SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Ratched” or Season 2 of “Criminal: U.K.,” streaming now on Netflix.
Tony Award winner Sophie Okonedo has spent her whole career appearing on stage and notes she does a play every year. In that medium she has ample rehearsal time to study the script and utilize secondary sources to get into character. (For her, she says those can range from films to paintings.)
When it comes to her on-screen work, though, she tells Variety she has only been apart of two projects that had the luxury of extensive rehearsal: BBC’s “The Hollow Crown,” which was a 2016 series of film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s historical plays, and the 2014 Tom Harper-directed feature film “War Book.” Both of those projects, she notes were “very wordy” and therefore called for sitting with the material for a decent amount of time before cameras rolled.
By contrast, she didn’t even know the full arc or extent of her role on Netflix’s “Ratched” ahead of filming.
“I met Ryan [Murphy, co-creator] in L.A. and he talked to me about playing this character — or characters — and he told me what happened to her [in her] backstory,” she says. “But when we started filming, some things did change — and for all of the characters. After the first two or three episodes, it became it’s own thing and you’d get scripts and go in the moment.”
This provided her a “fun” and “exciting” opportunity to truly react in real-time to what was going on around her on-set, something she says fits her general approach to acting in general.
“I’m not particularly intellectual, the way I approach things. I’m a completely physically actor; I think physically and I let my body lead me to the emotions,” she explains. “I use all sorts of sources — but I always go back to the script. And then I just let the thing live in my body a bit. So when I’m on set I’m not thinking in any linear way about what I’m doing: I just do it.”
Okonedo is billed as Charlotte Wells in the Nurse Mildred Ratched origin story, but she actually takes on multiple characters.
Charlotte is a patient under psychiatric care with Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). She first comes to him expressing concerns about losing time, but the deeper truth is that she has had trauma in her recent past that causes her to slip into different personalities. Charlotte has no memory of the others or what she does when they — including a self-proclaimed world-renowned musician named Ondine Duquette, a boxer named Apollo, a baby and, eventually, Dr. Hanover himself — inhabit her body.
“There are all of these aspects that she couldn’t express so she expressed them through these characters,” Okonedo says of Charlotte. “With Charlotte, I just really tried to play the truth of each moment and not worry about how it weaves together. When I was her, I was very much in the place she was. Rather than think about Charlotte being underneath them all — because I didn’t think that would be helpful — I just made each one a real person for myself. When I was playing the others, I had a full life for them in my imagination.”
Such psychologically complex roles are certainly not new to Okonedo. In a bit of serendipitous timing, she debuted in another one just two days before “Ratched” launched, and on the same streamer.
In the second season premiere of “Criminal: U.K.,” Okonedo portrays Julia, a woman who is being interviewed as a special witness in multiple murders her husband is suspected of committing. Mid-way through that interview, she slips up and tips off investigators that she was the true killer.
Okonedo admits she didn’t “really think about” doing two psychologically-heavy roles so close to each other. “I’ve done a lot in between and since!” she laughs. (She can soon also be seen in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wheel of Time,” for example.)
She hadn’t even seen the first season of “Criminal: U.K.” (or any of the three other territories’ versions of the show) before signing on. But interestingly, what attracted her to the part was that it was a “bit of a two-hander” with Rochenda Sandall, who portrays Vanessa Morgan and was the one interviewing Julia. That style, she recalls, reminded her of working on “Wanderlust” with Toni Collette” — a 2018 Netflix series in which Okonedo played Collette’s on-screen therapist.
“It’s quite interesting because you don’t know how they’re going to film them, and they always break it up. You’re doing many, many pages,” she says, but because of her extensive theater background, “I may be on stage for two or three hours and so when they say, ‘Are you sure you can manage five pages?’ you’re like, ‘Yeah.'”
With these recent roles, Okonedo is mastering the art of the monologue on the small screen. But she is quick to credit the episodes’ writers (George Kay for “Criminal: U.K.” and the “Ratched” team, including Murphy and Ian Brennan) for giving her rich enough material, especially with such internally complicated characters, to make last over the course of a few consecutive minutes.
“You have to take a leap of faith,” she admits. “I have to trust that they have done that research and that what they are giving me is right. I would feel a little bit lost inventing things straight away without really looking closely at the script. But of course you can only do that with good writing; when it’s a bit of a s— script, you don’t always know how to save it.”
Pictured: Sophie Okonedo in “Ratched”