Exclusive: Thandie Newton on For Colored Girls

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For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed dramatic play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” features a cavalcade of African-American actresses including Janet Jackson, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose, Kimberly Elise and Phylicia Rashad but nestled among is the sole British actress of the cast, Thandie Newton. She plays a rebellious and promiscuous bartender named Tangie, who has different men in her bed every night. Her mother, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is a religious fanatic who disproves of her elder daughter’s behavior and is trying her best to keep her younger daughter, played by Tessa Thompson, from ending up down the same path as her older sister. It’s a really different role for Newton, who is almost unrecognizable to those who aren’t aware it’s her going in, and she certainly is given the chance to light a lot of emotional fireworks over the course of the film.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Ms. Newton at the New York junket for Tyler Perry’s film and had a perfectly lovely conversation about working with the prolific filmmaker, doing scenes with Whoopi Goldberg, and the challenges and joys of playing an unrestrained character like Tangie.

ComingSoon.net: When Tyler Pyler first contacted you, did he tell you which role he wanted you to play and what was your first knowledge of this project?
Newton: It was about 18 months before the movie was made, he called to talk about this project that he wanted to mount. So I read the first draft of the script, and at that time, even some of the names that are in the final piece were different. What he’s done is he’s taken elements from different ladies in the play and some have been condensed into one character. It’s faithful to the material, but he has license. At that time, there was a character in the movie which we were talking about, which then changed and then became another character in the current movie. So it went through quite a process even before the movie was shot, three significant drafts.

CS: So you were reading all of these scripts as it was being developed?
Newton: I’ve seen the first one and the last one.

CS: Tangie’s a really different character from what you’ve played. I think Beloved had a little bit of a dark side to her, but this is a really pretty nasty, bad girl. There’s very few redeeming qualities I think.
Newton: It’s funny that you say that, and I guess this is by virtue of having explored all the roles that you’re talking about. Every role is complex, every personality. It’s how much I’m able to show through the piece. Every character that I’ve played could reach this kind of complexity, but it’s not. So I don’t really see Tangie as different, it’s just I was able to go further with her, you know? I suppose with “Beloved,” too; I went all the way with “Beloved,” into the depths of her complicatedness. Yeah, I know it is, and it was fantastic to be able to use my capacity as an actor in a deeper way, not just playing the surface of what I’m able to do, but actually really be challenged. I loved it.

CS: You come from a very different background than some of the other actresses because you were born and raised in London as opposed to New York or Philly…
Newton: Yeah, I’m not an African-American.

CS: Had you had a chance to either read or see the play? I know that it’s sometimes taught here in schools.
Newton: I haven’t seen the play and I never read the play, but people who are knowledgeable about theater in England knew about the play very much. I don’t come from a theater background, I come from a dance background. It wasn’t something that was in my wheelhouse at all. I heard about it, my husband, I guess he’s an intellectual, he knew everything about it. For me, it was looking at the piece more as a reflection on humanity than on the black experience, because I think it definitely speaks about universal issues, themes and so on. That for sure is part of its strength and what we hope is that it’s not just for colored girls, it’s not just for colored anybody, it’s for humanity.

CS: You talk about the complexity of your character, and I’ve talked to actors who’ve played out-and-out villains, and you always have to find a way into them because you can’t judge your character. In hindsight, if you saw this movie and didn’t play Tangie, would you be able to relate to her at all? It is hard to find anything good in her, to be honest.
Newton: Well, she funnily enough, when we were making the movie, she was light relief, because on the days I was working, I knew it was going to be just outrageous. Outrageous. We would film a scene and Tyler was very cool about letting us ad lib and be spontaneous, and I’d say there’s a good 40 percent of what I’m doing is just me letting it fly and getting so immersed in what I was doing that it just kept going and Tyler would push me. “Let’s do another one and just say whatever you want,” and that was incredible. Everything that she exhibits is defense, protection, and she doesn’t want people to get close to her. She’s very intimate with men and that’s partly because of her fear and aversion towards men. What I love about the movie is that you get that three dimension, you see in the relationship with Phylicia Rashad’s character, you understand her vulnerability, Tangie, and her shame. You see her mother who is violent and physically abusive and shaming, and you understand why she’s this sexually provocative self-sabotaging human being. If that’s your mother and the way she gave love was to condemn and shame and forcefeed them this religious, shaming diatribe is just – you see why she’s repelling the world.

CS: I know they refer to them, but you don’t really see the father figure in this family.
Newton: Well, you hear that her grandfather raped her and he also raped her mother, so the same guy had sexually abused both of them. What’s fascinating and as Whoopi said and you come to realize quite beautifully and artfully and truthfully – is that they’re very similar to one another. It’s like Whoopi, Tangie and Nyla are three stages along the same uninterrupted cycle. Because Whoopi has abused Tangie, and Tangie’s abusing Nyla. Unless this cycle is interrupted, it’s just gonna keep going and they’re gonna end up being like Whoopi…

CS: It’s funny because Whoopi uses religion as her defense mechanism almost.
Newton: That’s white-washing everything, literally white-washing everything. You see the way she’s dressed and so on. What the movie is showing through my character is that you’ve got to interrupt the cycle and the only way you do that is with truth and going to the dark places, the painful places and judging them. I think in terms of entertainment, there’s a lot that’s redeeming about Tangie, because quite frankly, to be able to say the sh*t that she says and to be able to just speak her mind even though what’s in her mind, there’s a lot of garbage in there, but she just does not compromise. She says it. She’s not going to bed that night wondering if, “I wish I said this or that.” She just speaks what she thinks, and I LOVE that about her!

CS: That’s pretty cool about her, yeah. When you came onto this project, was there anyone completely blew your mind when you found out you’d be working with them? Phylicia Rashad or Whoopi or Janet Jackson? It’s just such an amazing cast and I was wondering if anyone blew your mind.
Newton: No, it wasn’t so much in that deifying… (gasps) It’s more to collaborate with people who I’ve admired and been competing against for a long time. Not actively competing against. I’ve lost roles to Kerry Washington, and I know about Kerry Washington and we’ve met along the way. But as opposed to us being the only black girl in a project, which is what all of us end up being from time to time, for us all to be working together and sharing and supporting each other, as opposed to being on opposite sides of the casting couch, it’s really deeply satisfying and incredible. Anika Noni Rose, I’ve just loved her for so many years and she is a wonderful, sophisticated, brilliant talent. Yeah, I really felt like I was in the presence of the best of how I like to identify myself. These are my role models, and I was working with them.

CS: One thing I really like about Tyler is that he gets really amazing performances out of actresses. Obviously, having a movie like this where you have so many great actresses around each other and pushing each other, that helps. As someone who has worked with great directors like Jonathan Demme, what specifically does Tyler do? Does he just make actresses comfortable? What is it Tyler does that helps actresses be able to pull out such great performances?
Newton: I think it’s more by example than by what he actually does. I mean, he sets this up. He created this environment where we could… and by environment, I mean, this project. He could get this movie made. He’s Tyler Perry. He could carry on doing Madea, but he chose this piece. This is not an easy piece to get people excited about necessarily because it’s quite heavy, but he has presented it and he has adapted it so that it’s an accessible, everyday piece of material that people can actually experience and that’s amazing. Then he cast well and he let us get on with it. He gave us the freedom. I didn’t feel like it was his stamp all over it, which I think you have to be very confident not to be controlling every element. He was extremely open to ideas, like for example, there’s a scene with me and Whoopi and we were both giving our pieces of poetry in this same scene. I turned up in the morning and I said, “Look, hey guys, why don’t we try doing it where we both say the poem at the same time?” Because I wanted it to possibly be different. I didn’t want the poetry to become this sort of predictable… So much about our characters are similar that is already there, even though we’re hating each other, but it’s partly because of the mirror image that’s going on. He was open to it, and we did it and it was dynamite. Now, another director who needs to have had all the ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, but who is the only source from which everything can spring, that kind of artistic need to have a single vision, it might not be so possible. What I think Tyler’s greatest strength in directing this piece was that he gave us the freedom and the security to experiment and to go miles beyond what’s on screen and what we thought we were capable of.

CS: It’s funny you say that because when people think of Tyler, he writes and directs everything, they automatically assume he’s that guy who has the vision and the control.
Newton: Controlling. He was in awe. I felt like he was in awe of us, and he is in awe of that female energy. He doesn’t want to harness it and control it, and have it be his and own it, it’s the opposite. He wants to honor it. It’s a beautifully sophisticated and ultimately empowering thing. He got the best from us, and we got the best from him as a result, out of that permissive quality to his directing.

CS: I wanted to ask about that scene with Whoopi because I’d imagine a movie like this must be really emotionally-draining.
Newton: So draining.

CS: I remember when we talked about “The Pursuit of Happyness” and you had to go and do comedy just to get it out of your system. Was this a similar thing?
Newton: I’m telling you. Honey… It was. But it was funny, I felt like I was a little bit like “Beloved” actually, I felt like I was possessed. I found it very hard to even consider playing this role, to be honest. I came onto the final project very, very late in the day. They’d already started shooting and I felt uncomfortable exploring this sexually-depraved, mean, negative energy. I almost didn’t. I just knew by the material it was going to have to be truthful. This wasn’t going to be a one-dimensional character, so I knew that I was gonna have to be that and be perceived that. The most difficult thing is how other people perceive you, because if you’re doing a good job, you’re so believable as that, people actually start to perceive and react to you as that person. I found that really, really hard initially. Actually, I find it very upsetting. I really felt very vulnerable because it’s SO not who I am, at all, to have people look, or even on the set, and treat me as this person who’s got all those issues, I just…

CS: Yeah, but as an actor it must be the best thing in the world to play something so different from yourself.
Newton: It is, but I found it really painful at first, but then by the end I loved it because there was a strength to what Tangie’s doing every day. Every foul word that comes out of her mouth is cathartic, is crying for help, is ANGRY about what has happened to her, but she’s just unconscious about it, you see, so she’s angry at the world as opposed to angry specifically at who she needs to be angry with. Then you see her gradually focus on what the truth of her anger is, and then deal with it. Somewhere in there I found my own personal catharsis, finally, which was liberating.

For Colored Girls opens everywhere on Friday, November 5.

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