If Sophie Okonedo's soaring film career ever takes a slump, the Oscar-nominated actress would be wise to consider a future in the hospitality business. Her star-making performance in Stephen Frears' taut thriller Dirty Pretty Things (2002) took place within the ritzy confines of London's fictional Baltic hotel, while her latest laurels were earned playing Tatiana Rusesabagina, wife of the manager of Kigali's luxurious and ill-fated Milles Collines in Hotel Rwanda.
A downfall from celluloid celebrity is unlikely, howeverher inviting, impish eyes and serpentine smile veil a sincere empathy and understanding of her characters. Those seeking proof need not to look any further than the diametrically different characters that Okonedo tackled in her most popular filmsthe brash hooker with a heart of gold in Dirty Pretty Things, and mild-mannered Mrs. Rusesabagina in the captivating Hotel Rwanda (see this issues feature article).
Though her distinctive surname hints at her African ancestry, Okonedo rarely talks about her Nigerian father. He left the family when Okonedo was five and moved to Lagos, where he remarried and had other children. She was raised by her Jewish mother in a London council estate and attended Jewish summer camps as a child, learning to identify with her Yiddish-speaking maternal family. After leaving school at 16, she briefly sold clothes in the citys sprawling Portobello market before stumbling on a listing for a writers workshop in Time Out magazine.
Studying with prominent author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette; The Buddha of Suburbia) was a rare opportunity for an aspiring writer, but Okonedo found herself more enthralled by performing the stories written by her workshop colleagues. [Kureishi]d give us a subject and wed come in and read them the next week, she said to an AboutFilm.com reporter recently. It was just a great outlet for me, to have this creative time. I didnt want to become a writer, I just thought it was an interesting thing to do in the evening.
Her evening hobby soon turned serious after she secured a place at the prestigious Royal Court Theater, as well as a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy. A series of stage roles gave her practical experience, leading up to her breakout title role in Shakespeares Troilus and Cressida. Okonedo quickly capitalized on the flood of critical praise by jetting to Hollywood and starring in a less-than-dignified role as an African princess in the forgettable Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.
The role seems to embarrass her nowshe claims to have never seen the film in recent interviewsbut it gave her an entre into the world of big-budget film. She followed that role with bit parts in several movies, keeping busy in theatre and on television while raising her seven-year old daughter, Aoife. Then came the story of Okwe, a brooding, mysterious hotel clerk who stumbles upon a horrifying crime in the tension-filled Dirty Pretty Things.
Okonedos casting session with Frears was a bit unconventional, as she explained to her AboutFilm interviewer. [He asked me], Will you come for a cup of tea? So I said, Okay. So I went for a conversation, and I was expecting to read or whatever, and he said, So do you want to do it, then? I said, Oh right. Is that it? Oh yes, youre fine. Youre perfect. And thats Stephen.
Her flawless performance caught the eye of Terry George, who insisted on working with Okonedo his docudrama about the tragic Rwandan massacre. Ever the iconoclast, she is following up these two serious roles with a leading role opposite Oscar winner Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, a science fiction adventure based on a popular MTV animated series. I exhausted my emotional batteries and needed to do something that was the complete antithesis of Rwanda, she told a New York Post reporter. [Otherwise] I would have ended up in the local mental home.
Hotel Rwanda is available on DVD from MGM Studios.