Brilliance is defined as: having or showing great intelligence, talent, and quality. Well, if you’ve ever had the privilege of watching Sophie Okonedo on the stage or screen, you’d know that her cup runneth over with it. Born and raised in the UK, Sophie spent a large part of her career in theater and British television. Co-starring alongside Don Cheadle, she received international acclaim for her visceral depiction of Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, and has since starred in a number of TV series and films such as “The Secret Life of Bees.” In her latest film, Sophie portrays Sandra Laing, the lost child of apartheid in the biopic, “Skin.”
Akin to a testament to the ruinous nature of racism, “Skin” chronicles the life of Sandra Laing whose story is as complex as it is heart wrenching. She entered into this world in 1955 with caramel colored skin and kinky hair – a biological child of two “lily white” parents (Abraham and Sannie Laing) in South Africa. Laing was born into isolation, in almost every sense of the word, as she ‘belonged’ to no one – a perpetual outsider. As a result, Sandra’s identity, indeed her life, was irreparably damaged the venom of bigotry.
There are very few actors who are as adept at bringing such authentic humanity to a role as Sophie Okonedo, so it was rather fitting that the London native was chosen to assist in manifesting this unique, emotional story for the masses. Clutch had the sheer pleasure of speaking with the delightfully vivacious actress about her experience of being in Sandra Laing’s “Skin,” as well as her own.
Clutch: The life of Sandra Laing was full of so much pain and confusion. Was it challenging portraying her?
Sophie: Yeah, I think that’s hard to find such the nuances because so many bad things happened to her kind of relentlessly. It was also difficult because I was trying to imagine what her life was like because she was so isolated. There was no one to really talk to her about it because her story isn’t typical.
Clutch: Had you heard of Sandra’s story prior to taking on the role?
Sophie: I hadn’t heard. I know some South Africans who remembered her story when I mentioned her name to them. It was something that was well- known in South Africa.
Clutch: Were you able to relate to her journey as a bi-racial woman?
Sophie: Some parts of it. My color was celebrated as a child, but I can relate to all the characters I play no matter what they do because I can always find something similar in myself.
Clutch: Did you speak with Sandra Laing after she saw the film?
Sophie: She’s very and not a woman of many words, [but] she said she was so pleased with the film and she felt proud that her story had been shown.
Clutch: Sandra’s story was so heartbreaking, but it was nice to see that she was able to walk away intact and share her story with the world.
Sophie: Yes, There was definitely some hope.
Clutch: Were there any specific messages or lessons you hoped this film would convey to the public?
Sophie: (Laughs) I don’t know, and I can barely watch it because I’m in it. So I’m not even sure how the film comes across. I just act it – do it – and then I leave the rest up to the audience to decide.
Clutch: What factors do you consider when taking on a role?
Sophie: First of all, I [determine] if it’s a good story, or a story that I’m interested in telling. I sensed that the story of Sandra Laing was a huge – set in the backdrop of South Africa during difficult times. But it was also a great story about identity, search for self, abandonment. It’s got all these great big scenes that I thought were interesting [aspects] to look at. And then I sort of work on the character, but how the film ends up is out of my hands I just explore the themes.
Clutch: When did you start acting, and what do you love most about your career?
Sophie: Started late teens about 18, I started off at a youth theater called the royal court. I like the whole thing. I like travelling, reading lots of things. You get to be very creative, and it suits me have a very creative job.
Clutch: Are you creative in other creative areas?
Sophie: No, this is it. If I’m not acting then I’m at home being a housewife (Laughing).
Clutch: What was your “it” moment when you realized acting was your passion?
Sophie: One of the moments – quite cheesy actually – but it is what happened. I went to see the play Annie. Do you know it?
Clutch: Sure, I remember Annie!
Sophie: I saw [Annie] and there was a Black girl that played one of the orphans, (and prior to that I hadn’t seen anyone as Black as me in the shows) so I thought, “Yaay! I can do that!” It was in London so I was really surprised to see her there!
Clutch: Do you have a favorite character that you’ve portrayed?
Sophie: Yes. It’s really one of the great roles I’ve played [and] it’s coming out soon. I played Winnie Mandela [in [Mrs. Mandela”]. She’s a great character to play. She’s like one of the great iconic characters. It was challenging, but really energizing.
Clutch: Can you describe your experience as a modern Black British actress both in the UK and abroad?
Sophie: I don’t know – I just did theater for many years. I felt like I was given so many great opportunities and I’ve worked directors that were very open-minded. I always thought it would be much tougher for me.
Clutch: In the UK or generally speaking?
Sophie: In the UK. I never really had any intentions of going to the States but by the time I did Hotel Rwanda and became well known, I was already in my 30’s. What happens here is that actors get going and if they do well they go to Hollywood for a film career. I wasn’t even thinking about having a film career because I was just doing theater (with the odd bits of television and film), then suddenly I got Hotel Rwanda and next thing I know everything took off and I was offered roles in America. I wasn’t pursuing it – it just happened out of nowhere, so for me, my career has been real easy (chuckles). I was just going along being a jobbing actress and then suddenly I get offered roles from all over. I haven’t had to run down and beg people to give me work, which is great, because I’m not very good at that – I’m not very pushy. It really has to land on my lap for me to get there. I just can’t do that chasing; I’m too British (laughs).
Clutch: Can you leave us with something that sums up your personal philosophy?
Sophie: “Keep it in the day.”
Clutch: I’m not familiar with that one, what does that mean?
Sophie: Don’t think about tomorrow.
We strongly advise you to soak up Sophie’s stunning performance in “Skin” (in limited release) starting this, Friday October 30th and stay tuned for the 2010 debut of her upcoming production “Mrs. Mandela.”
For more information on “Skin” please visit www.skinthemovie.net.