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Capone talks poetry and Tyler Perry with FOR COLORED GIRLS star Thandie Newton!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. The very first review I ever wrote for Ain't It Cool News was for the Oprah Winfrey production, directed by Jonathan Demme, of BELOVED. Now I'd certainly seen Thandie Newton prior to that film, but I don't think I'd realized before then that she was capable of shocking me with the ferociousness of her performance. She's already established herself as a diverse actor in such films as FLIRTING, JEFFERSON IN PARIS, and GRIDLOCK'D (opposite Tupac Shakur) before BELOVED, but there's something magnificently unhinged about the way she inhabited the character of Beloved. After a string of high-profile but largely underwritten roles is works like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II, THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE, and THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, Newton did it again, this time in Paul Haggis' film CRASH. Say what you will about the film, because I know there are those of you out there that loathe it, but when I think about that film even today, I think of that Newton essentially getting raped by Matt Dillon near the beginning of the film. She got a lot of justifiable recognition and awards for that performance, and it remains one of her finest. Then came roles in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, ROCKNROLLA, 2012, and one of my personal favorite, as Condoleezza Rice in Oliver Stone's W. And now she's gone and done and surprised me again. I know many of you reading this probably don't have plans to see Tyler Perry's adaptation of Ntozake Shange's landmark play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf," and that would be a horrible mistake. The movie is actually kind of perfect and a completely devastating emotional experience. Plus the film features a collection of some of the greatest black actresses working today, including Kimberly Elise, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, and the splendid Loretta Devine. Don't acted surprised when one or two of these names show up in Best Supporting Actress categories come awards season (my guess is Elise and Rose have the best chances). FOR COLORED GIRLS does not exist in Perry's usual world. It's a film with a rhythm and beauty that manages to flow out of some of the ugliest experiences a person can endure. Newton plays the sexually aggressive Tangie, who vents the anger she feels toward her religiously inclined mother by sleeping with a different man every night and having no shame about it. Each woman in FOR COLORED GIRLS gets at least one monologue (which are actually poems taken from the play, which consisted of nothing but poems in its original form), and Newton actually takes part in two that are both harrowing. I've never seen anything quite like FOR COLORED GIRLS in my life, and I have to give Perry and his cast all the credit they are due. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It goes without saying that Thandie Newton is kind of beautiful, but she's also a fantastic talker, and she shocked me with a bit of knowledge right at the beginning of our talk that surprised me. I'd come into our conversation with pages of questions about FOR COLORED GIRLS, but we spent the bulk of our too-short time together talking more about her career, her process, and more general aspects of her work. We do eventually get around to her new film, but we ran out of time before I could ask her anything about her next completed project, Brad Anderson's last-people-on-earth, sci-ft film VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, due in February. Please enjoy my talk with Thandie Newston, and, and by all means, see FOR COLORED GIRLS.
Capone: Hello. Thandie Newton: Hello, welcome to my sexy world. [She's wrapped in a blanket because the room is cold and snacking on a plate of fruit someone has just brought her.] Capone: It’s great to meet you. TN: Nice to meet you, have a seat. I'm sorry, I was rushing around this morning trying to get ready with my two kids. “Mom!” Capone: They're here with you? TN: Yes, so I didn’t have enough breakfast. I’m sorry but I’ll be snacking. Capone: Not a problem. I’ve had people eat full meals in front of me while we were in an interview. TN: How annoying. Capone: Well, no, sometimes you get more time with them if can get a mealtime interview with someone. You know Simon Pegg. The first time I ever got to sit down with him was over lunch with him. TN: Ahhh, that’s nice. Capone: Yeah, and it was great. We got like an hour together, so I would never complain about mealtime interviews. TN: Okay. He’s a lovely man. Capone: Absolutely. TN: You’re called “Capone.” Capone: Yes. How did you know that? Was it on the sheet? TN: No, no, no. From Ain’t It Cool News and we're in Chicago, so you must be Capone. Yeah, I know you. Capone: Okay. Some people do and some people don’t,; I never assume. Speaking of which, my 12-year anniversary at the site is coming up. TN: No way. Capone: Yes. And the very first film I ever reviewed for the site was BELOVED. They had a way-early test screening here in Chicago 12 years ago, and I got into it somehow, and that was the first thing I ever wrote for Ain't It Cool. TN: That was your first review? That’s amazing. What a first one to go for. Had you read the book? Capone: No, but the woman I was with had read it, so she knew it and I brought her with me. TN: That’s amazing. Capone: Between that film and this film--obviously you’ve done quite a bit inbetween--but it made me realize in looking through the things that you have done that, if you believe in a film strongly enough, you will pretty much do anything. I haven't quite figured out where the line with you is yet. There are very few people who are that daring and bold. Is that something that you find true about yourself? TN: Thank you. Yeah. I’m a character actress. That’s the truth, everybody wants to be a leading man or a leading lady, so if that’s what you are or if that’s the aspiration, it eclipses the character actor in you. That’s the truth, and if you think about great character actors that you know, they are all changing and completely transforming themselves all of the time. So that's what I’m doing is just what many, many wonderful actors do all of the time, but because I’ve got this leading-lady status, which I don’t dismiss and I feel really grateful for, because it’s a whole other kind of side to the acting experience. But then you think about Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, it’s just the best part of being an actor, in the change and being able to, because not everybody can. Some people can make a whole career out of just being themselves, and that’s very dynamic and charismatic. Capone: Or playing a type that maybe isn’t themselves, but it’s still a type that they always play. TN: Yes, what I mean is just playing on their own charisma. I adore Jack Nicholson, but if you think about it, he has managed to embody each character, but it’s got this Jack Nicholson flavor to it, which just never gets old, never gets tired. But no, I’m very much a plain piece of plasticize, and then I will mold myself into whatever it needs to be and I love it. One of my greatest recent joys was working on Oliver Stone’s movie, and not necessarily the shooting of it, because that was fine, but the creation of the role was just the finest wine and food for me to be able to do that. Capone: Well the source material is pretty ripe for playing. I was actually going to ask you about that later, but since you brought it up. I’ve been seeing a lot of Dr. Rice lately, because she’s written this book, and she’s coming across a lot more personable in interviews than I think some people thought she might have when she was working in the Bush administration. I wondered if you maybe felt different about her now, seeing her and hearing these stories about her family? Perhaps you might have been a bit more compassionate. TN: No, I was playing Condoleezza Rice as the political animal that she was at that time. Those four years that we were concentrating on were critical for the future of humanity, and the way I played her was really me filtering all of the information that I’ve read and seen. I felt like I was a kind of forensic expert or something about her, and the way I played her was who I came to believe she was based on the material that I had read. I really did a lot of research, which I love doing. And I knew very little about her before that actually. We’re in England, so it was always Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld much more than Condi Rice. She was much more off to whatever side she found herself in, and her physical look was what we came to know. But her as a political animal, that was something that I knew very little about and like I said, I came up with who I portrayed purely from the material that I read. It wasn’t like I had a strong opinion about her and, “I’m going to put that opinion out there.” I did afterwards, a very strong opinion, but that was based thankfully on a lot of brilliant research by journalists and writers and so on. Capone: So back to what you were saying before about being a character actress, I don’t think anyone could ever accuse you of repeating yourself. Is that something that you deliberately set out to do? TN: I guess so, yeah. I think it might not even be that conscious, I might read a script and--then it would be conscious [laughs], sorry. I read it and think, “I’ve done that.” Sometimes, I’ve taken roles that I don’t want to do for whatever reason. There’s two reasons usually, one it’s about maintaining a certain profile in the industry. So being in a big movie is important, as often as possible to be in those big movies, which might not be as challenging in an acting sense, and I really pay the price for that, because I get so bored. Capone: You were just in a big movie recently that I really liked. TN: Which one? Capone: 2012. TN: Yeah, I was. The thing about that movie, it was terrific and the actors were great, but it’s tough sustaining a fairly straightforward role over a long period of time; that’s the killer. It’s not that it’s the role per se. If I could do that role in three weeks, I’d really enjoy it, but trying to maintain a freshness and an interest for months… I’m so lucky that I have that opportunity, but honestly I would much rather… The last three movies I’ve made, each one took four or five weeks to shoot, so intense, but there’s a wonderful adrenaline and intensity that goes with that, which I prefer almost always. Capone: I read somewhere that you had said that you felt like sometimes people offer you underwritten parts. Are you talking more about the bigger films? TN: Not always. Capone: Is that a weird backhanded compliment that they think you have the ability to flesh that out an underwritten character? TN: I don't think they even realize it, but it happens all of the time. It’s very rare to read the script where characters are really cleverly and fully drawn, because you get actors that come on and do it for you and they flesh it out, but I just think there’s got to be a bit more responsibility with that. You’ve got to have a director that says “Look, I know this is completely one dimensional. What can you do?” But then again that is part of the job, and it can be a really great part of the job and if you have a character that isn’t fully realized, you get to do that for yourself and for the movie, and it’s a big responsibility. Similarly, in BELOVED which you would think that… there’s a novel there, too. How much more material do you need? But Beloved was a really hard character to play, because she’s a metaphor in the book; she’s not a person. She’s everyone’s perception. So how do you play that? How do you play a question mark? So that was also really hard, but it wasn’t that it was underwritten, so it’s not always a backhanded compliment. Sometimes a wonderful opportunity. Capone: I haven’t even asked you a single question about FOR COLORED GIRLS TN: [laughs] Go ahead. Capone: I tend to just let the conversation go the way it goes. TN: I know, I love it. Capone: It’s strange from my perspective to see this film, because I’ve seen every single Tyler Perry film, and it’s weird that he's gone from never screening his films for critics to this movie. I just read an article yesterday, not about “if” it would get Oscar nominations, but how many people in the cast would. What a complete turn around for him to be a part of something like that. I know you came in really late in the game. First, talk about that, about how your experience was different maybe than some of the other actors. And then also, did this play have any meaning to you prior to this? TN: I knew nothing about it before. Tyler called me about 18 months ago when he had written the first draft and said, “Look, I’m doing this thing. I’d love to work with you.” We'd never worked together before. And so I read the first draft and then I read the book, the play, which I had never done, as I have said and I had loads of thoughts and questions, because it’s very different and the first draft of the screenplay is very different to the final screenplay. So I talked to him about it and gave him my feedback and we had a really long conversation about it, and he said “I want you to be a part of this.” I was like “Great.” I knew that it was going to go through changes and I was very open to being a part of “the next.” So then it didn’t happen when it was supposed to, which was like a six months later, fine, but I was still very much like “Great, let’s keep talking” and then 18 months later, I get a call literally saying “Mariah Carey’s dropped out; you’ve got to go out and get on a plane in two days.” I didn’t even know they were making the movie. I had just assumed that because I hadn’t had another call from him that they weren’t, and of course agents don’t tell you, “By the way, that movie that you were going to do is now being done with someone else.” I’m being honest and I don’t say that out of peak, because look I get it, that’s how things go. Different people have different… Capone: Probably not the first time. TN: Of course, it’s happened to me too. My God, I’ve had movies where filmmakers who are good friends will go “Do you mind if I let Julia Roberts to do this instead?” [laughs] Of whatever, because the movie changes or they suddenly get more money or someone gets an Oscar nomination. I get it, but it was a crazy trip to then suddenly be doing what I totally signed up to do--not literally signed up to do--but emotionally and creatively. But we totally straightened that out and I ended up doing it and I’m really proud. I’m really glad that I did, because it was a great experience on so many different levels. Working with these actresses for one, speaking these lines of poetry, which was amazing, and also being a part of one person’s re-imagining of the material. This is not “The Definitive THE COLORED GIRLS.” There never will be one unless then Ntozake [Shange] says, “This is.” Do you know what I mean? This is one person’s movie version. Working with other women of color who I have never worked with before, being in a cast with nine women, let alone women of color. Capone: Well one you’ve worked with before. TN: Well I’ve worked with Kimberly Elise [in BELOVED], but you know to be in a movie with nine women is pretty cool, man. So all hail to Perry, and the whole talk about awards and things, I’ve been in so many movies which I’ve thought “These performances are great,” and nothing’s happened, but who the hell knows? I’d love to see all of these, everybody, be praised for their work and it’s not about the awards so much as just raising the profile of black actors. Capone: What you remember about the day that you shot your monologue? The day you shot your poetry, what do you remember? Was that day different than the other days? TN: Well I have a couple of poems, but the main one is with Whoopi [Goldberg]. It was about halfway through the shoot, and I had heard about everybody doing their different poems in different ways, and the film director in me I guess was keen for it to be a little different to others, just so that it gave more color to the film. I was reading the scene and I realized that Whoopi’s poem and my poem are kind of two sides of the same coin. She’s talking about me, and I’m talking about myself. And so when I got onto the set, I said to Tyler, “Could we try speaking the poem simultaneously and just see how that feels?” Then we did, and it was great. It worked great, and he was totally open to that. It’s a credit to him twice really, first of all that I felt able to do that. I would do it even if he'd have been a dictator, [Laughs] I have to. But then also that he tried it and went with it. We didn’t try a different version, that’s what we went for, and so it was beautiful. I think it would have been as interesting if we had done it separately, but the poetry was really an opportunity to elevate what we were saying and doing and feeling. It’s like that point where words aren’t enough or a conversation is limiting and then suddenly Tangie speaks--it’s like Ntozake Shange, the voice of her, was the fairy godmother that would provide us with knowledge of ourselves in that moment and it’s always when the character is experiencing great clarity about what’s going on in their lives and what they are feeling. That’s when the poetry speaks. It’s also cool, because its one voice. It’s Ntazoke’s voice and we all speak her voice, and I think that’s also symbolic of the fact that we are all one. We all do feel the same pain, we are all on a search to try and figure out how the hell to live this life, so it serves a beautiful purpose speaking her poetry. Capone: There’s a great rhythm to the whole piece, and it is unified by that singular voice in poetry. So yeah, it turned out really beautiful. It looks like they are wrapping me up here. TN: Oh, I’m sorry. Capone: Nope, it’s okay. TN: It was lovely to speak to you. Capone: It was wonderful to meet you finally. TN: Thanks. And I'm glad BELOVED was the first film you reviewed for your site. That's really cool. Capone: That’s true. Thanks.
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