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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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In her only Australian interview, Leading Man star, Thandie Newton talks to Paul Fischer about the transition from anthropologist to movie star, which turns out not to be that great a jump.

Beverly Hills' Four Seasons Hotel is poles away from Thandie Newton's London. The beautiful, self-assured actress who made a name for herself in John Duigan's bittersweet comedy Flirting, has reunited with the Australian director in the droll comedy set in the theatre, The Leading Man, in which she plays an actress involved with the manipulative goings-on of an American movie star (Jon Bon Jovi). "It's a very sweet film, much lighter than I tend to do." Her main reason for doing the movie, she says, "was because John [Duigan] asked me to, and I liked the humour and sense of irony in the piece." As for working with hunky pop star Bon Jovi, "I knew nothing about his music before we worked together. My friends were, of course, jealous. He's a very intuitive and intelligent actor who was a joy to share a bed with," the actress replies laughingly.

This classically beautiful (and Cambridge-educated) British/Zimbabwean actress won critical kudos for her film debut, "Flirting" (1990), John Duigan's sequel to his acclaimed "The Year My Voice Broke". Portraying an Ugandan student at a stuffy boarding school for girls in 1960s Australia, Newton was cast as a character who aroused controversy by falling in love with the protagonist, a white student (played by Noah Taylor) from a nearby boys' school. Born in Zambia but raised (due to political unrest) in her father's hometown of Penzance, England, Newton began studying dance and acting at age 11 at the UK's Arts Educational School. Unlike her "Flirting" screen character, Newton was never subject to racial attacks. "When we moved to England, there were very few black people in the town. We were almost a novelty. It was an opportunity for the neighbours to tell others: I met an African girl, how exotic! I always saw being black as something very useful, a mysterious element I could use to enrich my personality. Then I went into the arts, where difference is celebrated. So I've never really experienced racial hassle."

After "Flirting", Newton chose to concentrate on her studies, majoring in social anthropology at Cambridge. "I was grateful for the opportunity to do Flirting, but at the time I didn't consider myself to be an actress. In fact, this notion of being GIVEN something which alters your life so completely, never sat well with me." Att university, between exams, Newton maintained a busy film career, appearing in "The Young Americans" (1993), a crime drama starring Harvey Keitel, and Neil Jordan's blockbuster horror outing "Interview With the Vampire" (1994), as a sultry Creole maid who becomes Brad Pitt's first victim. 1995 brought additional exposure when Newton was cast in the Merchant-Ivory production "Jefferson in Paris", playing a slave and supposed mistress of future president Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte).

After completing this role, Newton returned to Cambridge to finish her degree. It was at this point that she thought seriously of embarking on a full-time acting career. "It suddenly occurred to me that the Anthropology I was studying was the perfect complement to my career as an actress: because one of my papers was The European Expansion Throughout the New World dealing with slavery. So here I was doing a paper on something that I was exploring in "Jefferson in Paris". How interesting was it therefore to flesh out these rather dry, clinical and historical tones than to actually experience the life. I suddenly realised that the projects I was most interested in had been inspired by anthropology." Her first post-graduate project was another slavery film, "The Journey of August King" (1995), as a nineteenth century runaway slave, again directed by John Duigan. That was followed by Anna Campion's mystery thriller "Loaded" (filmed in 1993, released in the US in 1996 but still not released in Australia), with Newton as one of a group of tragedy-prone high school graduates. Duigan's "The Leading Man" was followed by "Gridlock’d", playing a drug addict, and featuring the late rap star Tupak Shakur. "He worked so hard on that movie. He would have been a great movie star." Newton admits that it's not the acting that excites her. "It's the final product that gets me in. I want to do stuff that will educate me for myself."

She's next set to star alongside Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in "Beloved" based on the acclaimed novel by Toni Morrison. From anthropologist to actress may seem quite a leap - but then again, maybe not.

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"He's a very intuitive and intelligent actor who was a joy to share a bed with"

See Reviews

"It's a very sweet film, much lighter than what I tend to do."

"I liked the humour and sense of irony in the piece."

Newton with Gridlock'd co star Tim Roth

"It suddenly occurred to me that the Anthropology that I was studying was the perfect complement to my career as an actress"

"It's the final product that gets me in"

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