Thandie Newton: Lethal Weapon

Stella Baxter is a ball buster, but sly about the way she does it. In slinky linen cocktail dresses and four-inch Jimmy Choos, she combines sex appeal and smarts; she’ll two-time and double-cross anyone to get what she wants (and maybe a little more). She’s far shrewder than the underworld characters she beds and empties of cash, and as elusive as the smoke from her omnipresent cigarette. Femme fatales don’t get much more freaky-deaky than this. Guy Ritchie, the man who first imagined Stella Baxter, contends, “she’s a bit fuckin’ rock and roll.”

Thandie Newton is Stella Baxter, and Stella Baxter is maybe just a little bit Thandie Newton. An acclaimed actor best known for prestige roles in films like Crash and Beloved, Newton’s hardcore metamorphosis in Guy Ritchie’s new film RocknRolla — a glorious gangster clusterfuck on par with Ritchie’s breakthrough flicks Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch — provides a real kick in the arse. For Ritchie, the casting succeeded because it tweaked expectations wrought by Newton’s upscale image. “Thandie’s very easy to love, and she usually plays the girl everyone does love,” Ritchie explains. “I liked the idea that this wasn’t the case here. Stella was based on the female half of an actual power couple that went over to the dark side — this lawyer who liked cocaine and boys and his accountant missus who was pretty wild herself.”

Offscreen, Newton comes off as utterly warm and sincere, welcoming total strangers into her London home with easy familiarity. “Wet dog smells worse than rotting flowers, so I’ve lit some candles. Do you want to stay for lunch?” she asks in her soothing, proper English accent. “Do you like sushi?” Her home is a study in bohemian chic, where colorful sofas and floral wallpaper clash whimsically with striped walls. A couture dress fitted for an awards show hangs nearby, alongside a crimson-soled pair of Christian Louboutin heels. Up close, her smooth, dewy skin makes her seem half her 36 years. Hair pulled back, she’s dressed modishly casual in light gray skinny jeans and a layered, pleated blouse, and even more beautiful in person than on screen.

Newton trained as a dancer, and it’s apparent from her graceful physicality — she absent-mindedly strokes her clavicle as she talks, contorts herself into a ball and gestures expressively, touching you when she wants to make a point. But it’s her eyes that captivate: they’re her acting secret weapon — impossibly luminous hazel orbs that seem to hold a hidden truth behind them. “She has an air of mystery about her that draws you in,” explains Nicole Kidman, Newton’s co-star in her breakthrough first film, the Australian 1991 coming-of-age film Flirting (which also featured a pre-fame Naomi Watts). “There’s a mystery that Condi Rice and Thandie both have,” notes Josh Brolin, who plays George Bush in Oliver Stone’s highly-anticipated W. opposite Newton as Condoleeza Rice. “Their elusiveness scares me. Their smiles frighten me.”

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It’s a notion not lost on Newton herself. “I wanted you to come here, to my house, because I can be quite uptight,” Newton explains. “I can exist absolutely up in here,” she says, tapping her temples. “I’m able to have conversations where I maintain a certain distance, but that won’t happen here.”

The outer walls of Newton’s unassuming home are identical to those of her neighbors on the funky, quaint street she lives on with her two young daughters, Nico, 4, and Ripley, 8, and husband Ol Parker, a British writer-director. It’s in a real London neighborhood — multicultural, lined with fish-and-chips joints and beauty shops — not a likely environment for an actor recognizable from numerous blockbusters, a co-star to some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Yes, that was Newton mounting Tom Cruise in a bathtub in Mission: Impossible II; abandoning Will Smith and son in The Pursuit of Happyness; laughing at Eddie Murphy’s jokes in Norbit; sucking blood alongside Brad Pitt in Interview With The Vampire; and romancing Mark Wahlberg in The Truth About Charlie. She even married Noah Wyle’s character during a long stint on ER, and is likely the only actor to be in subsequent movies with Tupac and Jon Bon Jovi. Along the way, Newton has made some notable fans. “I always thought she was one of the best actresses in the world — top 10 for me,” says Oliver Stone. “Other than my wife, and I say that with an iron hammer,” Josh Brolin admits, “she’s probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” Nicole Kidman adds: “Thandie is a beautifully deep woman. The combination of her beauty, which is apparent, with her intelligence and warmth is very unusual and that’s what makes her so beguiling.” Says Guy Ritchie, “I couldn’t have enough positive adjectives to describe her.”

Still, while Newton regularly appears in high-profile films, aside from her affecting turn as a bourgeois victim of discrimination in Crash, she really has yet to register strongly in the public’s consciousness as a superstar. Therefore, there’s a lot riding on her appearances in two of the year’s most anticipated movies: Guy Ritchie’s return to form with RocknRolla and W., Oliver Stone’s sure-to-be-controversial bio-pic of the Bush dynasty. Co-star Brolin, however, believes that 2008 will be the year Newton’s star aligns with certitude. “People will be blown away by her performance as Condi Rice,” Brolin exclaims. “It blew away all my preconceptions. Acting-wise, I had so much fun dancing with her — she came in with bold, bold choices, almost becoming a dude at times. I’ve never seen anything like it; I’ve never seen anything as complete.”

Hollywood’s gatekeepers seem far away, however, inside Newton’s living room. Eclectic art enlivens the space, but the room’s most dominant feature is books. Numerous, varied tomes — Angela Davis’s autobiography, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, the Cormac McCarthy canon — cover seemingly every surface, from the bookshelved walls to the café-au-lait leather coffee table Newton sits down on. It’s no surprise she gave husband Parker an Amazon Kindle e-book reader for an anniversary gift. “It wasn’t supposed to be a big romantic gesture,” she explains. “Our tenth anniversary really did sneak up on us a few days ago. I thought I should probably put some books on it that would be relevant — like the Kama Sutra, as a joke.”

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Nothing is more veddy English than a classic Guy Ritchie movie, and Newton shines amidst his stylized Brit bloke nitro. Surprisingly, Newton claims that she’s never been totally embraced in her own country. “Britain didn’t really accept me until I won a BAFTA [the English equivalent of an Oscar] for Crash,” Newton says. “And the next day, all the rag newspapers had me on the cover, saying, ‘She’s not really British cause her dad’s African.’ Well, my dad is British, and I was born in England, so I am British. I just laughed about it.”

Since filming on RocknRolla wrapped, Newton and Ritchie have remained friendly, especially as their children attend the same martial-arts dojo. “We were chatting, and it turns out that his son Rocco goes to ju-jitsu just around the corner,” Newton says. “I started taking Ripley, and she just loves it. I met Madonna there: I went to watch Rip and she came to watch Rocco, and it was really nice — two moms watching their kids bust out moves on the mat!”

Her life wasn’t always so vibey with the superstars. Thandie’s parents came together in Zambia, Africa, after her father fell in love with her mother, a health worker who also happened to be a Zimbabwean Shona princess. (Newton often downplays her “royal” lineage, claiming in Africa such titles are far more common than in the U.K.) The family returned to London, where Thandie — born “Thandiwe,” which means “beloved” — was born on November 6, 1972. Newton still feels strongly connected to the African part of her heritage, and has aligned herself with World Visions charity and Volvic to bring fresh water to African nations. “Zimbabwe now is so different from what it was,” Newton says. “My mom has been through so much. Those are the influences — I don’t take anything for granted.”

When the family moved to small-town Cornwall, Newton struggled to fit in. “For me, beauty was complicated because I was very much not attractive where I grew up,” she explains. “I was the only dark-skinned kid. There was no way a boy would ever, ever ask me out. It was fact, and that’s what I carried into my teens.”

Her self-image was further troubled by a relationship with her Flirting director John Duigan, who was 23 years her senior. Filmed when she was just 16, plucked as an unknown from an audition at her boarding school, Flirting had propelled her into two seemingly disparate worlds: Newton found herself studying for her Cambridge University finals at the Cannes Film Festival. She was also starving herself. Her relationship with Duigan caused her deep inner shame, exacerbating her battle with bulimia. “I just responded as a grateful, ugly girl who’d never had a date — God knows, no fumblings in the dark, nothing ever,” she says. “I was just heavily exploited via the worst kind of perversion that comes from show business. But what came out from that ultimately is I now know I’m attractive, and it’s something that’s pretty useful.”

Newton will be the first to admit that her beauty can sometimes cause others to overlook her talent. As her Stella Baxter character is reminded in RocknRolla, “Beauty is a cruel mistress.” Says Newton, “When Oliver wanted me to play Condoleeza Rice, it was bliss. Every 10 years, there’s that role that just makes me feel like I’ve started from scratch. But is was also strange because it was on the back of a couple films which I hadn’t got because I was ‘too attractive,’” she groans. “That’s not flattering. It’s the most obvious compliment to give someone, but it’s also the most empty. If there’s a stereotype of beauty, then you play against it.” This kind of knowledge fed into how she approached the character of Stella: “Usually, negative behavior comes from pain. That’s a sad and ultimately sympathetic quality, and I’m always gonna dig around for that.”

As it happens, Newton’s gorgeous looks nearly did torpedo her chances for W. “I was not an advocate at first for Thandie. When Oliver suggested the idea, I said, ‘What? This is the girl you hire because she’s hot, not for a major character.’ Becoming Condi Rice is a massive undertaking, but Thandie made a total transformation,” says Brolin. “Thandie came onto the set and surprised all of us,” agrees Stone. “There were no prosthetics because of humidity and time constraints. It’s so fluid to watch her go back and forth from Condi Rice to whoever Thandie Newton is.” Newton went deep into the part, immersing herself in Rice’s world. “I spent quite a lot of time watching her do interview after interview, seeing where she placed her face,” Newton says. “She smiles in places you wouldn’t normally. I tried to find the gray areas — the person sitting in between the public and the private.”

Newton’s achievement seems even more impressive considering W.’s ambitious crosshatch structure, flip-flopping between the various eras of George W. Bush. The film starts with Bush’s ’80s frat-boy period coming up through booze and drugs, then finding God and meeting Laura Bush, up through becoming President and the Iraq War. After reading the W. screenplay, Newton recognized how unique a role Condoleeza Rice is — a black woman who’s been Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. “These people have real power,” she says. “Once you have it at that level, it’s an addiction; there’s no going back. It’s about who has the most power, and that’s what she wants.”

In particular, Newton was struck by how rare it is, in both fiction and reality, to find someone who embodies issues of power and race so uniquely. “Her discipline, how she controls her responses, reminded me of Margaret Thatcher,” she explains. “At the same time, Condi’s race was a handicap she had to work with: with incredible poise, she created a new identity — a complete defiance of her background. When I studied anthropology at Cambridge, I was suddenly liberated: I realized that race is an illusion we’ve created. As a result, we can create whatever we want to perceive ourselves as; you just have to realize how other people are going to perceive you.”

Having returned but three days ago from W.’s incredibly demanding shoot, Newton says she hasn’t entirely recovered from the experience. “Because I’m so close to it, I haven’t stepped back far enough to get my sound bites together,” she says. “I just haven’t processed it.” Brolin agrees: “Everybody had chaotic expectations, you know, ‘Josh is going to be in jail and Oliver will be crazy.’” The all-star talent alone, all playing larger-than-life characters from recent history — Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld — made for an intense set. “Did Thandie tell you about the whole ball-grabbing thing?” Brolin queries. “It’s my whole motif in this movie. Between each take, I would grab my balls and flip off the camera. By the end, the whole cabinet — Colin Powell, Wolfowitz, Condi–was doing some great ball-grabbing. It broke up anything too serious.”

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As could be expected from the renegade film maestro, Stone regularly provoked the cast beyond their comfort zone. “Oliver, he’s an accidental intellectual in a way,” Newton says, “and a fucking genius director. Any chaos is very much within his own personal space. He takes references from everywhere: suddenly he’ll speak to you in French, or about some ancient Greek myth, but it’s all exquisitely relevant to what you’re doing. Oliver kind of reminds me of a bear with a splinter in his paw. There’s just something that he’s trying to get to, and it hurts him. I just loved that about him and desperately wanted to create whatever was necessary to get to that place.”

Her bond with Brolin became particularly intense, mimicking the actual closeness between Bush and Rice. “It’s funny — me and Josh became really good friends, and between Condi and Bush, there’s an intimacy and ease between the two of them which is kind of peculiar,” Newton explains. “I think Bush and Condi are fucking in every way but physically,” Brolin says. “And that’s kind of what it came down to between Thandie and I when we were playing those characters.”

According to Newton, moving from one film to the next was a wild ride between extremes. “The only similarity between W. and RocknRolla was that I was surrounded by men all the time,” she says. “Being with a lot of men is like being with a lot of kids.” Now, however, she has to feed her own children. The family’s sushi lunch has arrived, and Newton makes her way to her airy, modern kitchen, where all of her awards, including her BAFTA, are stacked on top of a shelf near the stove, glinting in the afternoon sun poking in from a skylight. Her husband Parker, a quick-witted man with short dark hair and gentle eyes, is on the floor playing with his and Newton’s two daughters in a playroom off to the side, marked by a neon sign reading “Too Cool For School.”

Soon, the quietly affectionate couple will get ready to go out for a night on the town. A bit of a rock ’n’ rolla herself, Newton likes to check out new indie bands. “We saw Elbow at a tiny gig a few weeks ago, and I love Arcade Fire,” she says. “We saw them on the last night on their world tour at Alexandra Palace. We watched the whole gig from the sound deck — just us in this amazing vacuum the size of this room. And we saw Radiohead in L.A. at the Greek Theater. It was so awesome! It’s the most amazing live space, with the silhouette of the trees all around you. And people were passing spliffs around!”

The family is also in the midst of packing to go on location: in three days they’ll depart for Vancouver, where Newton is shooting 2012, a big-budget eco-disaster flick co-starring John Cusack. She’s also toying with the idea of an Angela Davis bio-pic “when I’m a bit older.” It’s all about defying expectations — letting nobody tell her who Thandie Newton is supposed to be. “I had this really big agent in America, and his way of giving me that zeal was to say to me, ‘You could be the next so-and-so,’” she says. “I suddenly thought, Hang on a minute — that’s not how I want to operate. This is who I am, right now.”

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