Question Time: Sophie Okonedo
Sophie Okonedo on growing up with a huge afro and a Jewish mum, her new film Skin, and why she's excited about playing Winnie MandelaHannah Pool
16 July 2009
In your new film Skin you play Sandra Laing, a black woman born in 50s South Africa to Afrikaner parents. Does her story tell us anything about race today?
Oh God, don't ask me questions like that. I don't know. What interests me is that I've been brought up in a white family, and, being black myself, I can really relate to that side of it – questioning your heritage and where you're from; asking, "Is this really my parent?" Particularly when you're young, and everyone says, "That can't be your mum." Nowadays everyone's mixed race, it's not such a big deal, but in the 70s when I was growing up it was more unusual. I used to say, "Mum, am I adopted?" So I can really relate to that – knowing something's not quite right but not being quite sure what it is. My mother's Jewish, so my family is Jewish, and it was hard to believe this young girl with a huge afro had a Jewish mum. But nowadays, anything goes.
Did that make it easier to play Sandra or did it bring stuff up?
It was easy because I don't have to research too far about those feelings. But I've dealt with a lot of my past; I don't carry around a lot of shit.
Do you consciously choose serious roles?
No, my career is quite arbitrary. I can't bear doing real shitty stuff. I will do it sometimes if the price is right, but on the whole it just makes me feel shitty. Some actors are really skilled at saying bad lines and making them sound like they're real, whereas I get so resentful that I'm having to speak this shit that I can't say it. I'm not bound up in realism, I am an entertainer, I'm a character actress. When I say that to my agent, she says, "Don't call yourself a character actress, you're a leading lady," and I say, "Yes, I'm a leading character actress." Being a character actor I can go on until I'm 70 or 80; I'm not bound to the way I look.
Do you worry about getting older?
I don't give it a moment's thought.
Later this year you're playing Winnie Mandela in the BBC drama Mrs Mandela. Did you meet Winnie?
No. I wasn't trying to do an impersonation of her. I just went by the script. I did read a lot about South African history. It was great to play a real strong woman. She's got balls. I had no idea what an incredibly tough life she'd had; it's extraordinary she survived at all. I don't know how she got through a day in that kind of life. I couldn't have borne it. I would have gone crackers. They hounded her.
Were you encouraged to go into acting as a child?
Not at all.
Not encouraged or discouraged.
How would you describe your upbringing?
Are you quite shy?
Yes, I am. Not with people I know, but I wouldn't be comfortable pushing for a job. I don't really know how to do that. I don't know how to operate in that way. I get offered loads of unusual stuff. I just don't do loads because I like staying at home a lot, and I'm a little bit lazy. I don't get that thing of going from film to film that people do. It would drive me nuts, and that level of fame is quite scary. Nothing's that different for me. I've still got my Oyster card, and cycle everywhere. My life is not nuts. I hardly ever watch television, I don't go out very much, so I don't really know what's going on. I tend to watch Newsnight, and that's it.
Are you political?
I will keep that to myself.
That sounds like a yes.
[Laughs] Of course I'm political. I'm a black woman living in London, but I'm not going to go into what I think. There's nothing worse than actors spouting about what they think.
Have you found the industry to be racist or sexist?
My personal view is that it could be, but I haven't really noticed it with me. I'm successful, so I haven't really come across it. I love the industry I'm in and it's been really generous to me.