Oprah Winfrey: When you got the script for “Westworld,” did somebody explain to you ahead of time what was happening?
Thandie Newton: They were more nervous about talking to me than I was to them. Because all I’d heard is that [I was the] madam of a saloon. So I thought, well, obviously, madam of a saloon, the nudity must be sexual. So right there, I’m like, “We’ll talk, but that will be the end of that.” But they made me see, and I think anyone who’s seen the show, that in order to truly understand the subjugation, the dehumanization, the oppression of these robots, they had to be naked. And the nudity is about disempowerment. It’s about being treated like we’re pieces of meat. Because in that environment, they’re also dehumanized. Literally, their brains are switched off. Do you know what it’s like, Oprah? It’s like a woman being drugged and raped. That’s what they were going for.
Winfrey: I’m here, but not here. How does one prepare themselves for that? Where are you in your actress mind to do that?
|Mark Williams & Sara Hirakawa for Variety|
Newton: I was more in my activist mind. It was activism and acting combined. And I did feel like that about “Westworld.” I felt that the premise is that these robots are a metaphor for the oppressed of mankind. … The storylines were so well-drawn that you’re taken in, and you love these characters, and you want to fight for them.
Winfrey: Did you say yes immediately after it was explained to you?
Newton: Yes, I did. You know, this was me: “Oh, I’m 43. I’ve just had a baby. This is probably the last time I’m going to be able to work. So I’m going to go out with a bang!” Now, I want to talk about something. The first time I ever saw you was in “The Color Purple.” And I remember thinking, “Who is that actress?” Not your typical movie star. This redefined, for me, “American.” And that was you. And so, as I came to know you as a TV personality, it was like there was this secret tucked away, who you really could be.
Winfrey: You know, I always wanted to be an actress. I never wanted anything more in my life than I wanted to be in “The Color Purple,” and have never allowed myself to want anything as much again. Yes, because that was a deep, deep, deep, deep thing. The first time I read that book, I went and got eight more copies for everybody else I knew to read that book. This is before I even had the idea for a book club.
Newton: How can one promote oneself to “Oh, I want to be in that movie!”?
Winfrey: I told everyone in the world, “I want to be in that movie. I’ll carry water for Steven Spielberg. I’ll hold a script. I’ll do anything.”
|“I never wanted anything more in my life than I wanted to be in ‘The Color Purple,’ and have never allowed myself to want anything as much again.”|
Newton: Not just that, though — “I am worth it.”
Winfrey: Yes, but I didn’t feel that I was. By the time I actually auditioned for it, I knew there is a God. Because I literally called that in.
Newton: As an actor we have challenges. … You challenge yourself to step into someone else’s shoes. And I just think that’s what makes you, as an actress, mighty. I mean it. Because I watched you in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and I’m like, “There she is with her red tennis shoes on.” And you’re not there! You just disappeared. You and [director] George [C. Wolfe] must have had some magic going on.
Winfrey: I did that because I wanted to work with George Wolfe. I’d wanted to work for George for a long time and was trying to find the right vehicle. I had actually read with Audra McDonald for “’Night, Mother.” And I thought that I could not go onstage every night and call that in. Because it’s about a daughter committing suicide. I did not want to call the energy of that in every night, on a stage. So I let that go. George was able to take the Henrietta Lacks script and find the way in with the story of a daughter’s search for the identity of her mother, which is what it became for me. And I learned so much. Don’t you learn so much about yourself when you’re acting?
Newton: Because you get rid of yourself, or what you think you are. And you’re just left with an empty sack, which is going to try to bring this character to life. You realize that empty sack is really pretty special. And it’s huge. And it’s capable of carrying a lot.
Winfrey: I just finished doing “A Wrinkle in Time,” and I asked Reese [Witherspoon], “How many movies have you done?” And she said, “Oh, hundreds. Hundreds.” And I was thinking, “I think I’ve done five. I hope she never asks me how many I’ve done.” And I always feel a bit intimidated where you’re literally taking on the life of someone else.
|Mark Williams & Sara Hirakawa for Variety|
Newton: It’s terrifying! … I think the moment you stop being in awe of what you do, you have to do something else.
Winfrey: I’m so glad to hear you say that!
Newton: Playing someone like Maeve in “Westworld,” I’ve got nobody. There’s no family going to call me up. You are representing. You’re always representing.
Winfrey: I had a meeting with the family [of Henrietta Lacks] and said to them, “I am here to try to embody the spirit and essence of what your mother represented. I’m trying to pull that thread of energy into myself. Use myself to do that. Not everybody’s going to be happy with that. Because I’m not going to get every nuance. I’m not going to get everything she said the way that you remember her saying them. But just know that I’m trying.”
The interview will air in its entirety on Variety‘s “Actors on Actors” Season 6, presented by Shutterstock, which premieres June 13 on PBS SoCal. You can also watch the full interview above.