Actress: Thandie Newton

Thandie Newton, Cambridge grad and former dancer, has made a career by alternating between glossy thrillers (Mission: Impossible 2, The Truth About Charlie), TV spots (as Noah Wyle’s love interest on E.R.), and tough indie roles (Beloved, Jefferson in Paris)—none tougher than her latest, as a victimized woman in Crash. Logan Hill talked to Newton about playing hard parts—and how hard it can be to find that next great role.

How did you respond when your director, Paul Haggis, basically said, “I’ve written this role for you in which you get molested, have an awful accident, and—”
Well, I do remember thinking, Well, thanks a lot, Paul . . .

The scene in which you’re molested by a police officer is excruciating onscreen—what was it like on set?
It’s the worst possible nightmare. I’d flown in just the night before. I was jet-lagged and sort of out of it. And the scene wasn’t written with that much extremity. I said, “It’s too much, it’s not how it’s written.” And Paul said, “Yes, Thandie, it is … No, Thandie, this is how we want to have it.”

You argued?
Yes. It’s hard to even talk about. But I went into my trailer and came out and did it. I can put my emotions on pause. In my personal life, it’s difficult, but in professional life, it’s very handy.

The worst twist is that your husband is standing right by you. And when he doesn’t do anything to protect her, he’s dead to her. He’s disqualified himself from being a man, much less a husband.

So now you’re back in L.A. Looking for the next gig?
My desire, it even eludes me. Of course, I hope to continue to work on things that are this good, but I’ll do things that are shit. This month, I’ll be offered maybe four or five things, and if the best thing is shit, I’m going to do it.

So you’re a realist.
For a long time, I used to think—maybe ten years ago—that I should be on the covers of magazines. I genuinely thought what you put in is what you should get out. I thought Beloved [the Jonathan Demme film] would change the fucking world—and I hit the floor with such a smack afterwards. The number of people in this industry who didn’t even see it—I mean, how fucking hard is it to see the film when videotapes are slipped through your door?

But you’re still here.
Yes. You look at Virginia Madsen, this gorgeous babe, and think, Where the hell’s she been? And you realize it doesn’t matter. She’s here and it’s great. If you keep a nice slow burn, you can be happy.

Starring in Crash
Opens May 6.

Actress: Thandie Newton