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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.

"absurdly incredible"

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 effect.

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 South Africa.)

"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 Supporting Actress.

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 Theatre.

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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Sophie Okonedo


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