Thandie Newton: I wake up angry theres a lot to be angry about

From Hollywoods culture of abuse and exploitation to the lack of black faces in Vogue, the actor has had enough of being told to zip it. She talks about why it took a role in HBOs Westworld to finally make her feel in control of her body

Two years ago Thandie Newton was naked on set when a major epiphany struck. She was 41, with a quarter-century of professional acting behind her but in all those years of work, she had been kept absolutely a prisoner in her body. Its so ironic that here I was, utterly, utterly naked and I felt completely liberated. Not because I was naked, she adds, but because it was my choice. Totally my choice.

Feeling comfortable, she waved away the offer of a pubic wig. I was like: No, no, no. I want to go back to my kid. Her youngest child, Booker, was only six months old. Its two hours extra in makeup to stick that thing on, she says. Thankfully Im not a woman who waxes everything off.

Newton is a puzzling blend of forthright and defensive, and it is easy to see why her new show, HBOs Westworld, adapted by JJ Abrams from Michael Crichtons original, drew her thoughts inward. She plays Maeve, a prostitute in a wild west theme park peopled by artificially intelligent androids. While filming, Newton was breastfeeding Booker: hand-squeezing like a lovely goat. She cups an imaginary breast to demonstrate. Into a bottle or bag. Literally get your whole boob and milk yourself. And then Id get my driver to drive it back to my babysitter. Maybe it fed her sense of being in healthful service because she says: I was naked 70% of the time on set 70%! and it was the first time I felt in control of my body at work.

It seems a terrible pity to reach this peace only after working for 25 years.

So much of whats happened in my life has led to the Whats the opposite of ownership? she asks. She quite often does this, casts her listener as a sort of linguistic handmaiden.

Er, servitude? I venture.

With Rodrigo Santoro in Westworld, 2016. Photograph: Allstar/HBO/WARNER BROS. TELEVISION
Of my body. For my work, she says. Abuse and exploitation is rife … Just to give you the greatest hits, she begins and launches into her back catalogue: from the director who promised to frame above her bare breasts (total fucking lie) to
the audition where she was asked to fondle herself with a camera between her legs, only to learn years later that the director played the film at private parties, on to the ex who hit me round the face, and finally to the the serious sexual abuse she suffered in one of her relationships. Oh, I wouldnt use the word relationship, love, she says with a pitying edge.

I dont relate it to a name, because I dont know what Im going to do with all of this, she says. She calls this offender Mr Hideous. I was continually told that the reason people were appalled at seeing me with this guy was because I was black. That was his explanation when hotel staff dumped their bags on the street. Im just this piece-of-shit black person who hotels dont want, she says.

Newton grew up in Penzance, Cornwall, where her parents her dad is white British, her mother black, from Zimbabwe sent her to a Catholic school. She was the only pupil of colour, barred from a photo, she says, because she wore braids. Too bantu, she quips. I was there to be civilised. So any hint of joy or freedom was like Agggh! she wails, waving her arms: The savage is set free from her cage! I was always being sent to the baby class, which was so humiliating.

Newton with Noah Taylor in her debut feature film, Flirting (1991). Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS.

At Cambridge, where she read anthropology, Newtons sense of shame nearly consumed her. She became bulimic. Her knuckles were covered in scars. Ramming my fingers so hard down my throat I was so thin, she says. I was lying in bed and I remember feeling my heart against my ribcage. Because my ribs were so close to my skin it was like my heart was coming out. I thought: Fuck, Im going to die. She called a friend, and began therapy.

And the first session the first session! it was about sexual abuse. And I realised: Oh, that wasnt a relationship? Oh, you mean Id been abused? And I thought it was sex. It was the first of several turning points: meeting her husband, film-maker Ol Parker, whom she married at 25; seeing Eve Enslers The Vagina Monologues; motherhood; and activism (she is on the board of Enslers V-Day campaign).

However, I suspect the timeline is wonkier than those milestones suggest. Ten years ago, Newton was still maintaining in interviews that she had never experienced racism in Britain. It was only after discussing Cornwall with her mother that she realised her parents had tried to soak up the racism around her, and she had believed, or colluded in, the pretence that it wasnt happening. So now there was the additional shame of having failed to confront or claim that experience. The film industry compounded all that childhood alienation with another kind of silencing: a publicist tried to stop Newton talking about the abuse. To have experienced it, to have confided, and then be urged to secrecy seems doubly cruel. She couldnt win.

Yes, I can win! she shoots back angrily, voice rising above the clatter in Ostuni, a local restaurant for her in north-west London. Heres the thing. I am so grateful for all that: Zip it, Thandie! Zip it! Zip it! Because it made me more angry, made me want to talk more.

Has she considered taking legal action against Mr Hideous? Or the director, now in his 80s, who played her audition video at parties?

I could take him to court, darling, if I wanted to. And you know, maybe that will happen. But hes one person. Im out for the whole fucking industry. I go for big. Im not small. Im vast.

How will she get them?

By speaking it.

It baffles her why no one spoke for her: why the female casting director who witnessed the camera-between-the-legs incident didnt intercede, why friends disapproved of Mr Hideous only afterwards. You have to say it, she says. She mentions Sinad OConnors beautiful open letter to Miley Cyrus, which Newton has kept and intends to frame: I must remember to do that. (She loves OConnor, even though I pretty much know if we sat together for two minutes shed be calling me a cunt.)

She routinely calls out abuse. Darling! I do it all the time! she exclaims. And sometimes it pisses people off and they disinvite me from their lives. But I would rather lose friends for that one seed of doubt that might be in their minds. She has lost work, too. I do understand why actors reputations start to follow them round as being difficult, she says. The offer of Westworld took her by surprise, because I kind of gave up on being given gifts from the industry. I just thought I was going to have to be a rebel, fighting for ever.

But she sees no sign of improvement in Hollywoods approach to sexual abuse. The number of people who want to distance themselves from me because of how much Im willing to say is an example of how much its occurring. She mentions the film Spotlight, about paedophilia in Bostons Catholic church. As with the movie business, its another organisation that is concealing an industry of sexual abuse, where theres more infrastructure to cover up than there is to protect. Her own experience has taught her that it was part of the grooming to be made to feel that this is all part of what it means to be in showbusiness, the kind of thing you have to tolerate in this industry.

Newton with her husband Ol Parker and daughters Ripley and Nico Parker, 2016. Photograph: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Reviewers and interviewers often describe Newton as refined or delicate. In her customary pose for photographs, her lips balance on the edge of a smile. Dimples suggest a reserved and private mirth. But her mouth is always shut. This seems inappropriate, given the way she talks. Her sentences run at speed, often rerouting halfway through, salted with profanities and pleasantries to the waiter, and winding up with and thats why Each pause is a leap.

She jumps from her experience to rape victims in Congo. The activist Kimberle Crenshaw is a dear friend and Newton liberally uses her term intersectionality to dredge the overlapping interests of conflict mining, mobile phone companies, gang rape and patriarchy. Rape of women, rape of the environment its the destruction of the female. And the endgame is suicide. Its species suicide! That she considers her own body implicated in this tangle becomes clear when she says that she breastfed partly to prevent multinationals such as Nestl from extending their grip on the developing world. She can be hard to follow because she deploys the words that usually join thoughts to introduce new ones. Each time she says because, I want to grip my seat. Her thoughts go so fast.

I know, she says. Thats because theyre mine, and they happen all the time.

Im wondering which is her natural state the placid composure of photographs, or the frantic, gesticulating, conscientious producer of this verbal torrent. Oh, oh well, she says. My natural state is the waaaah, all over the place. Because there is so much to think about.

In passing she mentions that she recently had endometriosis. And I really do think it was [down to] fury.

Was she furious then? She looks surprised. Im always angry. I wake up angry. There is a lot to be angry about. Anger, she says calmly, is a positive energy.

Another flashpoint is the dearth of black faces on the cover of Vogue. She has never been asked, even after winning a Bafta for Crash in 2006, although Vogues editor, Alexandra Shulman, is a fellow anthropologist who lives down the road. I like her a lot. We hang out. She uses my gardener. I nick rosemary from her garden. Newton kept asking herself what she was doing wrong. OK, so why have I not got the cover? And I resisted race. Because I dont even use the term race. I resisted it, I resisted it, I resisted it And then I had to accept it.

She didnt ask Shulman outright: Too gauche. Instead she devised a plan to get sponsorship for a documentary about a Thandie Newton Vogue cover, in which the sponsorship covered any losses that arose from featuring a black face. Then I was like, wow, thats a lot of work. Thats a lot of fucking work. And then I realised I dont care any more.

About being on the cover? No, I dont care. I dont care.

Who cares? I say, to cheer her up; she still sounds a bit sad.

Well, I care! she cries. Because I was a little girl a long time ago, and that little girl knew Vogue was everything. Its about ideas. Vogue is the ultimate. The ultimate. And I want little girls to see that. My little girls had seen me receiving a Bafta. And not just my little girls every other little girl with brown skin had seen that. Oh my God! I know how much it matters because I remember being that little girl. The next time she speaks, her voice is small and wistful and distant. I remember, she says.

Newton with her Bafta for Crash, 2006. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Newton has been married to Parker, a scriptwriter and director, for 18 years. Presumably, hes pretty calm. Soooo calm, she says. And we laugh, because I take the piss out of him. You know: shoulder-shrugging: Its OK, babe. And he takes the piss out of my What would you describe it as? Highly emotional. As Im thinking, the words will come. I dont stop and think. Her voice deepens and she says, mock-grandly: Never been my way! Thats what its like in our house. A lot of music as well.

Along with Booker, now two, she and Parker have daughters Nico, 11, and Ripley, who last week turned 16, the age Newtons at times traumatic relationship with the film industry began. Of course. Any 16-year-old, I look at and think: My God, my God.

Here she goes again! she blurts thats how her daughters tease her. But to prepare them, and to protect them, Newton pointedly names abuse. It freaks my husband out, bless him! Hell look at me like: Youre really talking about this? But its a compulsion, a commitment, and a chance, perhaps, to parent the child she was, as well as the ones she has. To go through shame and feel self-love afterwards, theres nothing like it, she says. And then to pour that into your beautiful girls … When I look at my girls who they are partly as a result of what Ive told them …

They go to a progressive school. No uniform, you use the teachers first names, so you dont create this fear and mindless … whats the word? Deference? To authority. Were big on No. [The teachers] have to earn your respect. In the same way that me as a parent, I have to earn your respect, every day you wake up on this planet.

Im imagining the impact of this approach to childcare in my own home. Dont they give her huge amounts of grief? Yeah, they do. But I love it. When they give me shit, thats their power. Im like: Give it to me! Give it to me! It really annoys them. When they get fucked off with me, I just smile, I go glazed. Because Im thinking: Youre awesome, and this is precisely what youre going to need in life. Give it to me! Because if you dont let them do it to you, they question their power.

Ripley likes sculpting with modelling clay hundreds of tiny figures. Nico dances. What would Newton do if either met a much older man, as she did in her teens, and called him boyfriend? Its never going to happen, she says quickly. Its just not going to happen. There is a silence. How we have influenced the kids is across everything, you know, from questioning authority to where did that palm oil come from in that chocolate? It hasnt been a daily lecture. Its just, this is the shit we talk about.

Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic in October

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