Pursuit of Happiness; Tangie in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls (with Hollywood royalty such as Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson and Kerry Washington); Kate in the hilarious Norbit with Eddie Murphy; Condoleezza Rice in W – a film about President George W. Bush (she says playing the former US Secretary of State was one of her most difficult roles). And then there is her globally celebrated role as Nyah alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 2.
In 2006 Thandie won a coveted BAFTA for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, for her role as Christine Thayer in the highly acclaimed movie Crash in which she co-starred with Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle. Since this interview happened, Thandie has added another coveted gong to her admirable career – she won the 2018 Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Westworld.
On this brilliantly beautiful day (we are enveloped in the famed Californian sun) – Thandie has warmly welcomed me into her beautiful Malibu home. Sshe has just finished filming the next series of the police detective drama Rogue, in which she plays the lead role of undercover detective Grace.
But today I am in Thandie’s house not to discuss her life as an outstanding and accomplished actress, but the other passion close to her heart – supporting, empowering and inspiring African women, more so those affected by conflict and victims of the violent rape that is used as a weapon of war. She sits on the Board of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising, the global mass action campaign movement for the end of violence against women.
She is also passionate about the burgeoning African creative and arts industry, particularly African fashion design. Hence two days before our interview, we are at a photo-shoot in Thandie’s beautiful garden in the Malibu hills, with gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean as a stunning backdrop. The crew includes Kay Montano, her trusted make-up artist, close friend and godmother to one of her three beautiful children, who has worked her magic exquisitely. Thandie’s make-up is simple, flawless yet impactful and gorgeous (however, she looks flawless even without).
Flown in from London, is photographer Jackie Dixon who is on camera. Meanwhile hairstylist to Hollywood stars – including Lady Gaga – Patricia Morales is in creative overdrive transforming Thandie’s hair into different quirky creations not usually seen on the normally demurely hairstyled beauty. The entire team is delighted at how welcoming Thandie is to the hair transformations. The faux dreadlocks/flowers look is everyone’s winner, so too is the massive Afro puff, tried in three different looks and sizes.
NAW has flown in Tanzanian stylist Rosemary Kokuhilwa from New York with caseloads of styling, all by African fashion designers, some handpicked by Thandie herself. We are doing the photoshoot because of Thandie’s impassioned aspiration to highlight the often underrated fashion design talent from Africa and its Diaspora, specifically in places like Hollywood and London, where talent from Africa and of African descent is increasingly on the rise.
The crew and assistants get to work. Everyone is respectfully aware: Thandie is multitasking on this day. While she is enthusiastically embracing the photo-shoot, she is also at home looking after her family – including the youngest, Booker Jombe, to whom we are all briefly introduced, as well as his sisters Ripley and Nico. We also get a brief appearance from Ol (Parker), their dad and Thandie’s husband. “By the way, everyone, say hello to Mr. Newton,” she quips as Patricia fixes the flowers in the hairpiece for our first look.
We have been given a set time, as Thandie has a family routine she has to adhere to, feeding baby Booker and accommodating Nico’s gym, class being part of it. We finish the photo-shoot right on time at 5pm.
“This was such a fantastic day,” says Thandie as she sees everyone to the door to say farewell. “Africa has so much talent and so much to offer and we have seen it today just through the designer clothes we had. We can all learn a lot from Africa and it is very exciting.”
It is two days later, when Thandie invites me back for the interview, and I get to know how deep Thandie’s passion for Africa truly is. It is not only the birthplace of her mother Nyasha – a Zimbabwean healthcare worker who married her father, a British lab technician, Nick Newton – but it is also a continent which Thandie strongly believes has enormous potential, more so for women if they were to be provided with an environment that is conducive to thrive in.
“I strongly do believe that everything starts in Africa, I really do,” Thandie – who studied anthropology at Cambridge University – says as we settle down for our interview by her swimming pool in which her daughter Nico and a friend enjoy some splashing and quiet banter, courteously noting our presence.
Thandie’s take on Africa and African women is deep. It is clear from the onset that Thandie wants to emphasis how serious the issue is to her. Before we both realise, 40 minutes has elapsed, and her husband and daughter Ripley are politely beckoning her from the patio.
“Sorry love, I have to go for a scheduled appointment with Ripley,” she apologies as she dashes off, adding in haste, “please find your way out. We need more time. We should do another one”. But it is amazing how much 40 minutes can reveal.
Below are excerpts:
On empowering African women and celebrating the African Union’s 2015 Year for Women’s Empowerment
Are women empowered? (Brief pause). Well, I suppose empowerment is a strange thing, isn’t it? I think traditionally people wait for permission to be empowered and I think what is changing now is that women are empowering themselves and that is really a key change in the world today. We don’t have to wait for permission. And it’s funny that you say African women. Africa is a vast continent and one thing I try and tell people is that if you go to Kenya, then to Mali then South Africa, the truth is that the culture, the food, the languages, the landscapes are all different. Africa is so diverse, and there is so much diversity in all areas within the continent. I therefore believe, just like in any other country in the world and as every other woman in the world, some African women are empowered, some aren’t. It all depends on politics, social welfare and many different factors.”
On Africa’s future
I’m an anthropologist and having studied this field, I strongly believe the time will come when the potency of Africa, its fertility and its resources will bear positive fruit and put Africa as the leader on the global stage. The current situation, where the continent still loses all its resources through fighting, over oil, power or who is going to have the water, pulls Africa back and in my view it is all about Africa taking the power back and I strongly believe African women are going to be a huge part in doing so for Africa’s future.
On violence against women and Eve Ensler
I am on the Board of V-Day (the campaign charity started by Eve Ensler) and I have been to the DRCongo to see some of their work on the ground. V-Day there has developed one of their most successful safe houses for women recovering from devastating sexual violence in [eastern] Congo. It is called the City of Joy – named by the women themselves. When Eve Ensler goes into a place, she really intuits and always attempts to mirror the voiceless women she works with. What she does so successfully, in places like the DRCongo and many other parts of the world, is that she asks the women on the ground, what do they really need to get out of their sad predicaments? Aid on its own does not work and any help from outside should be about harnessing the power these women potentially possess despite their situation.
Despite the painful and vile ordeal they have gone through, the women at City of Joy do not want any kind of revenge against their perpetrators. They just want to be empowered through work, computer skills, education and that of their children. They want permanent security, provisions of resources, financial freedom and an environment that enables them to grow their own food. But it is just vile what is happening and the violence on these women comes from many different factions of the war in Congo itself, where it is not just one enemy, and then there is violence from the borders. A border there, the border there, and a border there. It is atrocious what these women go through and they need global support to end the violence they go through.
That is why the City of Joy is such an incredible success story. I think the key is to practically empower and protect women in their own environment, other than just dropping food aid from an aeroplane! That does not protect women at all!
On what African leaders can do
It takes inspirational leaders, inspirational politicians to see the benefits of having all their potential voters succeeding in life. If African politicians gave their people what they want, none of them would feel threatened, there would be no conflict and nobody would be hurting anybody. Many of the African leaders are so removed from their people. It is like a fish ruling a horse! Come on, truth be told, how can they possibly understand what their people need if they have never eaten black eye peas from a tin bowl with their fingers?!
I also always compare these governments and institutions with big brontosaurus, those huge dinosaurs. You can attack the tail, and the brain wouldn’t even register it for a long time. It feels like so many parts of Africa have been deadheaded. You know like pruning, cutting – but removing all access and ability from people. Imperialism and colonialism has also played a big part. I remember while studying at Cambridge, I would be so baffled at how absolutely ignorant the colonial powers were about Africa.
At times the situation is like Doctor Frankenstein’s monster, pulling communities apart. Money is not power. Money is power corrupted. If a leader has a pile of money hidden somewhere instead of putting it to good use, they have got something to be frightened about. That’s what I see with these bureaucracies and government. And more so I feel it just takes a long time for anything to happen in the area of women’s issues, whereas if we take it from the grassroots level, so much more happens faster. But I do think people learn with time, so I remain positive.
On celebrating Africa, celebrating art and design
What we saw and proved the other day during our photo-shoot is a clear example of how diverse Africa is. It is not about the doom and gloom other parts of the world see. With our shoot we celebrated the creative talent of African designers and yet this was just the tip of the iceberg. We had such a great day simply inspired by clothes that came out of a suitcase.
Art is like the sugar that goes into a drink that enhances all the flavours. There is so much more to arts that can enhance the African continent. Perhaps it will not help silence the guns or defend a village, it may not be food that you can eat, it is not a law that people must follow or break; but like I said, it’s the sweetness, it’s the glue that brings things together, it’s the inspiration and it tells you a story. The story of a place of where you come from is so vital.
This is why I loved and have a lot of respect for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, whom I now know very well and consider a personal friend, said at her TED talk (2009), ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. But Africans should also be leading in telling their own story. I am not an art collector, but when I want to spend my money on it, I find art from Africa and its Diaspora. That is what you will find in my house.
On what holds Africa and the advancement of women
This is when anthropology is a gift to me and comes in. I take this bird’s-eye view, which gives me that trajectory of history, just to see how the story unfolded and which elements of the story are still going on. If you look at the history of the industrial age and empires, things happened at certain times and yet we are still locked in those elements of history.
It’s a bit like parenting in that you become a parent and you might assume you’ll just do what your parents have done, but then at some point along the way you realise that you have a chance to do things the way you want to do them and you don’t just receive wisdom or experience and don’t question it. We all need to question everything that we do and be conscious and be aware of what is going on around us and what has gone before.
I feel like we should look at Africa as a child who is still growing up, with all the elements of the naughty teenager. But also remember the bad seeds that influence it – including how Africa has been drained of so much, as well as being tricked at many levels so that the continent does not play as an equal on the global stage. But that doesn’t mean that Africa can’t change and grow, and it is growing. But there is a tendency in some circles to see the glass as being half empty all the time. The key is we should all look to the future with optimism.
On why education is key in Africa
When I was in Mali with World Vision, my eyes were opened up to the reality of how basic essentials such as water can affect a girl child’s education. Imagine it is the girls that, instead of going to school, have to walk miles to the source of water and walk miles back with a bucket. That is the daily routine and they do not get the chance to attend school. But as soon as the situation of sourcing the water is sorted, by providing a pump in the villages, these girls get a chance to go to school. It is as simple as that and the difference made in the areas was as clear as night and day. You just think African governments should just do this without even a thought. Just put these water pumps in there and let the girls go to school! Just do it. I know it’s not as simple as that. But access to such infrastructure goes a long way. What similarly really struck me was when I went to teach at Oprah Winfrey’s school in Johannesburg, South Africa. I went to teach Drama there. When I spoke to the girls about what they hoped to be doing in 10 or 20 years time, at the age of 12 they all already knew they wanted to go to university. Their hunger to achieve this was unbelievable and most importantly they all said they wanted to come back and work in South Africa after university. I shared this with my good friend [South African Hollywood actress] Charlize Theron and she also believes the love the new generation of Africans have for the continent is huge.
But they need support. These girls (and boys) should not be forgotten and ignored. And it is a shame that we now see many of them are running away from a beautiful continent with many opportunities. Some of them are even dying as they try to get away. It is such a big shame! Governments and big corporations need to stop investing in just stocks, they need to be investing in human beings for goodness sake. Not in the potential of the price of pork belly!
On parenting and some words of wisdom for the kids
One thing I do is to make sure my children are growing up sensing the presence of Africa in them and that is one reason why I surround my house with the presence of art from Africa and the African Diaspora. Some of the greatest minds in the world are from Africa. I say this to my children, that education is very important and remind them how lucky there are. I will tell my children, a child in rural Africa would give up a meal in order to go to school, will go hungry in order to feed their mind.
Sometimes if we are at the dinner table, I will start talking about the environment and the inter-connectedness of everything. I will say to them, you heal women, you heal the planet; you heal the planet, you heal women; you heal women, you heal humanity. Sometimes the kids will say, here she goes again, but they do it with a smile.
When I look at my girls, I think they are amazing. I mean, my Ripley questions everything. If she is with people and they are being negative, she naturally wants to move things along with positivity. Both girls will never be interested in creating weight that is going to suffocate joy or optimism or productivity; they are always looking to try and find ways to lift negativity out of situations and help nurture things. It’s just the way they are thankfully. In terms of their career paths, as parents we never question their enthusiasm or curiosity. Kids are pretty smart, you know. We should not suffocate them. It did take a while for my mum to relax into me being an actor. But thankfully with my children, they are spot on with what they want to do in life.
However, there’s a Swiss psychologist called Alice Miller who wrote brilliantly about the influence of the adults on the child. It is about how you get out of their way and the respect between the adult and the child. I think that is crucial. Respect for the elders is something that I think is so beautiful in Africa and I think my kids get that.
This interview was first published in our August 2015 edition.