Thandie Newton perches on a stool, crosses her legs, tilts her head to one side and grins with playful precision at the camera. The photographer takes his first snap and a giant image of Thandie flashes up on a screen: almond eyes sparkling, golden skin luminescent, dimples pinched. Picture perfect. “We’re done!” the photographer jokes, turning to Thandie. “You’re great at this.” She arches an eyebrow. “Ten years,” she says.
There is no better time to meet Thandie Newton. At 44 she is a woman in full possession of herself. The powerful sum of myriad experiences. Of not actually 10, but 28 years in the industry (she landed her first film role at only 16). If she can nail a cover shot in one take, it is not just because she is stunning, but also because she is that rare, exciting thing: somebody who knows exactly who she is.
Right now she has hit a purple patch in her career. Her acclaimed performance in HBO’s Westworld, in which she appears alongside Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood, playing a badass robot saloon madam named Maeve, earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Set in a dystopian, futuristic, Wild West-themed holiday resort, it is a sophisticated piece of television that grapples with existential ideas about morality, artificial intelligence and subjugation, while being addictive, sexy and action-filled.
Next, Newton has been cast in the Star Wars spin-off movie about Han Solo, which is due out next year. She has also bagged the guest lead role in series 4 of Line of Duty, which begins on BBC1 next Sunday. This is her first big role in a British TV production, despite being one of our most famous acting exports.
If today Newton gives the impression that what she does is easy, that itself is down to great acting. For a long time she walked with a limp no one could see — at least, that is the metaphor her husband of 19 years, the screenwriter Ol Parker, uses to describe the way she hid her demons, showing the world only what it wanted to see: an exquisitely beautiful, Cambridge-educated Hollywood actress. But recently Newton has started letting her troubles show, speaking out about the sexual abuse and discrimination that have dogged her life and career. She has described her “traumatic” relationship at 16 with John Duigan, a film director 23 years her senior.
The six-year affair began when Newton travelled to Australia to audition for a role in her first film, Flirting. “In retrospect, although it [the relationship] was legal because I was 16, I was coerced,” she has said, adding that she “wasn’t in control of the situation”. She has also revealed how, in another audition, a different director told her to touch herself while he filmed up her skirt, then, years later, a drunk producer related how he had been shown the footage at parties. On other occasions, a co-star groped her and a producer blankly told her to remove her top for ratings. “Every woman has experienced [sexism] in the workplace at some time,” she says sanguinely. “Every woman has had to deal with some kind of inappropriate behaviour.”
On top of the sexism, Newton also had to deal with being offered limited roles — particularly in the UK — because of her mixed heritage. “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 — well, I could, but I don’t want to play someone who’s being racially abused. I’m not interested in that, don’t want to do it … there just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of colour.” She adds: “I’m talented at what I do, but I’ve had to struggle against racism and sexism. But I’m glad of it, in a way, that I survived and overcame.”
We meet in a restaurant in Soho, central London. She bumps down onto a banquette, starts eagerly ripping apart a bread roll, and — up close — it’s impossible to believe she is 44. She has a line-free face and a teenage-fresh glow. Perhaps her make-up’s just really good.
Her father, Nick, is British. Her mother, Nyasha, is a princess from the Shona tribe in Zimbabwe who had “no shoes until she was, like, 10”. They met at a hospital in Zambia, where Nick was a lab technician and Nyasha was a healthcare worker. Newton was born in London, then spent time in Zambia, before moving back to England — this time to Penzance — when she was three. In Cornwall she was unusual. On her first day at a Catholic school, a nun told her mother: “We’re very excited, we’ve never had one before.” She was later banned from a school photograph for wearing cornrows. But if she was made to feel too black for Cornwall, she was also too pale for Africa, where people have accused her of being white.
She speaks with a clipped accent that suggests something posher than her middle-class upbringing. It sounds great when she swears, which she does a lot. Like when she tells me about her teenage daughter, Ripley, who went to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for the fourth time recently, and spotted Boris Johnson in the theatre. She went over to say: “Hello, Mr Johnson, my name is Ripley Parker and I just wanted to tell you you’re a c***. I hope you enjoy the show.” Newton cackles, “I’m so proud of her.” Although she adds: “It’s my new year’s resolution not to use that word in a derogatory manner.”
She and Parker have three children: daughters Ripley, 16, and Nico, 12, and a son, Booker, 3.
For all the swearing, what shines through is how bright she is. After her appearance in Flirting, she put Hollywood on hold to finish school before going up to Cambridge to read anthropology. Today our lunchtime conversational topics range from Ted talks (she gave her own in 2011 about the myths of identity) to environmentalism and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade — “Oh my God, I loved [the song] Formation. She’s in the vaginal zone!” She casually mentions that for one of her next roles — in Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F Donavan — she’s learning to speak Czech.
Image: SIMON EMMETT FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE, STYLING BY ERIN WALSH @ THE WALL GROUP, HAIR BY RIO SREDHARAN. WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO THE SOHO HOTEL LONDON, FIRMDALEHOTELS.COM