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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Badness is her business

Thandie Newton switches to ruthless villainess in 'Chronicles of Riddick.'

June 13, 2004|Susan King

Usually cast in sympathetic roles, Thandie Newton gets to show a more wicked side in the sci-fi adventure-thriller "The Chronicles of Riddick," which opened Friday.

In the sequel to the 2000 cult hit "Pitch Black," Newton plays Dame Vaako, an ambitious, ruthless woman cut from the same conniving cloth as Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. Dame Vaako makes life miserable for the film's heroic antihero, Riddick (Vin Diesel), and rules her weak-willed husband with an iron fist.

Born to a Zimbabwean mother and English father, Newton spent the first three years of her life in Zambia until political unrest sent the family to England to live. While a dance student at the London Art Educational School, she was cast in the 1990 Australian film "Flirting," which also starred Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts.

Between acting in such films as "Interview With the Vampire" and "Jefferson in Paris," Newton, 31, earned a BA in anthropology from Cambridge University. Since graduating, she's worked with such esteemed directors as Bernardo Bertolucci ("Besieged") and John Woo ("Mission: Impossible 2). She made her American TV series debut this past season as a guest star on NBC's "ER," as Noah Wyle's love interest.

Did you relish playing the villain for the first time in your career?

It was so much fun and so liberating because she has a one-track mind. Very often your character has some type of internal conflict and you spend all your time thinking when you are going to reveal the inner struggle of the character. And with this woman there was no inner struggle. She knew exactly what she wanted. She has an ulterior motive. It's all about ambition and greed. She is not concerned about the future of the human race. It was fun, but that said, I had really, really had a good long look in the mirror before I took the role.

Why?

Films have a very big influence on people, especially young people. I was thinking -- is this a great message to send out there? Ultimately it is in the realm of fantasy, and because it has so little relevance in today's world there is nothing you can truly relate to. The only thing that does have bearing on our lives is this whole notion of good versus evil.

Since your character slithers around like a snake in the grass, it seemed apropos that your gowns were reptilian in design.

They actually coined the phrase "mockadile." Fifty percent of my research for the role, such as it was, took place in the costume department -- talking about the costume and how the clothes would suggest certain qualities about the character. The script doesn't penetrate as deeply as a family drama, so much has to be suggested about what you see visually. I think the costumes did a huge amount of my work. You put that stuff on and you feel different.

The "ER" episode in which your child dies in the womb just weeks before the birth was just heartbreaking.

I know. I couldn't believe it when I read the script. I wanted to call [executive producer] John Wells and say, "What are you doing to these people?" But you know, this happens to people all the time. People lose their children like this.... Both Noah and I have young children. We spent three days preparing for the scene in the worst funk.

Like Halle Berry, you seem to have broken through the color barrier and have played roles, such as in "Riddick," where race doesn't play an issue.

It is all about attitude. You can decide for yourself whether the glass is half empty and half full. I am sure there were times, in fact, there were definitely times I was like "I am not getting as many roles as other people because I am dark-skinned." I suddenly realized as an older person I get to play more roles than most people because of the impossibility to define where I am from. Thankfully, right from my very first movie I [knew I had] a gift for acting and creating roles and changing myself. I do believe that's the reason why a lot of roles open to me.

-- Susan King

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