Actress Thandie Newton

The Crash co-star explains her lead role in DirecTV’s new original series, Rogue.

For actress Thandie Newton, her role in the film Jefferson in Paris was a launching pad. It led to her playing the title character in Beloved and the female lead in Mission: Impossible 2. Raised in Zambia and England, Newton started her showbiz career as a dancer. After an injury, she turned to acting, earning an anthropology degree from Cambridge University along the way. She's had a wide variety of roles, including on NBC's hit ER, the Oscar-winning Crash—for which she took home the BAFTA supporting actress award—and the box office hit 2012. She's next up as star of the new original series, Rogue, for DirecTV's Audience Network.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with actress Thandie Newton. She’s starring in a new detective series set in Oakland, California. It’s called “Rogue.” It’s about an emotionally damaged undercover cop and her efforts to find the men who killed her son.

Before we get to that conversation with Thandie, in light of our 10th anniversary and our upcoming 2,000th show here on PBS, I want to continue introducing you to some of the folk who make this program run. So joining me now, our associate director. We call him the AD – Greg Schowengerdt.

He’s been with me for eight seasons on this program. He’s a dedicated Scout master. Greg, I am honored to have you on our team.

Greg Schowengerdt: Tavis, thank you very much.

Tavis: Thank you.

Schowengerdt: It’s great working on this show. I love all the conversations. You have so many different guests, and one of your biggest fans is my mom. She watches you every night.

Tavis: Does she keep my picture that we took together?

Schowengerdt: She does. She does.

Tavis: Does she have it prominently displayed at the house?

Schowengerdt: With all the books that she guests from all the guests on the show.

Tavis: I love your mom. Hi, Mom. (Laughter) Take it away, Greg.

Schowengerdt: All right. We’re glad you joined us. A conversation with Thandie Newton coming up right now, Mom.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Thandie Newton’s impressive body of work includes the title role in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” playing Sally Hemmings in “Jefferson in Paris,” and opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible.” She’s also an active supporter of the international campaign to end violence against women called One Billion Rising.

She’s currently starring in a new detective series for DirecTV. It’s called “Rogue,” in which she plays an undercover cop who is certain the powers that be are hiding the identity of the men who killed her son. We’ll take a look now at “Rogue.”

[Clip]

Thandie Newton: Ooh.

Tavis: Good to see you again.

Newton: Nice to see you too, Tavis.

Tavis: Welcome back. When you walked on the set, the first thing I did was ask how the girls were doing.

Newton: You did, that’s true.

Tavis: I asked in part because I wanted to know how they were doing first, but also because this series is about a mother in search of who killed -

Newton: The truth.

Tavis: Yeah, the truth about who killed her son.

Newton: Justice.

Tavis: Yeah. So when you read the script, as a mother, anything start to swirl inside you?

Newton: Well, it wasn’t – I had to take a deep breath. In my life, I go towards things that are difficult.

I think it’s – I found that – well, it’s two things. I learn more from dealing with discomfort and from being in an uncomfortable place. I think trying to wrestle with that discomfort is what makes me grow as a person.

Also, I think if something hurts and we shy away from it, that’s usually the thing we need in order to become a better person. Whatever makes us feel uncomfortable is usually the thing that has caused us problems in our lives, so we need to deal with it.

So that said, I have the same attitude with work. I was reading this piece. It’s a very difficult subject matter, and it was precisely that reason. Also, you mentioned One Billion Rising. The work that I find myself doing is in Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been called the worst place in the world to be a woman.

The sexual violence against women there is unspeakable, unthinkable. I’ve been to the Democratic Republic of Congo, I’ve spent time on Bukavu, I’ve read the literature, I’ve heard the testimonies. I have been around women who have lost their children in the most horrifying ways, who’ve lost their dignity, who’ve lost their lust for life. They’ve had it crushed out of them.

That’s why I wanted to play Grace. I wanted to explore this kind of grief and turn pain into power. That’s what One Billion Rising is all about, is about turning pain to power. So I just find myself finding these projects which are dealing with these themes, and obviously it’s not just about I want to explore it.

I want to carry the people that watch my work, that feel inspired, that are willing to go with me on the journey of learning; I want to take them with me too. Because that’s what I feel like I’m here for. I really feel like I was born to raise awareness about the glory of women, but also the violence against women.

Tavis: Talk to me more about this vocation, this purpose, this calling that you feel is on your life to do this kind of work. When did you discover it?

Newton: Mm.

Tavis: And how did the Congo end up being at least one of the outlets for the expression of that calling to uplift humanity?

Newton: Well, I think – my mother is from Zimbabwe and my father is English. Right there, I’m a bridge between two continents in my own small way, which meant that the way I perceived people was – it wasn’t about whether you’re dark-skinned or whether you’re pale-skinned, it was who you are, in the same way that my mother is my mother, she’s not a Black woman, and my father is my father, he’s not a white man.

So I was always seeking to find what’s beyond this. It was just what happened. So in fact, the idea of violating or abusing people because of skin color or any kind of obvious trait was something that was alien to me. That didn’t make any sense to me.

So right from the beginning, I was wanting to try and figure out two things: Why we’re so afraid to love, and then second, why we find traits in each other in order to give us permission to hate.

Obviously in my profession that drama is about confliction a lot of the time, so that was obviously coming up in the pieces that I was performing in. Also in trying to work out my negative feelings about myself which had been implanted by growing up in a town on the coast of England where people had barely traveled throughout England, let alone the big, wide world, and I came up against prejudice.

It was something which both my parents dealt with in different ways. My mother’s way was to try and just ignore it and head down, get your education, forget about it all. My dad, he was a fighter. He would become angry.

Those are things I had to work out in myself that the fact of me caused this friction in life. So it was something that really played on me and made me feel self-conscious and inferior.

So anyway, just trying to bridge this amazing question that you asked, the level of compassion I have for people who have been abused, people who have been pushed out, is obviously in me because I have experienced that. Rather than hating, I just want to find ways to love. All I want to do is love people. That’s just the way I’ve always been since I was a kid.

That’s all kids want to do, they just want to love. Just as an example of that, I remember reading about this awful story about a young boy who was in a situation with his mother and they had nothing, poverty-stricken, and she was very unhappy, and in a fit of violence against him, she threw a pan of hot water against this little boy, who was naked from the waist up.

His first reaction was to scream in pain. His second reaction was to reach for her and say, “Mummy.” Even after that, he wanted the love. We want to love. More than anything, we want to give love, right? Obviously, we want to receive it, too.

So that was my – my intention was always I want to try and figure out why we can’t, why we can’t. Then I met Eve Ensler when I was in my early twenties. I was very, very insecure. I’d had really bad experiences in relationships because I just had such inferiority.

Tavis: Because you’re trying to love everybody. (Laughter)

Newton: Well, I just didn’t seem to be able to, like – yeah, exactly. You want to love me? Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: I thought you’d come around to that.

Newton: Yeah. (Laughter) Really, it was just – I had such a sort of inferiority and insecurity, that if someone wanted to show me attention I was so grateful. Isn’t that terrible?

Tavis: It is, given how fine you are.

Newton: Oh, you sweet man.

Tavis: There are a whole bunch of folk on this set and beyond who want to give you attention.

Newton: But you know, all that negativity has been a gift, because it’s made me – well, first of all I had to try and understand why don’t I allow myself to be treated in a way that is – why can’t I allow myself to be celebrated, loved, adored, whatever? I met Eve Ensler when I was in my early twenties, just after “Beloved.”

I remember “Beloved” was critically successful, but the box office didn’t do it. I was so kind of down about that, because “Beloved,” for some reason, of course Beloved herself is raging and roaring to be heard. There was something about me as a person at the time, I desperately wanted to throw off the shackles of insecurity and confusion, and this character seems just give it to me, give it to me, literally roaring.

So the film not – the flocks of people not going to see the movie, it just wasn’t necessarily its time – I took it very personally, I guess.

Tavis: Toni Morrison’s deep.

Newton: She is. And you know what?

Tavis: You have to read Toni three or four times to get it.

Newton: You do. But I’ve learned since then it’s not about what the movie, how it does in the box office, it’s about the experience of making it, and it’s about each person it touches.

Tavis: That’s right.

Newton: It’s about that one letter you get where someone says, “It’s changed my life.” That one person is everything, right?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Newton: So things have changed, thank goodness. I met Eve Ensler, and she’d been performing “The Vagina Monologues,” a one-woman show, and she started to realize the desire for women to have a place, a platform to express their rage, but also to be witnessed, to be witnessed.

So she started doing these charity performances of “The Vagina Monologues” in different cities on V-Day, so Valentine’s Day became V-Day, which is V for an end to violence and for vagina, and I was one of the actresses that played, I played one of the monologues.

And I met Eve Ensler, and a little part in me changed. Seeing this woman who had been sexually abused as a child, who speaks about it, there’s no shame, she speaks about it as though this is the lesson in her life which has led her to experience and feel and emit this amazing power and warmth.

I thought, “I want that. I want that. I want that to happen in me,” and it did. So through Eve, I’ve – the violence against women, obviously, you can go through life not knowing that violence against women is such a pandemic. You’ve got to look. You’ve got to read about stuff.

Unfortunately, in our world, a lot of stuff is kept from us because it’s unpleasant, and whether that’s your parents or that’s your school, we don’t like unpleasantness, right? We don’t like pain. But we’re not going to figure out unpleasantness and pain unless we have a good look at it. So that’s been, One Billion Rising has been sort of the 15 years’ work of V-Day.

Tavis: You’ve said four or five things, and I didn’t want to stop you, you’ve said four or five things I want to go back and kind of pick up as I circle back to “Rogue” again.

In no particular order, one, I’m laughing, imagining your father as this angry white man, not the angry Black man. (Laughter) So that’s -

Newton: I know.

Tavis: That’s tickling to me.

Newton: It is, right?

Tavis: But the second thing is, I’m trying to figure out, given that you had these two examples, and both your parents are loving, of course, but given that you had both of these examples in front of you how to deal with your own questions and your own uncertainty and your own insecurity and your own needs, and your mother’s giving you one example and your father’s giving you another example.

How did you end up being this – you are a love ethic. How did you end up on that side of the equation?

Newton: Goodness, I don’t know. I think it was -

Tavis: I mean, you could be angry too, and there are -

Newton: It’s not in me.

Tavis: But there are a lot of people, and I’m asking this for all the people who are watching, of course.

Newton: Yeah.

Tavis: There are a lot of people, particularly and especially nowadays, because it’s becoming so commonplace, who are of mixed heritage, and you’d be amazed – well, you wouldn’t be because you’ve lived it, but I am always constantly amazed at the number of people, who even though the world is changing so much, still have a very difficult time in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic world ever, navigating that duality.

Newton: Oh, yeah

Tavis: It’s a very difficult thing.

Newton: Well funnily enough, I was asked to talk about that at TED Global years ago.

Tavis: I saw it. I saw this a couple years ago.

Newton: And it was precisely – yeah, it was precisely about that. It was a talk about identity, embracing otherness. It was such a gift, because I’ve never spoken in, I’d never given a talk before, and it was calling me to consider something which was basically at the center of my, of everything.

Who am – obviously who am I, but my identity had been the thing which had caused me great pain in life because I didn’t know who I was supposed to be, and had been the most liberating thing. What I learned from having a very, very troubled ego, because it was really that’s what it was, is that that’s not the point.

The point is who I am at my core, and who I am at my core is who you are at your core and all these lovely people here. We are all connected, and we all feel the same pain. We all cry the same tears.

The thing that differentiates us is this ego, this wonderful tool which we’ve created in order to just be social animals. But are we going to buy into that? Because this thing that’s created has been informed by our parents, by our schools, by radio programs, news footage, just random events in life, which has created this personality that we take out into the world.

In the same way that it’s been created, it can be uncreated if we’re aware of its function. Its function is to get us from A to B. It’s like a car. At some point you can find someone who their ego is making them do horrific things, like hurting people.

Like in Congo, a child soldier who is sexually abusing women and children. This person has that ego. That drive has been created, and we can unpick it. That’s what awareness is about, is that what you are and the negative that you do is not you, it’s what you’ve, it’s how you’ve been created and that creation has been important in getting you through life.

But how about you want a different way through life? You don’t want to hurt people, you want to love people. You can pick that ego apart if you understand why it was built in the first place, and who built it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Newton: You know?

Tavis: It’s not easy to do that.

Newton: It’s consciousness.

Tavis: It is consciousness.

Newton: There’s a wonderful filmmaker who made the movie “I Am” who you’re speaking to.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Newton: Honestly, that film was – I was so joyful when I saw it. It was around the time of my TED talk, because it was really, the themes of that were just everything that I’ve been thinking about too.

Tavis: You referenced this earlier and I made a joke about it, but I want to come back to be serious about this. In your own journey for identity and for respect, even in relationships that you referenced earlier, you are – I want to phrase this the right way – have you ever perceived that your beauty has gotten in the way? I ask that you – you know what I’m getting at?

Newton: I do, yeah.

Tavis: It works well for you – of course, you weren’t so cute in “Beloved,” that wasn’t the character, (laughter) but in “Mission: Impossible,” in all the other things that you do, obviously, you’re gorgeous to look at. I wonder if in that journey what we see as one of your calling cards has gotten in the way along the way?

Newton: Honestly, my physical appearance has been a story in itself, and again, I’m really grateful for the sort of meandering road of it, because when I was a kid growing up I was the only dark-skinned girl for miles.

Tavis: Dark-skinned? (Laughter) Did Thandie just say “dark-skinned?”

Newton: Why, is that bad? Is that politically incorrect? (Laughter)

Tavis: No, I’m just trying to see where the dark is.

Newton: Oh, shut up.

Tavis: I take it -

Newton: That’s what I’m talking about, though.

Tavis: I take your point, I take your point.

Newton: That’s what we’re arguing about. Right, thank you.

Tavis: Okay, got it, got it, got it. You are in England.

Newton: Okay, how about I was the “other” in the environment.

Tavis: Okay, and you are in England, so I get that.

Newton: And I was in England, very much on the coast of England, in Cornwall.

Tavis: I got you.

Newton: As a result, I was absolutely passed over by boys. I was attracted to boys; I knew that from a very young age, so that was me. I believed, I knew, that I was not attractive. I was the opposite of that.

Tavis: I get that.

Newton: So it wasn’t that I would sort of weep into my pillow. It was just a fact, and I would carry on doing my thing. From a very, very early age too I was a performer, and I was so – talk about peace. I would honestly step out of all this confusion when I was dancing, and I do believe that dancing, running, moving our body and escaping our egos, our minds, is the key to happiness, it really, really is.

It’s so funny how in our cultures all this stuff, dancing, exercise, walking, singing, they’re hobbies which aren’t taken seriously, you know what I mean? Unless you’re a singer, obviously, but they’re things you do in your spare time. They are crucial to your wellbeing.

Tavis: I believe that.

Newton: They are crucial. I don’t think that we’re encouraged enough to do that and to see them as so unbelievably beneficial. So that was how I used to step out of that feeling.

So then okay, I went from being the ugly duckling, really. Then suddenly I’m 16 years old, everything’s bursting, and I look back at pictures of myself (laughter) and I just think my Lord.

I also look at my two girls and I just think I was a beauty, no, absolute no knowledge of it. In fact, like I said to you before, felt grateful. Then suddenly I’m in the film business. I’m not in Cornwall anymore; I’m not at an all-girls boarding school anymore, the only Black kid anywhere. I am now in the film business.

Tavis: How you like me now?

Newton: No, no, no, no, but now how you like me now; how they like me now.

Tavis: Yeah, I got you, I got you.

Newton: So I’m this gorgeous girl with big eyes, really just naïve, very smart, because that’s the other way I got over all my sort of persecution, I guess, was I was super-smart. Got into my books. Also, I fell in love in books. I wasn’t allowed to fall in love. I didn’t have boys like me.

So I would read “The Mill on the Floss,” I would read romance novels, and just get so lost in them. Again, that’s my artistic side being seasoned. Then I was in the film business, where I’m afraid there are people who will take advantage of youth, take advantage of beauty, and add innocents to gratitude and keenness to just be liked, it’s a disaster, absolute disaster.

The only thing I regret is that I wasn’t able to take responsibility for myself, that I wasn’t able to judge a situation with empowerment and self-respect at the core. But you know what? When I look at it all, it was never going to be any different, I guess.

It would have been great if I hadn’t been around guys, men, directors that were more adult and weren’t damaged themselves, so didn’t want to take advantage of a young woman. That would have been ideal, because as adults we have to take responsibility, not just for ourselves but for minors.

We have to teach them that they should love themselves, respect themselves, not take advantage of the very thing they’re vulnerable of.

Tavis: Well, it’s all worked out, because here you are now, headlining another series.

Newton: You know what? Here I am and I’ve got two daughters, and what a blessing I have two girls that I can impart all this learning. I look at my kids, my two daughters. They have no question that they’re empowered, that they’re aware. I was doing One Billion Rising outside Parliament Square in London during a flash mob about bringing violence against women to an end in the world.

My 12-year-old daughter is standing there with me, and for her it’s just a regular Monday. I just feel so grateful. Each generation we’ve got to try and do a little bit better. Not that my parents didn’t do their – they did their best, but we’ve got to take – that’s what it’s all about. We’ve got to improve.

Tavis: When you take movie roles like this series “Rogue,” and I should mention this is DirecTV. I’m a DirecTV customer.

Newton: Yeah, DirecTV’s first foray – are you? Yes.

Tavis: I’m a big customer, yeah, so this is their first foray into doing their – they’ve been running “Damages” and other series. This is their first time at a first-run series on DirecTV.

Newton: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: So back to your girls. When you take a role like this, or any role for that matter these days, does their existence factor into your decision-making about the stuff you do?

Newton: Oh yeah, definitely.

Tavis: Yeah?

Newton: Definitely. They’re going to see it one day. I have to be mindful of that. Also, I want them to – I want to be a role model that is going to nourish them in some way. I love the fact that I take part in “Rogue” and I can talk about the fact that I’m playing, I’m at the center of a TV show, number one, where I’m a female, I’m a woman of color, I’m playing a empowered woman who’s fighting for the truth in a patriarchal world, in a corrupt world, and I’m in the center of it.

What fuels me is love, what fuels me is justice. What a great thing to talk about round the dinner table with my kids? “How was work today, Mum?” “Well.” (Laughter) It’s good, it’s good.

Tavis: It is good, and as I said earlier, this is DirecTV’s first time doing a series, a first-run series on DirecTV, so why just watch TV when you can DirecTV and watch a wonderful series called “Rogue” with a wonderful actress named Thandie Newton.

I always enjoy it when she comes on the program. There’s never enough time, because you just get going, and I’ve got more questions, and the more you talk the more questions I have, and this show needs to be, like, eight hours long.

Newton: Aw, I would love that.

Tavis: We need a series of conversations with you.

Newton: Oh, to be continued.

Tavis: To get it all out.

Newton: To be continued.

Tavis: You will come back again.

Newton: I will, I can’t wait.

Tavis: You will be invited. Good to see you.

Newton: You too.

Tavis: Congrats on the series in advance. That’s show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: March 28, 2013 at 11:58 pm