OKONEDO, SOPHIE – SKIN
There’s not much English actress Sophie Okonedo can’t do on screen – or on
stage – as she proves in the lead role in Skin, the amazing fact based story of
a black daughter born to white Afrikaners in apartheid era South Africa. Acting
comes easily to her, she tells Andrew L. Urban.
Her ordinary Afrikaner white parents are shopkeepers serving the rural black
community in apartheid era South Africa. They lovingly raise her as their
‘white’ little girl. But at the age of ten, the brown skinned Sandra is driven
out of white society as a ‘coloured’. Sandra begins a thirty-year journey that
takes her from rejection to acceptance, betrayal to reconciliation, as she
struggles to define her place in a changing world.
If a writer invented this story, critics would pan it as absurdly incredible.
But, as they say, life is stranger than fiction, and this fact-based story is
now told in the film, Skin, starring the striking black English actress Sophie
Okonedo. Co-writer Jessica Keyt was a schoolteacher in South Africa at the time
this event took place and has fed her experiences into the screenplay to great
Her range is extraordinary: after playing the fragile young May in The Secret
Life of Bees (2008), alongside Queen Latifa, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson,
Okonedo’s role as Sandra Laing was followed by the tile role in the BBC
production of Winnie Mandela (which aired on SBS TV in June 2010 in Australia),
delivering a powerful portrait of a figure large on the international political
stage with a personality to match – Okonedo’s favourite role to date.
It is therefore something of a cosmic convergence that she was cast as the black
child of a white Afrikaner couple in apartheid-era South Africa in Skin. Winnie
would have been about 19 in 1955, when Sandra was born. Skin also stars Sam
Neill as Abraham her father and Alice Krige as Sannie Laing, her mother, who are
unaware of their latent black genes. (Not common but neither is it unique in
"acting comes easily to me"
“The biggest challenge for me,” says Okoneda, “was the isolation of this
character. She couldn’t relate to anyone. To play someone who is shut down is a
challenge.” But once she walked on set and the cameras rolled, Okoneda found
that, as usual, “acting comes easily to me … once I get going it all just
happens and I no longer feel tense; I’m free.”
Sophie played the female lead opposite Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (2005),
directed by Terry George. This exceptional film told the story of a heroic hotel
owner who saved thousands of lives during the Rwanda genocide of the 90s. The
film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice
Award. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination, a SAG nomination, a
Critics Circle Award nomination and NAACP Image Award nomination for Best
In 2002 she starred as the prostitute, Juliette, in the Award winning British
film Dirty Pretty Things alongside Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Sophie’s
portrayal of Juliette earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the
Independent Film Awards in 2003.
But Sophie began her acting career on the stage: after graduating from London’s
famed RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) she spent two years with the Royal
Shakespeare Company and began her long running association with the Royal Court
Actually, not quite: her very first foray into acting came after she answered an
ad in Time Out by the Royal Court Youth Theatre for writers. “I must have been
about 16 and I just went along out of curiosity. I thought it’d be nice to do
something creative.” She helped write a play and performed in it, and soon moved
from the writers group to the actors group. “Some years earlier I had been taken
to a play which had a young black girl in it, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh!
Blacks can do that…’ It must have planted a seed.”
The story of Sandra Laing first surfaced on BBC Radio 4 in July 2000, when
journalist Peter White broadcast an interview with the real Sandra Laing from
South Africa. She was living in poverty, while her family were comfortable. This
interview prompted writer/director Anthony Fabian to make contact – via Sandra’s
neighbours, who were the nearest to her with a phone.
"a double whammy"
Like most people, Okonedo had never heard this amazing story. “The fact that
it happened during apartheid in South Africa is a double whammy.” And for all
its dark undercurrents, Okonedo throroughly enjoyed the shoot, making firm
friends with Sam Neill and his wife (who worked in the make up department). “Sam
is such a gentleman,” she says, speaking from London on the eve of Skin’s
Australian release (July 22).
Okonedo is not new to racial complications. Her Jewish mother, Joan, is a
retired pilates teacher; her Nigerian father Henry was a public servant; he left
the family when Sophie was 5. Okonedo has a daughter, Aoife (born 1997), from
her previous relationship with Irish film editor Eoin Martin. On her heritage,
Sophie says, "I feel as proud to be Jewish as I feel to be black" and calls her
daughter an "Irish Nigerian Jew".
First published in the Sun-Herald
Published July 25, 2010
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