Zimbabwe is perhaps more famous for the exploits of former dictator, Robert Mugabe than a whole lot else. The country however is origin to some of the industrious folks and big achievers in the African continent. One of such people who has been making impeccable strides in her métier is the daughter of a Zimbabwean lady, Nyasha, a health-care worker from the Shona tribe, and Nick Newton, a Briton who worked as a lab technician.
Thandie Newton is a dynamic lady in many ways. With roles in Westworld and Solo: A Star Wars Story, the actor is at the top of her game. From navigating the industry as a black British woman, to ‘brainwashing’ – the journey there wasn’t always easy
Over the past 20 months, she has earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Maeve Millay, a robot madam in the HBO series Westworld, and a TV Bafta nomination for playing DCI Roz Huntley in the BBC One drama ‘Line of Duty’. Last month, she was inducted into one of the biggest film franchises of them all, with the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, in which she plays Val. She’ll probably get her own figurine. Not bad for a woman who admits that she wasn’t really into sci-fi and westerns, or even that keen on doing television.
Born in London and raised in Penzance, Cornwall, by her Zimbabwean mother Nyasha and white British father, Nick, Newton made her film debut at 16 years old, acting alongside Nicole Kidman in ‘Flirting’. Although she has worked steadily ever since – in blockbusters such as ‘Crash’ and ‘Mission Impossible II’, as well as quirkier fare such as ‘Run’, ‘Fatboy’, ‘Run’ and ‘RocknRolla’ – the bulk of her jobs have been in the US.
“I love being here, but I can’t work, because I can’t do Downton Abbey, can’t be in Victoria, can’t be in Call the Midwife,” she once told the Sunday Times magazine of the paucity of opportunities for a person of mixed race in the British film and television industry.
“I went where the work was,” she shrugs today. But even some of that work she now views with a level of regret. “There are certain projects that I now look at as being too naive in terms of addressing and exploring the stories of African people in the United States.” Two projects early in her career post-Flirting – Interview with the Vampire and Jefferson in Paris – involved her playing slaves.
Her role in Solo – filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey – represents a major milestone. While recent instalments have been more inclusive, featuring non-white actors such as John Boyega and Riz Ahmed, a woman of colour in a leading role had not yet been seen.
“I am the first dark-skinned woman in a lead role in the Star Wars legacy, which is both great that it is finally a correction, and awful, that it’s taken this long.”
So Newton is indisputably at the top of her game. And now she wants to play it by her own rules. “I don’t feel like I’m an actress for hire any more, in the way that I used to be. I am not a person for hire.” She has two film scripts of her own in development, and plans to direct both herself.
Her role in Westworld is just as layered. Set in a western-themed adventure park, where wealthy guests can indulge their most visceral fantasies, robot “hosts”, including her character Maeve, are the victims of rape and violence, endlessly patched up and reprogrammed. The high-concept, big-budget drama spins complex narratives across multiple timelines, and poses questions about the nature of consciousness and the notion of free will, while its androids have gained sentience and gone rogue.
“The first season was all about empowerment, and the second, for Maeve, is about grief,” says Newton. The character is searching for her daughter, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, a leftover fragment from a previous “script” of her android incarnation. “And she gives no fucks this season; she’s got nothing to lose, which is very powerful.”
Since its launch, Westworld has felt terrifyingly prescient, raising uncomfortable ideas about technological manipulation.
But the result is some spectacular television, with episodes airing in the US and the UK. The series belong almost entirely to Newton, with strong themes of female solidarity and resistance, more pertinent than ever, given the wider context of the #MeToo movement. “It’s so beautiful, and it’s all such a metaphor for the used and abused in our world, who are treated like they are nothing,” says Newton.
Some have been shocked by the extent to which the culture of sexual abuse in Hollywood has been revealed since the movement began last October. Not Newton. “I’ve been talking about sexual harassment and rape in our industry for 20 years, and no one was ready to take it on,” she says, matter-of-factly. She told CNN five years ago that when she was 18 a Hollywood casting director asked her to sit with her legs apart while he filmed up her skirt, and directed her to touch herself and “think about the person I was supposed to be having the dialogue with, and how it felt to be made love to by this person”. Some years later, a producer boasted to the director Ol Parker, by then Newton’s husband, that he’d seen the video. The unnamed director would play it at parties.
In retrospect, is she angry that nobody listened to her about harassment. “I have been frustrated,” she says, after a pause. “But what I realized is that they weren’t able to. We were in an industry built on favors, and it was an unspoken way of life: that you would need to communicate with co-stars, or with men of power, in a flirtatious way. Sex was, and is, the currency, and everyone’s complicit.”
But the penalty for saying that, as a young woman at the start of her career, was severe. “It affected my friendships, it affected my career; I was definitely less hireable.” She admits.
“I can’t bear how my whole identity gets tied up with it. It’s like I’m a trademark for sexual abuse. But it caused me a lot of pain, because I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t stop.”
Much of Newton’s time is now spent campaigning on behalf of women in developing countries, with Eve Ensler’s V-Day charity. “And playing Maeve is one of the first times in my career that I feel like I’ve been able to actually reflect the harrowing truth of what people go through in the world,” she says.
“I was also coerced into doing some projects that I didn’t want to do,” she continues. “I feel a sense of gratitude now. [It made me] build a strength and a resolve. But it took a long time, because I was totally brainwashed.”
Her name ‘Thandie’ is a variation of her actual middle name Tandiwe, meaning ‘beloved’
Growing up in Penzance, Cornwall, she and her brother Jamie were the only black children in the area.
“There were the usual cruel names: big ears or big nose. And none of the boys wanted to go out with me. I don’t remember any overt racism, but my mum and I have talked about this and I now know my parents kept us safe from a lot of stuff”.
“In some ways I’d say I come from Africa, but then I don’t speak my mother’s language, and in other ways I’m British through and through. I suppose I’ve never completely fitted in in either place”.
At age 11, she enrolled in London’s Art Educational School, where she studied modern dance. However, a back injury forced her to quit dancing. This led to her auditioning for films and receiving her first role in John Duigan’s Flirting (1991). She then moved to Los Angeles, California, to pursue acting. Her British accent limited the amount of work she was getting, and she returned to Britain, where she went to Cambridge University to study, eventually receiving a degree in anthropology. She graduated with a 2:1 (otherwise known as “an undergraduate degree with 2nd Class Honours, Upper Division”). Between semesters, she continued her acting and became noticed and in-demand for future film roles.
A delayed shoot for Mission: Impossible II (2000) caused Thandie to turn down one of the lead roles in Charlie’s Angels (2000). Lucy Liu was cast instead.
One of her fondest memories is watching her mother get dressed in her traditional African garb because it taught her black pride.
Ranked in Stuff magazine among the top 102 Sexiest Women in the World in 2002, Newton is married to Ol Parker. She gave birth to her 1st child at age 27, a daughter Ripley Parker on 17 September 2000, her 2nd child at age 32, a daughter Nico Parker in mid-December 2004, and named her Ripley; after the character played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien(1979).
Her younger daughter Nico Parker was named for German-born singer Nico, member of the legendary rock group The Velvet Underground.
Newton gave birth to her 3rd child at age 41, a son Booker Jombe Parker on March 3, 2014.
Her daughter Nico Parker is also an actress. While Newton was filming Solo, A Star Wars Story (2018), Parker made her debut in Dumbo (2019) filmed on a nearby movie set.
Quite an accomplished lady you’d agree.