Gorgeous British actress Thandie Newton (you know her from "Crash" and "Mission Impossible") sat with UK paper "The Times" over the weekend. One subject that came up was her role as Condi Rice in Oliver Stone's "W". The 35-year-old mother of two doesn't even wear prosthetics for the part.
"Oliver woke me up," she says. Stone had an "absolute belief that I could play this character who was absolutely nothing like me. She didn't look like me; she's a couple of decades older than me. And I'm English, for goodness' sake".
When she first went to see Stone to discuss the role, she confesses that she didn't even know how to spell Rice's name. "I knew she was secretary of state and that was about it." But the script was exciting, and at her next meeting with Stone she accepted the offer. "I decided to close my eyes and leap. I wanted to take the risk."
So she took herself back to London and began working. "That was when it got really f***ing fun," she says, rubbing her hands with glee. "It was like doing a really involved paper back at Cambridge and my paper was Condoleezza Rice." She read biographies, articles, books on the Bush administration, on Cheney, on torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. "You name it, I read it," she says. "I had two things going on: reading about this young woman, and the incredible story of the Bush administration. This gigantic beast, this machine and how it was cranking toward war. I wanted to become drunk with knowledge."
Some weeks later, in rehearsals in Louisiana, it started to feel like a very bad idea. "I was thinking, 'F***, have I made a mistake?' The make-up team told her that prosthetics were out of the question because they would melt in the heat. "That was a bit of a blow," she says, grimacing. "They told me they would do a 'feel-alike' rather than a lookalike, and I knew that was going to be a real problem for me."
They were six weeks away from filming and she still had no idea how she was going to play this enigmatic figure. "I was only just feeling my way in." She was convinced that Stone would lose faith, but he didn't. "I was waiting for him to say, 'Look, babe, this isn't working.' But instead, he said, 'You're a plodder, aren't you?' And I am like that. I am that kind of tortoise that just needs to take my time. He gave me permission to do that. I loved his relaxed belief that whatever I did, it was going to be good."
She took herself back to London and started playing with the character in her mind. "I need to case the joint, check it all out and at some point, I never know when it's going to happen, it all falls into place. I knew I was going to have to do this from the outside in. Usually, you look for those emotional beats that you connect to, but that wasn't going to happen with her."
She called a friend, Kay, a make-up artist from fashion, not film, and they sat around her kitchen table. "I thought we could create something with some clever make-up and shading. We just hadn't got close to her in rehearsals and they were trusting me to come up with a character under my skin, but the truth is that I needed a lot on my skin. We spent the afternoon experimenting. By the time the kids came home from school I was all Condi'd up, complete with some fantastic false teeth. She nailed it for me. I was still terrified, but now I had the equipment."
Then she began working on her mannerisms, the quirks and ticks that an impressionist might exaggerate to tell you as much about a person as the "inner truth". She won't tell me what they are. "Look, I do have a kind of reverence for who I am playing. This is a human being, and whatever you think, as an example of discipline, she's unbelievable."
But did she ever catch a glimpse of weakness, of humanity? "That was another thing. After watching all her official material - interviews, speeches and presentations - I started delving around in YouTube and finding this other stuff: Condi taken on someone's mobile phone dancing to Shaggy, or Condi running from a building to her car. Seeing her in more undone situations, there was this difference in her. You can see her posture change at certain times. It's almost imperceptible, but it's there. I got a sense of the human being behind the construct. And I did feel compassion for her."
It seems extraordinary that Oliver Stone should choose her, a British mixed-race actress, above hundreds of African-American actresses with a similar background and age to Rice. "You'll have to ask Oliver about that," she says. "But he was informed in his decision. He'd seen Crash and The Pursuit of Happyness and he liked the fact that the woman sitting in front of him was nothing like those characters. I'm a bit of a blank slate, and I think that helps. I'm not one thing or the other. People still don't know where I'm from. Is she English, African, Asian? I still get asked and I really don't mind. I'm like, phew, I got away without everyone knowing the width of my vaginal wall in a time when everyone knows everything about everyone."
Read the whole interview here