Her journey from respected stage and TV actress to Academy Award nominee has not always been an easy one. Okonedo was born in London, the daughter of Joan (née Allman), a Jewish Pilates teacher who had been born in the East End of London, and Henry Okonedo (1939–2009), a Nigerian who worked for the government.Okonedo’s maternal grandparents, who spoke Yiddish, were from families that had emigrated from Poland and Russia. She was raised in her mother’s Jewish faith. When she was five years old, her father left the family, and she was brought up in relative poverty by her single mother “but we always had books”, she has said
Sophie was just five when her parents separated. Following the break-up, her father returned to Nigeria and the youngster grew up in the care of her mother.
Though a good student and voracious reader, Sophie left school at 16 to work on a clothing stall at Portobello Market. Two years later she found her way into acting in a roundabout way after joining a writers’ group headed by Oscar-nominated Hanif Kureishi, who received an Academy nod for the screen play of his novel My Beautiful Laundrette.
It did not take Sophie long to discover she lacked the drive to be a writer and, feeling that her abilities lay in a different direction, she enrolled at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
“I quickly realised I was better at reading out other people’s bits than I was at the writing. So I got in a play, and then I auditioned for the Royal Academy and got a scholarship there,” she say, reflecting on her attempts at being a writer.
As a young actress fresh out of drama school, Sophie parlayed her raw talent and confidence into stage roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and the National Theatre. She also cut her teeth on the small screen, landing parts in UK television dramas such as Sweet Revenge, Clocking Off and White Teeth.
However, it was her edgy and provocative interpretation of Cressida in Trevor Nunn’s 1999 London production of Shakespeare’s Troilus And Cressida which brought enormous critical acclaim and really got her noticed.
While concentrating her efforts on stage acting, she had also scored cameos in a handful of Hollywood productions, including Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and The Jackal. But it would be in Stephen Frears’ 2002 dark thriller Dirty Pretty Things, playing a compassionate prostitute, that she would prove herself as a talented lead.
“I went around and saw Stephen Frears last week and said: ‘I really have to kiss your feet. Thank you very much because you’ve given me a career I never expected,’ revealed Sophie later. “I was quite happily doing theatre and a bit of TV for extra money.”
The respected theatre actress was suddenly a movie star and found herself on the receiving end of a slew of film offers. But it would be Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda that captured her imagination. The film tells the story of a hotelier heralded as the Oscar Schindler of Rwanda’s bloody conflict after he saved over 1,200 Tutsis from ethnic cleansing. Sophie’s spellbinding interpretation of the hotelier’s wife, won her both critical plaudits and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.
Sophie says her Academy nod took her completely by surprise. “I was busy minding my own business and I just didn’t think about a nomination,” she confessed. “I was just hoping the film would get recognised so people would go and see it.”
Having wrapped up filming the sci-fi adventure Aeon Flux opposite Tinseltown heavyweights Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, Sophie is trying to find a balance between a burgeoning film career, remaining loyal to the stage and her family life with partner Eoin Martin and their seven-year-old daughter Aoife.
Indeed, Sophie says the hardest part of being a film star is not being around for Aoife. “With theatre I’m home every night before bedtime. It’s tough when my child is in the middle of school – I hate pulling her out – but I also hate her not being with me. It’s a working mother’s typical dilemma.”
But the busy actress also insists she is slowly getting acclimatised to other aspects of life in the Hollywood limelight. “When I was younger, I would have been appalled at all the dress stuff and the red carpets,” she explains. “But now I’m more relaxed and find it an absolute hoot.