Profile & Interview: Sophie Okonedo
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Sophie Okonedo poses for AboutFilm in Los Angeles.
Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle, seeks to rectify that oversight. It chronicles the remarkably moving story of Rwanda's answer to Oskar Schindler. That man is hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered more than one thousand hunted and homeless Rwandans in the luxurious Milles Collines hotel and used all his resources and personal influence to preserve their lives.
Sitting across from me at L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills is the woman who gives the unaffectedly sublime performance as Paul's wife Tatiana—Sophie Okonedo. The soft-spoken but strikingly beautiful British actor seems to share a natural rapport with Cheadle, just as a husband and wife should, and she gives Hotel Rwanda exactly the kind of personal and emotional investiture that a story like this needs to avoid becoming a desiccated historical lecture. Some scenes—particularly the moment when she reacts to Paul with a complex mix of love, anger, frustration, and relief after a harrowing separation—radiate thanks solely to her.
So who is this incredibly talented actor? Film buffs will remember her as a kind-hearted prostitute in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, but not anything else. She has appeared in other movies, but during our half-hour interview, she conveys the distinct impression they are ones she'd prefer to forget. Initially she is reluctant to say anything about her miniscule part as an African princess in Ace Ventura 2, then denies she has had any other film roles. She has, though—teeny tiny ones, in the Bruce Willis/Richard Gere vehicle The Jackal, in an ensemble British romantic comedy called This Year's Love, in Michael Winterbottom's Go Now, and a couple other films that were barely released. Considering the quality of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and the Jackal, perhaps her reluctance is understandable.
Like many British actors, Okonedo's training was on the stage. Born in London of a Nigerian father and a British (as well as Jewish) mother, Okonedo took up acting fairly late—as a young adult after taking a writing class at the Royal Court Theatre, where she now serves on the Board of Directors. Her stage breakthrough came in 1999, when she portrayed Cressida in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida at the Royal National Theatre, earning gushing press accolades. “Sophie Okonedo's Cressida is one of the very few I have seen to come close to the character's tragic ambiguity,” observed the Sunday Times.Okonedo's stage success has led to a large volume of work on British television, including Alibi, Clocking Off, Sweet Revenge, Dead Casual, and Never Never, for which she was nominated as Best Actress in a Television Drama by the Royal Television Society. Her TV work in turn led to Dirty Pretty Things, and now Hotel Rwanda. Next year, she will co-star with Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand in the science-fiction action movie Aeon Flux, in which Okonedo hints shyly that she will be kicking some butt. Beyond that, she doesn't know what the future holds, just that she will be splitting it evenly between the stage, the screen, and her seven year-old daughter, who apparently will not be following in her mother's footsteps anytime soon.
AboutFilm: Let me begin with the obvious. How much did you know about the Rwandan genocide when you took on Hotel Rwanda?
Okonedo: Well, not very much. I mean, I knew a bit. I remember it being on the news. But, the reports I remember mostly were about the mass exodus of the Hutus at the end of the genocide, which sort of recapped what had happened. I mean, I was hearing some stuff. I did take it in. But, when I read the script, I realized I knew nothing. And it's rather a shame how it passed me by.
AboutFilm: Well, I think it passed all of us by. That's part of what you're showing in the movie.
Okonedo: Yes, that's right. I think I'm the same as everybody the West. How did that happen, and we not know or do anything?
AboutFilm: What preparation did you do once you accepted the role?
Okonedo: The first thing I did, I started reading this book by Fergal Keane [Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey], which was wonderful. I read two books on what happened in the genocide, and I went over to Brussels to meet Tatiana [Rusesabagina], and spent a couple days with her.
AboutFilm: And how is she?
Okonedo: She's very, very shy, and she really doesn't speak much English. Mostly French and Kinyarwanda, so it was quite difficult to talk. We just sort of hung out. I brought my friend who speaks French, and we tried to talk a little bit. But I really didn't question about genocide at all. I really just wanted to know how she met Paul, what things she liked to eat—you know, that sort of stuff.
AboutFilm: You're asking more about the character than the events.
Okonedo: Yeah, about her life up to the point. I did obviously need to understand the context of the situation that I was about to embark on, so I needed to know what happened, but I realized that the biggest leap for me was to stop being a London girl [laughs] and become a Rwandan refugee. That cultural leap was the big thing. So I had to get a sense of her—what her thoughts and fears were, the way she brought up her children, the way she liked to keep her house—that sort of thing. Once I felt like—well, you never really feel like you really—I mean, once I sort of felt like I could understand her—then all the stuff that happened in the film I just let happen as it happened. I didn't really prepare for it in any way.
AboutFilm: So how much of Tatiana Rusesabagina do you think you put in your role, as opposed to what you created on your own?
Okonedo: I think I probably— I think I instinctively got a sense of her, because I think I mostly work on my instincts. I wasn't trying to recreate Tatiana. I was getting a sense of her. I don't know enough about her in detail to just recreate her, but I got a sense of how she might have behaved in that situation.
AboutFilm: That's the difference between mimicry and acting, I suppose.
Okonedo: Yes. I'm not a very good mimic, and I can't mimic people very well at all. Some actors are just tremendous at completely imitating someone. If I'm just handed a script and someone says, “Do that character,” I find it impossible. I have to dig deep, get a sense of it, and then it just kind of happens.
AboutFilm: You shot some of the film in Kigali [the Rwandan capital]—how was Kigali?
Okonedo: No, none of us went to Kigali, only the second unit and Terry [George]. I saw a lot of footage that Terry shot when he was researching. He and Paul [Rusesabagina] went back to Kigali together. But we shot [the movie] in South Africa, in Johannesburg.
AboutFilm: How did you and Don Cheadle prepare together?
Okonedo: Well, we only met each other when we got to South Africa.
AboutFilm: So you didn't do extensive rehearsals.
Okonedo: We had about a week. But we just talked, and talked, and talked, and talked. As soon as we got home, we were on the phone, talking, and talking, and talking. We just kept trying to make sure the story worked. One hopes as a storyteller that you can be part of something that has something to say, that has a resonance with an audience, but we constantly were making sure the story was going forward—that it wasn't stagnant, that we were telling a story that people could understand, that we weren't overcomplicating things with the little details of this happened that day, and that happened that day. We were constantly seeing if, “Was it still drama?” I think Don is a great storyteller in that tradition.
We had done our research about our characters before we came, really. A lot of stuff we did was, “Does that work? Should that thing go there? Do we need to move that there?” With Terry, the three of us would sit down and just talk, seven days a week. Even when we were filming, on the weekend there would be frantic phone calls. “No, don't you think that scene should—and that should go that way round, and surely that should come from her, and that should come from him?” We were often bumping into each other. We didn't even have trailers. We were living in the hotel while we filmed, and Don's room was across the hallway from my room.
AboutFilm: You stayed in the hotel that you filmed in?
Okonedo: We stayed in the evenings obviously somewhere else. But in the day, we had little rooms and little beds on a long corridor—Don's room, my room, Nick Nolte's room, Joaquim [Phoenix]'s room. No trailer staff or anything like that. Often we'd all have a little wooden chair outside the room, and have a sit outside and talk. And often me and Don would come out of our rooms at the same time [and say], “Don't you think that scene would—?” We'd have the same the same thought. We were on the same page—excuse the pun—all the time. God, I was lucky to work with him.
AboutFilm: You have some—if I may say—beautiful reactions to him in this film, like when you get off the truck, and you have that moment of anger and yet relief—
Okonedo: Oh thank you. Yeah, that was improvised, that one.
AboutFilm: You clearly have a natural chemistry.
Okonedo: Yes, it's a strange thing, isn't it? When I watched it, I thought, “Oh good. Yes, there's chemistry going on there.” It's hard when you're watching yourself, you can't quite tell. But chemistry is an extraordinary thing. You can't manufacture it in any sort of way.
AboutFilm: That's exactly what I was going to ask. Is chemistry something you can act, or does it really just have to happen?
Okonedo: I don't even know why it happens, because sometimes you get together with an actor, and you adore them, and there's a great rapport between the two of you. And you watch it back after it's filmed, and it's dead as a doornail. [laughs] Then sometimes you [might] not get on with someone, or you felt awkward, and there's a great chemistry. But actually with Don and I, we did really get on, we're still very good friends, and there was a chemistry. We had no idea that would transfer into the film, but I think it has. It's a weird thing, about chemistry.
AboutFilm: Well, obviously this is a very political film, and watching it, there's implications for things that are happening today.
Okonedo: Yes, with Sudan.
AboutFilm: What does this film mean to you as you look at the world?
Okonedo: Well, it hopefully raises an awareness for Rwanda and other countries that are going through a similar thing. After you watch this film, when you hear the word genocide, I feel one would have a much stronger reaction to that word. It puts a human face on what went on. Otherwise you just read a newspaper—like Joaquim's character says in the film—you just carry on having your breakfast. That's really powerful, I think.
AboutFilm: And Nick Nolte's short monologue, also.
Okonedo: Oh, yeah. It's really powerful because we all go, “God! Did he really say that?”
AboutFilm: It's an incredible statement, but it's true.
Okonedo: It's very true. You know, we're not world-changers. We're just filmmakers. Gosh, one aspires to be involved in something that did have a story to tell, that would resonate with an audience, and would even just slightly change the way people thought about something. Even if you just slightly do that, and make people think about it for five minutes—then it's better than nothing.
AboutFilm: It raises also questions, does it not, about how the West decides to intervene in Iraq, and Panama, and Somalia, and Serbia—and not Rwanda. How do these decisions get made?
Okonedo: Well, one could ask those questions. Those questions should be asked, and hopefully the film does beg those questions. That is one of the very strong political implications. Why were there only 300 soldiers there, then they pulled them out? And they couldn't shoot. It would have taken very little to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Very, very little.
AboutFilm: Was the other book you read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families? What did you think of that book?
Okonedo: Yes, I did read that. That was very good, although I was more keen on the Fergil Keane book. I don't know why. I think it was just because as an actor, the way it was written, I could picture it more. I always think in pictures. [Keane is] a journalist, an Irish journalist. He's actually in the Sudan now, in Darfour. There's very little ego about him. It's always about telling the story, and when he writes, he doesn't really talk about how he feels. It's about how other people are feeling. I think he's a really good journalist, and a very good writer. It's not about him. It's about what happened.
AboutFilm: Hotel Rwanda is getting some good early reviews.
Okonedo: Yes, I haven't read them yet. I've been in Germany, so I haven't read anything yet. But, everyone says it's really good.
AboutFilm: What do you think of the finished film? Do you think it achieves its goals?
Okonedo: Yes, I do. When Don gets asked this question, he goes, “Oh, don't ask me that!” I think it really does achieve its goals, but it was hard to watch. It was hard to watch it in any sort of objective way.
AboutFilm: You're too close to it.
Okonedo: Yeah. We just put our heart and soul into it, and it was really emotional to watch, actually. I watched it with Tatiana.
AboutFilm: How do you critique yourself when you watch yourself?
Okonedo: I don't tend to critique myself after the event. There's not much I can do about it afterwards. I just get annoyed with myself. Life's too short. I just need to stop and move on to the next thing.
AboutFilm: Let's talk about how you started out in acting. I know you have a stage background. How did that begin?
Okonedo: It started out in kind of a strange way. I was about eighteen, and I had a job working in nothing very much. And I read an advert in the back of a magazine called Time Out, saying, “Do you want to be a writer? Come along to this workshop.” And I went along, and there was a group of writers called the Royal Court Young Writers, which was run by a man called Hanif Kureishi, who wrote My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic. He's a novelist as well, and a playwright, and he was running this workshop where we'd go in and write little things. He'd give us a subject and we'd come in and read them the next week. Although often, we'd all go in and go [to the] pub, and play snooker. [laughs] But, you know, it was just a great outlet for me, to have this creative time. I didn't want to become a writer, I just thought it was an interesting thing to do in the evening. And I realized actually I wasn't that good at writing. What I was very good at was reading out the pieces that other people brought in. And I became very involved in the Royal Court Theatre, and moved into an acting bit there as well. Then I got a scholarship to RADA—the Royal Academy—while I was there, and I went to RADA and got started, really. I've done an enormous amount of theater.
AboutFilm: They say that it's good for actors to take a writing class, and it's good for writers to take an acting class. Do you think that's true?
Okonedo: Oh do they say that? [pauses] Yes, it's certainly good as an actor to read a lot—not just books, but plays. It's extraordinary how many young actors don't. It's good to get a sense of how a story is structured. I'm very involved with the Royal Court Theatre now, because I'm on the Board of Directors there, so I'm often reading. And I have a great interest in new writing, because I have an interest in what's being said now. I mean, I do [also] like the classics. I have worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
AboutFilm: Do you have a favorite Shakespeare role?
Okonedo: I've only played one, and it's my absolute favorite. Troilus and Cressida.
AboutFilm: You got some very good notices for playing Cressida.
Okonedo: Yes, yes. That was a big turning point in my career. That's absolutely—I can go, “Mm, that's when that happened.” Trevor Nunn is one of the biggest directors in Britain, and the National Theatre is a famous theater. Certainly, cycling in to my first day of rehearsal at National Theatre, playing Cressida on the main stage, the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre, I thought, “I've arrived!” [laughs]
AboutFilm: That's a big difference between British actors and American actors. British actors tend to be more trained in the theater. What difference do you think that makes on the screen?
Okonedo: I think the difference it makes is that… [pauses] I suppose one of the big differences is that when you're doing a part in the theater, you have a rehearsal period several weeks long. Most films or television that I've been involved in hasn't really had that. We might have a few days, or a week. Financially, it's just not viable. There are people that do have very long rehearsal periods, but financially usually that's what happens. So after awhile, you understand how to rehearse yourself. When you come to start filming, you understand how to rehearse yourself before you start. How to build a character. Also you understand about storytelling, and the arc of the story, that it's not just about individual moments that are not related to each other. They're all related. I think that's one of the big differences.
AboutFilm: Have you found it difficult to work with people who don't have stage training?
Okonedo: Not at all. I quite adore people who have never acted before.
AboutFilm: Which I imagine you had in Hotel Rwanda, with the children—
Okonedo: Yes, exactly, the children, the extras. They'd never done anything before at all, and there's a rawness. But the thing is, what they did is they told the truth. And that's all that matters. It doesn't matter whether you've done nothing before or been a Royal Shakespeare Company actor for the last forty years. It can be as difficult working with someone enormously experienced that's not a truth teller. It doesn't really matter.
AboutFilm: So how do you go from the Royal Shakespeare Company to a small role in Ace Ventura 2?
Okonedo: You know, I have no idea. It was one of those weird— I can hardly remember it now. I can hardly remember it.
AboutFilm: It must have been a bit of a culture shock, I suppose.
Okonedo: I didn't really know what I was doing. I mean, someone said, “Do you want to do that?” I went across there and did it. I never thought no more about it. I mean, I wasn't really intending on coming to America or anything. I went back to my life, you know. And actually, I've never seen it. [laughs]
AboutFilm: So I guess your breakthrough screen role was Dirty Pretty Things.
Okonedo: Yes, in Ace Ventura I had two lines. I really didn't do anything. I went there and did two lines.
AboutFilm: Oh, I was just curious about the contrast.
Okonedo: Yes, it was really weird. Certainly, you know, I got a little bit of money, and I had none, so that was quite good. But, I can't really remember it. It was a long time ago now.
AboutFilm: So what was it like working with Stephen Frears on Dirty Pretty Things?
Okonedo: Oh, gosh, he's— You know, again, he's someone I've made friends with now. I mean, he understands how to tell stories. He breaks a script apart, pulls it together. He casts. He doesn't really— Well, for example, when I went to meet him—“Will you come for a cup of tea.” So I said, “Okay.” So I went for a conversation, and I was expecting to read or whatever, and he said, “So do you want to do it, then?” I said, “Oh right. Is that it?” “Oh yes, you're fine. You're perfect.” [laughs] And that's Stephen.
AboutFilm: Yes, I've done an interview with him. That sounds like him.
Okonedo: Yes, you know what he's like. “You're fine. You're perfect.”
AboutFilm: He didn't talk very much about his process. He did say that it's important to cast the right people.
Okonedo: Yes, and he not only casts the acting, he casts with his costume designer, with [everyone]. And if you ask him questions [he says], “Oh, just do your thing.” [laughs] But, he doesn't let go until you've got it right. He'll go for take after take, even though he won't actually say what he wants. He'll just go, “More!” But he casts really well, and he understands how to push the story forward. And he's been incredibly— I mean, through this whole thing, I'm always in contact with him. He's incredibly sharp.
AboutFilm: Do you think you'll work with him again?
Okonedo: Oh, I'm sure I will.
AboutFilm: Which of your other screen roles stands out as you look back on your career so far?
Okonedo: Well, I haven't done any screen roles other than that.
AboutFilm: Well, you've certainly done a lot of television.
Okonedo: No, the best television thing I did was a thing called Never, Never. It was about credit unions, which doesn't sound very interesting. It was a very political piece. It was very, very good.
AboutFilm: And you're now working on Aeon Flux?
Okonedo: Yeah. I'm having a great time.
AboutFilm: What are you playing in that?
Okonedo: Charlize Theron's sidekick, I suppose. It's difficult to describe, but I am… a bit of an action woman. It's a science fiction, futuristic film with a dark edge to it. It's quite interesting. It's not your run of the mill.
AboutFilm: Are you shooting now?
Okonedo: Yeah. I'm heading back to Berlin on Sunday.
AboutFilm: A lot of blue screen?
Okonedo: Blue screen, but we've also used a lot of locations. We're in Berlin, and we're using the architecture there. It's so futuristic, and modernist. We're using it a lot, the architecture. And Charlize is just a hoot. She's brilliant. She's really down to earth. Really normal, and I've made another friend. It's very nice.
AboutFilm: And what do you have after Aeon Flux?
Okonedo: Oh absolutely nothing. I don't know.
AboutFilm: Do you think you'll go back to the stage?
Okonedo: No no, not for a year. I don't like more than a year going past without doing a play, because that's where I hone my craft.
AboutFilm: What are your activities with the Royal Court?
Okonedo: Board meetings. Social events. Fundraising. Negotiating the direction of the Court. And having emergency meetings when some emergency arises. [laughs] And I go and see everything there. I've got to know a lot of the writers there, and I do still a lot of workshops there. I partake in the workshops with the education department.
AboutFilm: Do you have preference for the stage?
Okonedo: Oh no. Just good stories. I mean, there's nothing worse than being in a crap play that you've got to do for the next six months, eight shows a week, and there's nothing worse than being in a crap film that you've got to do for the next six months. They're all bad, and I want to do something great. It doesn't matter what the medium is. You don't get paid very much in the theater. So, it was very difficult to live on it. And I did for many years. But it is difficult with a child.
AboutFilm: How old is she?
Okonedo: She's seven.
AboutFilm: Do you think she'll follow in your footsteps?
Okonedo: She's not interested at all. In Aeon Flux she's been on the set quite a lot, and she's like our set mascot now, but she's very well behaved. She's taken very much with the cameraman, so she spends a lot of time with the cameraman. She's very interested in all the blue screen and the CGI. She's very into computers, all that behind the scenes stuff. In fact she did a school play last week and she spent the whole time looking at her shoes. She said she couldn't bear it. [laughs]
AboutFilm: Did you do any coaching?
Okonedo: No, no, no. I'm not one of those mothers. I let her be free, do what she wants. She spent the whole time looking at her shoes, and then she looked up once and waved at me. [laughs]
And with that, we were out of time. Okonedo hesitantly consented to my taking a snapshot of her, which I assured her I would not use if it did not come out decently, and then I was on my way.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Hotel Rwanda]
Feature and Interview © December 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
HOTEL RWANDA images © 2004 United Artists Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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