Thandie Newton: "This is a world that people think they're not entitled to be a part of."
By Natalie Jamieson
‘Asking how that was going and whether it was hard to get her own screenplays made, she was quick to answer. “Oh, it's incredibly difficult,” came her impassioned reply. ‘
The obvious answer to what lies ahead for Thandie Newton, newly minted Emmy award winner for her acting work on Westworld, is anything she wants. The world is her oyster, as it should be for all of us. Except that’s not how things tend to go.
Some weeks ago, while Thandie was still happily caught in the Solo: A Star Wars Story whirlwind, I interviewed Thandie and discovered she had been writing.
Asking how that was going and whether it was hard to get her own screenplays made, she was quick to answer. “Oh, it's incredibly difficult,” came her impassioned reply.
“Because the kinds of projects that I want, it's not really about me, it's about the kinds of projects that I'm interested in. I'm interested in why people become criminals, as opposed to just you know, the kind of the stereotypes of good and evil, and bad people.”
Now, there are an enormous number of scripts that languish in development for a variety of reasons, ultimately perishing because of the trials of getting funding, but Thandie raises an interesting point.
“It's about why, so that we can be more compassionate in our society,” she continues, “and people aren't really interested in that because that's not very dramatic.”
Her drive brought to mind the narrative of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. The Australian comedian’s one-hour Netflix special has been causing waves since it landed in June because in a similar fashion, Hannah reasons how what she saw as the accepted way to deliver comedy, was becoming an unacceptable way for her to perform. She argues that the notion of focusing on tension to create a funny punchline, short-changes the deeper story she wants and needs to tell.
“This is a world that people think they're not entitled to be a part of. I was a trained dancer, that's what I was doing, I was 16 years-old and I just sort of tripped into the film industry because of being in the right place at the right time.”
As a social anthropologist, certified by Cambridge university, Thandie Newton reasons that certain mainstream aspects of the film industry have similarly crystallised, often retelling the same stories, with a focus on dramatic action.
“What's dramatic, what sells a story,” Thandie adds, “is evil people doing evil things and let's put them all in prison and you know, throw away the key. That's more dramatic. It's not very dramatic the fact that we're all flawed, that we're all capable of doing terrible things.”
What’s also not very dramatic, or indeed tension-filled, is the fact that Lucasfilm hired a diverse group of 28 under-represented trainee filmmakers from the British Film Institute’s academy to work on Solo. 21 of those were women and 12 were from BAME backgrounds. Then this summer, continuing the BFI’s Future Skills programme, 30 new trainees began work on Star Wars: Episode IX.
“I think this is just the beginning of what needs to happen,” says Thandie Newton. “That's what it should be like for every industry, that there's diversity across the board as we start to look into how we build up experience and expertise.”
“It's unusual to see a person of colour. It's unusual, it always pops, and it shouldn't be the case. I was working recently with Ava DuVernay and it was the complete opposite. “
It follows that only by widening the range of people getting into film can you truly widen the diversity of stories that will get told, and crucially, that diversity needs to reach to the top, where decisions are made about what goes into production. It’s why Ava DuVernay has a hugely admired production company, and why actors such as Reese Witherspoon and Margot Robbie founded their own production companies, to expand the range of scripts on offer.
If you want a gauge on just how white and male much of the film industry still is, ask Thandie Newton.
“It's unusual to see a person of colour. It's unusual, it always pops,” she says, “and it shouldn't be the case. I was working recently with Ava DuVernay and it was the complete opposite. And it was so striking because of that fact, and I think that it's obviously about the crossing over of those two extremes, and it's not just about people of colour, it's about diversity in economics.”
Thandie says diversity matters so much, because “it is everything, this is where it begins,” as does dispelling the myth that film work isn’t open to all. “This is a world that people think they're not entitled to be a part of,” she says. “I was a trained dancer, that's what I was doing, I was 16 years-old and I just sort of tripped into the film industry because of being in the right place at the right time, but to actually formalise an entrance into the industry so it's not just about giving the opportunities to people who haven't thought they could, it's for everybody.”
NB: If you are aged 16-19 and interested in learning more about getting into film, the BFI’s current UK wide network programme is currently open for applications