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Thandie Newton was a sensation in John Duigan's Flirting, but the recent Cambridge University graduate has more up her sleeve than meets the eye. In her only Australian interview, Newton talked 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, recently reunited with the Australian director in that droll comedy set in the theatre, The Leading Man, in which she played 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 what I tend to do." Her main reason for having done 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.

"He would have been a great movie star."

That was followed by Gridlock’d which is also screening at the upcoming Melbourne Film Festival. In Gridlock’d in which Newton plays a drug addict, the late rap star Tupak Shakur also stars. "He worked so hard on that movie. He would have been a great movie star."

Gridlock'd, which casts her opposite the late rapper-turned-actor Tupac Shakur, and the extraordinary Tim Roth, is a black comedy satirising the depths of bureaucracy gone mad and revolves around Stretch (Roth) and Spoon (Shakur), two drug addicts who decide to go clean after a friend of theirs, Cookie (Newton) goes into a drug-induced coma. They encounter bureaucratic red tape, however, trying to get into a detox program and return to their drug dealer. During one of their visits to the dealer, though, they find that a local thug, D-Reper (Vondie Curtis-Hall, who also wrote and directed the film) and his henchman have killed the dealer. Realising that Stretch and Spoon have taken some of "their drugs," D-Reper and his henchman try to kill the two. The police believe that the two are responsible for the murder. Thus Stretch and Spoon must avoid the thugs and the police as they try to enter the detox program. "It's as much a love story between these three characters, and what they go through each other." Thandie jokingly adds "that it was such an easy job for me: I didn't have to do an American accent and spent much of the film in a coma."

"I've never really experienced racial hassle."

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 as a student at the UK's Arts Educational School. Unlike her "Flirting" screen character, Newton was never singled out due to her race, and 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 altered your life socompletely, never sat well with me." Yet, even at university, Newton continued to act just the same. Between exams, she 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).

"The projects I was most interested in had been inspired by my knowledge through anthropology."

After completing this role, Newton returned to Cambridge to finish her degree and it was at this point that Newton thought more seriously of embarking on a full-time acting career. "It suddenly occurred to me that the Anthropology that 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 on film 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. As 'Jefferson' progressed, I suddenly realised that the projects I was most interested in had been inspired by my knowledge through anthropology."

Her first post-graduate project was another slavery film, "The Journey of August King" (1995), as a runaway slave in 1815 protected by landowner Jason Patric, and 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.

"I want to do stuff that will educate me for myself."

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 apparently not.

Gridlock’d opens nationally July 24, 1997

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Thandie Newton

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With co-star Tim Roth

See Paul Fischer's interview with TIM ROTH

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