It would have been easy for Thandie Newton to play Condeleeza Rice as a shrew in W., “but there’s always so much more to real human beings”

When it comes to playing real-life characters, the big advantage is that you have something to go on.

A blueprint, a walking, talking menu of tics, accent, quirks, mannerisms, style, attitude and, of course, looks.

When it was announced that London beauty Thandie Newton had been cast as Condoleeza Rice in Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W., there can be little doubt that the 66th United States Secretary of State would have been flattered. Who wouldn’t want one of the world’s most beautiful actors portraying them in a movie?

“Well, to be fair, Condoleeza Rice is not a bad looking woman,” offers Newton, leaning forward in her Dorchester suite armchair, clearly happy to be home in her native London during a break in the shooting of Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster movie, 2012, currently chugging along in Vancouver without its leading lady. “I knew no one was going to mistake us for twins, and, to be honest, I thought I was probably going to wear some prosthetics to change my face a little for the film, but I was firmly told during rehearsals that we were going to go for a ‘feel-alike’ rather than a lookalike.

“There is a certain resemblance, but I actually got a friend of mine who’s a make-up artist to help me get closer to the look. Even if it’s the inner that Oliver was after more than the outer.”

When it comes to playing the inner of a person who has, along with her lord and master, George W. Bush (played in W. by Josh Brolin), has found themselves in one of the most unpopular government administrations in American history, well, the emotional range is certainly there. Given the mighty fall of Bush and his circle of fiends – thanks largely to the still-raging Iraq war – the downfall for Rice must have been painful to tap into. She is, after all, only the second woman to hold the Secretary Of State position, and the first black woman to do so.

“The sense that Condoleeza has somehow gone down with the ship is certainly there,” nods Newton, “but she’s a smart woman – at least, academically. She wouldn’t have risen so high if she wasn’t. The fact that she has found herself on the Titanic is just crushing for her, I’m sure, but there’s always so much more to real human beings.”

When Thandie Adjwea Newton (her dad, Nick, was a British lab technician for a London hospital when he headed to Zambia to work, where he met Nyasha, a health care worker) was first approached by director Oliver Stone to play Rice, she was somewhat reluctant to take on the role.

“That was partly because I’d pretty much settled into playing the eye-candy, the girlfriend, for a while,” she smiles. “I was more concerned with bringing up my two daughters, with being there for my husband, than carving out some big, big career.

“It was during my second meeting with Oliver that I suddenly realised that I owed it to myself to take on roles that actually pushed me, that gave me something of a challenge. I just had to close my eyes and take that leap.”

It had worked before, of course, Newton picking up numerous awards (including a Bafta) for her role in 2004’s Oscar-winning Crash.

And so, playing the likes of Eddie Murphy’s girlfriend (in 2007’s abysmal Norbit), or the sexy, crooked accountant (in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla), would have to be put on hold whilst this former Cambridge graduate sat down and once again did some serious homework.

“I decided to treat the role like I would a paper at Cambridge. I read every book I could on Condoleeza Rice, on Bush, on Cheney, on the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. I’ve said this before, but I wanted to get drunk on knowledge.

“When I turned up for rehearsals as Louisiana, I was just so ready to play this woman…”

That the resulting film should prove so surprisingly uncontroversial – this is Oliver Stone, after all, the man behind JFK, Nixon, Platoon, Natural Born Killers, Born On The Fourth Of July, Comandante, taking on George W. Bush – doesn’t come as that much of a surprise to Newton.

“Oliver knew that there would be a certain expectation upon him to really shock here,” she says, “but the simple truth is shocking enough without turning everything up to 11. You have to try and capture the human being at the centre of all this, to see why it was that people voted for him, why it was that they liked him. And you have to try and understand what sort of man he was, and what sort of man he became.

“It would have been too easy just to portray him as this idiot, this puppet, this war-monger. That would have just pleased the left and given the right a stick with which to beat the film with. Oliver wanted to present the facts as calmly and correctly as possible, and let the viewer decide what was right and what was wrong.”

For Thandie Newton, what’s right these days is hanging out with filmmaker hubby Ol Parker and her two kids, Ripley, 7, and Nico, 3, rather than walking the streets of LA, looking for that big, big leading role. Newton made her position clear eight years ago, when she turned down the chance to be one of Charlie’s Angels (alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz) because she didn’t want to spend another six months so far away from home. And her husband. A month later, having fired her manager and her agent, Newton was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

“I finally figured out that you can have both a good family life and a good working life,” laughs Newton. “The trick is to remember that family life always come first. The work will always shift, and you’ll sometimes be on top of the world, and you’ll sometimes be bottom of the barrel – or the sales pile – so, you know, don’t let the work dictate your life.”

Not having that big Hollywood career that was within her grasp after playing the female lead in 2000’s Mission: Impossible II doesn’t seem to bother Newton. At all.

“I’m having fun with my career – getting to be very, very silly with Simon Pegg for a few days on How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, and then going into disaster mode for a big-budget film like 2012. To play a woman like Condoleeza Rice in the middle of all that, well, all human life is here, you know…
“If I’d stayed in Hollywood, I’d probably be trying to sell you some dreadful sequel right now. I’m glad I chose my soul over the gold…”

Words : Paul Byrne

W is now showing at Irish cinemas nationwide