Natural Woman

With her latest role, Thandie Newton continues her run of intimate, mesmerizing performances.

Anyone who saw Thandie Newton in Crash (2005), the race-relations drama thick with A-listers, surely noticed little else. In fifteen minutes of screen time, Newton was by turns taunting, humiliated, livid, beseeching, and manic with fear. She stole the show.

The English actress does it again in this month’s The Pursuit of Happyness, a devastating story about a San Francisco family in which she plays a woman so aggrieved by the failure of her husband (played by Will Smith) to do his part for the family that she leaves both him and their child. Newton’s performance is full of empathy; she snarls and pleads, her delicate features unrecognizable beneath the streaks of fatigue and despair in her face.

“It was hard,” the 34-year-old actress says. “I knew I was representing womanhood in the film. And women don’t begin and end there. In my own life, I know that great cruelty comes from feeling pain. And so rather than playing her as a tough woman, I wanted to show the vulnerability. I think I tend to show that in all my roles, whether I like it or not.” Born in London to a Zimbabwean mother and an English father and raised there and in Zambia, Newton has never formally studied acting-though she did earn a degree in anthropology from Cambridge. Whether as the president’s slave mistress in Jefferson in Paris (1995) or the reincarnation of Oprah Winfrey’s murdered daughter in Beloved (1998), she has turned in a series of intense performances that have dazzled critics, even if many of the movies failed to find wide audiences. Perhaps that’s why this veteran of some 20 films has had a slower road to stardom than her first costar, in 1991’s Flirting &emdash; Nicole Kidman.

Negotiating Hollywood on her own terms, Newton has also sometimes chosen family over career-she turned down one of the plum roles in Charlie’s Angels to have her daughter, Ripley, with her husband, screenwriter Ol Parker. “Life after (Charlie’s Angels) could’ve been really exciting,” she says. “With the authority I would’ve had in the industry, I would’ve been able to make a small movie that really meant something. But look, it’s happened anyway, with Crash and Pursuit of Happyness. I have no regrets &emdash; about anything, actually.”

With her next two projects, the romantic comedies Norbit , with Eddie Murphy, and Run, Fat Boy, Run , directed by David Schwimmer, she’s also given herself permission to lighten up. “I’m normally playing people at the absolute worst of their lives, so I had to follow Crash and Pursuit of Happyness with something jolly, just in business terms,” she says. “Otherwise I’d be America’s most evil woman!”

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