Thandie Newton is a thinker. She's good at unravelling what's before her, as you might have discovered by watching one of her recent talk show appearances. In her hands, a thought becomes monologue, and monologue becomes accidental essay. Speaking to Refinery29 over the phone, the Westworld actress and RoC skincare ambassador delves into topics with gusto, unpacking even the slightest detail.
"I do tend to analyse the things that I say and the things other people say. And how it affects our emotional state. And our well-being," she says. She's in the middle of Westworld press — now is the time networks cobble together their Emmy campaigns — and, on 25th May, her movie Solo: A Star Wars Story will make its way to cinemas. That means she'll be doing even more talking. She's also, as ambassador, in the midst of a campaign for RoC Skincare to get rid of the compliment "you look good for your age." Newton calls that caveat a "fart."
"I think we really have to think twice before we say these things that are actually backhanded compliments. We're actually taking [the compliment] away with this little fart of an expression 'for your age,'" she says. She thinks, when people say "for your age," they really mean you look great, period. More often than not, "for your age" really means "for all that you're doing right now."
"Women, the older we get, the more we're having to multitask, the more tasks we're having to do — we have to be of service to so many people," she points out. "Really, the reason we look great is that we still manage to look bright-eyed despite all the pressure we're under."
Newton doesn't present like someone under immense pressure, but she is the backbone of two massive franchises right now. There's Westworld, now in its sophomore season on HBO, and there's Solo, the Han Solo prequel also starring Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover. In Westworld, Newton is the cunning host Maeve, who last season manipulated a hapless lab tech (Leonardo Nam) into helping her escape from the park. This season, Maeve is on a mission to find her daughter, and she'll stop at nothing to get it. In the season premiere, Maeve forces a trembling Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) to undress in front of her, subjecting him to the same humiliation she endured countless times before.
"It was always an intention to see things from the robot's point of view," Newton explains. "So, the second season, when Maeve insists that [Lee] strip to nothing, she wants him to truly feel how it feels. To be that vulnerable...I think it sets the tone of what the show is going to be focussing on in the second season, which is to turn the tables."
In Solo, Newton plays Val, a mysterious character who makes only one brief appearance in the trailer. Dressed in what looks like a pilot's getup and sporting a short set of natural curls, Val is unlike any Star Wars character we've seen before, i.e. she's one of only a handful women of colour to appear in the franchise. Val's hair, Newton tells me, was her design.
"The first mock-up of the character that I saw in the costume department — they had pictures of the character with straight hair," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, okay. You know. That's what it's going to be.' I didn't really question it particularly, because there's something about this whole Star Wars legacy is you can go any direction." Newton credits producer Allison Shearmer, who died in January of this year, with getting the courage to request a different style.
"I said to Ally, 'Let's talk about how this could be, with the straight hair.' And she said, 'No, no no, no, Thandie. I want you to be in your power. Whatever you feel. I want you to tell us what you want.' And she said, 'For me, your power is in your natural state.' And it was one of the first times anyone had ever said that to me," Newton reveals.
In Newton's hands, Val's 'do became more functional, much the way Val's outfit is functional —and reminiscent of Amelia Earhart.
"[It's] almost modern and kind of broken down, you know, retro-rebel," she describes, adding cryptically, "The character I play has a very specific function...I just wanted the hair to match the functionality and the pragmatic nature of this outfit." The hair is out of her eyes, she points out, a quality that's very important to Val.
"I wanted her to be the girl — she does not spend time grooming herself. Because she doesn't. She's got other things to do,"
Everything Val wears, then, is functional, too. "I felt like — you know that game Buckaroo where you have to hang everything on the donkey until it finally kicks its legs up and it's goes flying? I kind of felt like that, with all these things hanging on me." That's not unlike the sensation of being a woman in the world — all these responsibilities are dangling from your person, and all you can do is try to be as functional as possible.
Below, watch Newton dissect the "fart" herself.