Sophie Okonedo has come a long way from a now demolished council estate in Wembley, north London where she grew up. She is now a leading film and stage actor who has both been Oscar nominated and a Tony award winner on Broadway.
But, despite her numerous accomplishments and the air of confidence she now radiates, she’s also completely down to earth when we meet in a studio in Belsize Park one early -morning ahead of a day’s rehearsals for the play that has brought her back to the London stage, and more specifically the West End. She’s come in at 9am specially to talk to me and far from being grumpy at the early hour, she’s actually extremely -animated, charming and graceful, keen to answer every -question as thoughtfully yet cheerfully as possible.
She admits, though, that she was once cripplingly shy: “One of the things they made me do at drama school was cut my fringe or pin it back, so I couldn’t hide behind it. When I started doing -auditions, I was so shy it was hard to get over the talking bit; I could do the acting fine.”
Today, she passes the talking test with flying colours. But she’s also quite clearly a grafter; she’s worked at it, as she does on every stage of the acting process. Asked for advice on how to tackle auditions she replies: “Really do the work. It’s -amazing how people rock up without doing it. I work really hard, I think very deeply about what I’m doing and spend a lot of time poring over the script and trying not to miss anything.”
She takes none of this for granted: she approaches theatre as a serious matter, but a uniquely fun and nourishing one, too. “What I really love about the theatre is the experience you have of working with a director and rehearsing it properly. You don’t get it all of the time of course. I find it so fascinating to be able to dig deep into a text, and find things you don’t see on a first or second reading. When I did The Hollow Crown for the BBC with Dominic Cooke, we had five weeks’ rehearsal and that experience was so nourishing. It was one of my favourite times, as is this time I am having now. I’m really enjoying working with [director] Ian Rickson and [co-star] Damian [Lewis] and the rest of the cast. They’re a generous, hard-working, lively and fun group to be with – and that’s the tradition I grew up in.”
The play she is working on is a revival of Edward Albee’s provocative late masterpiece The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? about transgressive sexual desire and how a long-term marriage is threatened when the husband (Lewis) suddenly announces that he’s fallen in love… with a goat.
Okonedo plays his appalled and deeply hurt wife. It has just opened at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket this week. That’s just around the corner, literally, from the Harold Pinter Theatre, where a revival of Albee’s first and most famous -masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, also recently opened, starring Imelda Staunton, to mostly five-star reviews.
“I’m such a big Imelda fan, so I’m quite happy to be -anywhere near the vicinity of her. But there’s also something exciting about these two plays just being around the corner from each other. We can almost hear each other shouting!”
The theatre is where Okonedo feels truly at home and where she tells me she has forged some of her strongest working and personal relationships. “Theatre is what I always imagined myself doing when I first started. My first interest in acting was through seeing the musical Annie – and it wasn’t even in a theatre but on the Royal Variety show on television. But I thought that looked good.”
It led to a career that began in the theatre, first in the Royal Court’s youth theatre and writing programmes. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I saw an ad in Time Out and I started off in a writing group there. Hanif Kureishi was running it and we’d meet a couple of times a week. Winston Pinnock and April de Angelis were in it, too, and they ended up doing really well. I didn’t stay long in the group, instead joining the youth theatre there, improvising and making a play called Women and Sisters, which was about black and white women freedom fighters. They put some of us into the original production of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money. It was my first real experience of professional theatre, and we played the traders on the floor and I had one line. But I remember everything about it – the cast was amazing, Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Lesley Manville, Linda Bassett, Meera Syal and Allan Corduner – and I remember it was so brilliant that I would go into rehearsals even when we weren’t called. And while I was doing that, I started thinking about applying for drama school.”
That went equally smoothly: “I got into RADA straight away and I thought this acting thing is all so easy. You go somewhere and you get in a show, you apply for RADA, you get in and you get a scholarship.”
At RADA, her contemporaries included Rufus Norris, Adrian Lester, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Michael Sheen and Mark Benton. “Once you do that sort of training, it sets you up for everything else.” Not, she stresses, that you ever stop -training, or learning. When I talk about her classical training, she replies: “I don’t even know what that means anymore, it feels such a long time ago. Also a lot of it I didn’t really understand while I was there. Maybe the seed was planted, but I’ve come to understand more since. When I did The Hollow Crown I had to start again. I couldn’t remember anything about verse, so I was just watching John Barton videos on YouTube and working with Dominic Cooke. He is such an extraordinary director, and I’ve been very lucky that at the time I started the -directors who are my peers, like Dominic and Ian, have a way of working where you are all in it together.
“The directors I most enjoy working with all have a vision of the piece, but they have great interest and are open and excited as to what the actor brings to it. That’s not to say there aren’t amazing directors who don’t involve you very much, but I’m not interested in working like that. As I get older, I get more choosy. It’s so hard getting up there eight times a week – it’s so frightening – so it has to be worth it.”
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in Wembley market.
What was your first professional theatre job? Appearing in the original production of Serious Money at the Royal Court.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Nerves are just part of it. You have to accept them, they are a fuel to drive you forward. It’s just the way it is.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I’ve been a big fan of actors like Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Linda Bassett – women that when I started were a bit older than me and I aspired to. I also love Frances McDormand and Viola Davis.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Really do the work. I think very deeply about what I’m doing and spend a lot of time poring over the script and trying not to miss anything.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Probably something that happens outdoors. I like being outside and in nature a lot, which is why I live in the countryside [in Sussex].
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? If I do have any superstitions, I try to keep breaking them – I don’t like having them. I have rituals to get me into the character and again to take me out of it.
Last year, Okonedo took on the massive challenge of a big Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, directed by Ivo van Hove and co-starring with fellow Brit Ben Whishaw.
But it came at a cost because it was so demanding: “I’d been away from home for a long time, and there’s no light at all in that play, it’s a hard play to do for as long as we did it, and it took its toll on all of us. It’s full of raw energy and raw emotion, and that’s hard to sustain when there’s no let-up. It’s oppressive. I felt I couldn’t breathe and the audience couldn’t breathe, either, and that’s how it was meant to be.
“I was really exhausted at the end of it, and I thought I’d have a break for a couple of years, at least from doing a play. So I wasn’t up for reading anything, but then Ian sent me The Goat and because it’s Ian, I couldn’t not. I’ve known him for so many years. And then I started reading it and once I could imagine myself doing it, I couldn’t back out. I felt myself falling into it.”
The Crucible had been her second Broadway play in the space of two years. In 2014, Okonedo starred opposite Denzel Washington in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, for which she won that year’s Tony award for best featured actress in a play. Her return to the London stage marks the first time she’s been on one here since 2012, “but it doesn’t feel that long, because I’ve had two long stints of doing plays in New York”. She applauds Washington as “a force of nature on stage, he’s brilliant to work with. He’s so powerful – a proper stage actor”.
Like Okonedo, he too began his acting career in the theatre. And today, singling out some of the actors she most admires, such as Staunton, Manville, Bassett, Frances McDormand and Viola Davis, the 48-year-old says: “I’m fond of people who do theatre as well as film, because you know actors can’t get away with it. They have to be able to do it to be able to do eight performances a week. It’s great when you see Daniel Radcliffe now doing loads of theatre – he clearly just wants to do it and wants to act.”
Okonedo returns to the challenges of The Crucible, and says: “Though it became so hard, I felt like a titan by the time we finished. I’d given it my all, and you feel very robust. It’s a real workout. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to do theatre if you are an actor; it really is such a help for your craft.”
And theatre has an important personal dimension for her, too: “Some of my best long-term friends have come from doing plays; you become this little family, it’s intense and really good fun at the same time.” It also stands an actor in good stead to expand into film. It’s hardly an accident that so many -British stage actors migrate to American screen work in film and TV, like her theatre co-star now, Lewis, her last stage co-star, Whishaw, or people like Tom Hiddleston. “I don’t know if we’re the best, but we’ve certainly got some good actors.”
Hollywood thinks so, too. Okonedo was Oscar nominated for her supporting performance in Hotel Rwanda in 2004.
“That feels ages ago now. I’m not sure how I felt, I was in shock most of the time and it went over me. Lots of things were happening and I couldn’t quite take it all in.”
She does remember that her fellow Brit – and heroine – Staunton was Oscar nominated for best actress the same year for Vera Drake. “We kept seeing each other all of the time on different red carpets,” she recalls. So the fact that they are both now appearing in different Albee plays in the West End means they could be seeing each other on more red carpets for theatre awards in due course.
As a black actor who has been in the Oscar race, how did she feel about last year’s all-white Oscars and the fierce debate it elicited? She deflects the question, politely and thoughtfully: “I’m not going to get into talking about it. I really feel like it’s a tricky area for actors. They’re seen to be spokespeople for so many things, and I don’t feel that I’m very good at it. I speak through what I do – that’s my voice; I’m not a politician. Some actors are brilliant at it, and I tend to leave it to them. But I will say that I welcome the debate; it didn’t happen when I was starting out. And even though I’m not saying much, I do welcome hearing it because it perhaps makes people think twice about more interesting casting.
“I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by the likes of Dominic Cooke and Ian Rickson who always just cast the best actor, regardless of class, colour or whatever. Dominic cast me as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown, Ian has cast me here, and it wasn’t even discussed.”
• Go to see as much theatre as you can. It’s better to see stuff than read it.
• Get into a youth theatre – it’s a really good thing.
• Trust your body: it really is the key to an enormous amount of wisdom. I work from that place. I don’t really think my way into a part, I ruminate it in my body.
Besides, The Goat has other, bigger surprises up its sleeve. “It’s quite hard to get shocked by plays, but this is really quite transgressive and shocking. You think, ‘We’re not going to go there’ – but then find we do. The use of language is fantastic; I can’t imagine ever getting tired of saying these words. I could do it for a long time – it’s to do with language and the light in it, whereas The Crucible had a denseness about it that was oppressive and difficult to sustain.”
Acting remains something Okonedo is only too keen to sustain. “Theatre is still a lure and always will be, but the way I’m going now, I’m lucky enough to be more settled in my life and my daughter is grown up – she’s 20 now – and I feel like I’m able to go wherever I can to find a joyous and meaningful experience, whether that’s in theatre, film or television.”
Born: 1968, London
Theatre: Women and Sisters, Royal Court, London (1986), Serious Money, Royal Court, London (1987), The Changeling, Royal Shakespeare Company, London (1992), Been So Long, Royal Court, London (1999), Troilus and Cressida, National Theatre (1999), I Just Stopped by to See the Man, Royal Court, London (2000), Nightsongs, Royal Court, London (2002), Haunted Child, Royal Court, London (2011), A Raisin in the Sun, Barrymore Theatre, New York (2014), The Crucible, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (2016)
Film: Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Hotel Rwanda (2004), After Earth (2013)
TV: Oliver Twist (2002), Mrs Mandela (2010), Undercover (2016), The Hollow Crown (2016)
Awards: Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in Hotel Rwanda (2004), Tony for best actress in a featured role in a play for A Raisin in the Sun (2014), Tony nomination for best actress in a leading role in a play for The Crucible (2016)
Agent: Christian Hodell at Hamilton Hodell Talent Management