Thandie Newton is stretched out shoeless, a sliver of a round tummy showing on a divan at the snooty Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. She is gossiping mercilessly about filmdom's high and mighty (who is foulmouthed, who is a racist), trashing the town's powerful directors, ridiculing scripts (wait till you hear about Hottentot Venus) and dishing just as much about herself a girl born in Britain, with a plummy British accent and skin the color of caffe latte. Taking tea with Thandie (pronounced Tan-dee) turns out to be a jolt of caffeine straight to the system. Come prepared for opinions slathered with irony, not scones with cream.
The very pregnant Newton is officially in town to talk about one of this season's most eagerly anticipated movies, M:I-2, in which she co-stars as the love interest (love, not sex; O.K., sex too) of Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible agent Ethan Hunt. In the film, she is a knock-out international jewel thief, Nyah Hall, with perfectly coifed hair and fabulous clothes. In real life, the toes on her bare feet are unpolished, her hair is pulled back in a simple ponytail, and not a dab of makeup is visible. She is, of course, still stunning in her bareness. It's Hollywood, after all. They rarely hire ugly people around here.
While beauty is a given, what you don't expect is the uncensored river of provocative commentary, delivered with the bemused arch of one thin eyebrow (just the left one) while her delicate hands conduct an air ballet. "Everyone is so constipated by fear in Hollywood. Everybody cares so much; they care about your hair, about your clothes," she says, raising that eyebrow to indicate they don't really care at all. "I was surprised at how insincere people could be, but that's the currency of Hollywood."
Burned at age 17 on her first go-round in Hollywood, following her debut in the 1990 Australian film Flirting (her co-star was Nicole Kidman, before she became Mrs. Tom Cruise), Newton returned home to Britain to study social anthropology at Cambridge and then went on to do small art-house films with directors like James Ivory (Jefferson in Paris) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Besieged). Now, at 27, she's back in Hollywood, with a meaty role opposite the movies' biggest box-office star in this season's surefire action thriller. Make that romantic thriller, because from the minute Newton and Cruise lock eyes across a floor of flamenco dancers in M:I-2, you know that director John Woo (Face/Off) is up to something different.
Gone are the impossible-to-follow plot twists of the first Mission: Impossible. This is a simple story of a guy, a girl, the bad guys and a plot to wipe out humanity while making a killing in biotech stock. Scottish actor Dougray Scott, who last broke hearts in Ever After, turns up as bio-villain Sean Ambrose. Ving Rhames reprises his role as Cruise's computer sidekick, Luther Stickell, and Anthony Hopkins makes an unbilled and deliciously despicable appearance as Cruise's boss.
Everything is gloriously choreographed in Woo's trademark fast-action, slo-mo moves, including a motorcycle joust, a car tango and a heart-stopping Cruise duet with a mountain. (He did most of his own stunts. And Newton did, well, some of hers.) "Yes, it's fun! It's understandable!" says Newton, speaking in exclamation marks as she gently pokes fun at the first M:I. "And it's uncontroversial!" she adds with relief.
This last is a reference to her history of landing roles as slaves: Interview with the Vampire, Jefferson in Paris, The Journey of August King. Reared in Cornwall in southwestern England, far from the racism experienced in the Bronx or Brixton, she admits she was caught off guard by criticism from the American press, particularly for the vixenish slave mistress Sally Hemings opposite Nick Nolte's Jefferson. "I was so naive. I was from England, and I don't know anything about slavery. I didn't realize I was doing this terrible thing," she says, clearly still not convinced she did anything wrong. She concedes, however, that she did get into a slave-casting rut. At one low point, she was offered a script called Hottentot Venus, about African tribal women with enormous bottoms who are spirited away to Europe to perform in freak shows. "They said they had great prosthetics if necessary. As if my bottom was that huge!" she says with mock indignation.
The daughter of a British father, an artist, and Zimbabwean mother, a health-care worker, Newton has always suffered from a sort of double racism. Some people, she says, can't get past the idea of a black woman with a posh British accent. "I get this stuff here in Hollywood. Really high-powered people who make really, really, really dodgy suggestions about what it is to be black. Honestly, it would leave your mouth open. It's stupid, stupid, stupid!"
Race isn't an issue in M:I-2. Newton's character is just a beautiful woman in a short skirt straddling Tom Cruise in a bathtub. "When Tom and John Woo asked me to audition, they said it would have a love story. I said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. The girl's going to be screaming while the men are showing off their muscles.' But I was happy to be of service!" Woo and Cruise, however, inspired by Hitchcock's Notorious, were determined to have a love triangle drive their spy story. "They never have a real love in spy movies. They sleep with a woman, and next day, bye-bye," says Woo. "We wanted the movie to be charming and sweet." (Right, a sweet spy story.)
Woo says he wanted someone with the quality of an Audrey Hepburn or an Ingrid Bergman "a strong female with a classy look." It was Cruise who proposed Newton. At the urging of his wife, he had been looking for a role for her old friend. "We actually designed the character around her," Cruise says. "She exuded an elegance and intelligence that this character needed." With Newton in place, screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) began revamping the first script, even chatting up the actress on the phone to learn her speech patterns and banter.
By the time Newton got to Australia to start filming early last year, she found herself with a lot more than a sexy little cameo. The size of the role made her so nervous that she tried to break the ice by telling an off-color story about "bums and farts." Silence fell on the set, then Cruise started laughing. "Tom appreciates gutter toilet humor," she says fondly.
Over the past decade, Newton has worked with one famous director after another: Bertolucci, Ivory, Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire) and Jonathan Demme (Beloved). Her co-stars have ranged from Nolte in Jefferson ("F______ funny. What a toilet mouth," she says, again citing a quality she obviously admires in her leading men) to the late rapper Tupac Shakur in Gridlock'd ("I was rude to him. 'What's that tattoo?' I'd ask. We had a flirty-rude relationship.")
Newton originally studied to be a dancer and got her first job acting as an African diplomat's daughter in Flirting by accident. Sidelined by injury, she was looking to waste a day in London when, as it happened, auditions for the part were being held. Her only formal acting training to this day remains some boarding-school drama classes. She is an instinctive actress. Demme remembers bursting out laughing with pleasure when she came up with the croaking voice for the title character Beloved, the ghostly daughter who returns to haunt the mother who killed her. "The voice was a big part of the character, and she was literally brilliant. She had the courage to go all the way," says Demme. Newton, amused to hear about the director's compliment, says her inspiration was Yoda from Star Wars. Paula Wagner, Cruise's long-time co-producer, says moviegoers will see a modern woman in M:I-2, "one who is free, owns her own self, who has a yen for adrenaline. But also Thandie makes a transformation one you believe into true vulnerability too. She has such range."
The question is how broadly Hollywood will now allow her to explore that range. Offers are coming in; she turned down a role in the upcoming movie version of Charlie's Angels, citing exhaustion after the M:I-2 shooting. But as the careers of actresses from Dorothy Dandridge to Halle Berry attest, opportunities can tend to disappear quickly when you're black.
Newton and her husband, British screenwriter Oliver Parker, are expecting their first baby in September and awaiting the release of an independent film they worked on together called It Was an Accident. It's about a guy just out of prison who must meet three conditions (stay clean, get a job and pass an AIDS test) before he can win back his childhood sweetheart, Newton. As for the rest, Newton, who grew up in what she says was a largely colorblind atmosphere, is philosophical about her chances in Hollywood. "I am both Zimbabwean and English. I'm from nowhere," she says. "Because of my parents, however, I realized that it was a strength, not a weakness. You're a bridge; you legitimize mixed race-ness. Is it right? Natural? Beautiful? Yes. Race problems are just made up. Even the term is bulls___." She starts talking about the lessons in life she learned from studying social anthropology at Cambridge, then stops herself and laughs. "It's hard to talk about it without sounding like a boffin," she says, using the English slang for egghead.
If Hollywood doesn't find a way to use a bright, beautiful actress like Thandie Newton, it will be in her own words stupid, stupid, stupid.