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Sophie Okonedo: The actress who found mainstream fame in 'Hotel Rwanda' takes a Southern turn in the civil rights-era drama 'The Secret Life of Bees.'

October 16, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

If YOU didn't know that the woman playing the role of simple, vulnerable May in the civil rights movement drama "The Secret Life of Bees" isn't Southern, you wouldn't guess it. But then, if you had only seen her playing Don Cheadle's wife in "Hotel Rwanda," you'd think she was African. Yet to hear her tell it, stage-trained Londoner Sophie Okonedo barely knows what she's doing.

"You never really know what's going to work for you," she said by phone from London, in her lilting accent. "I don't have a set way of doing things, other than reading the script a lot of times and never going too far away from it. I'm amazed when I read how much actors do. I wonder, is it true, are they really doing that, or is the film company saying that?" She laughs in wonder. "How they do six months living the life of a doctor, doing operations at the end of it," she said, "and you think, 'Did they?' "

Okonedo had been intrigued with "The Secret Life of Bees" since her agent gave her the Sue Monk Kidd novel a couple of years ago. In the story, three idiosyncratic African American sisters (played in the film by Queen Latifah, Okonedo and Alicia Keys) in 1964 South Carolina take in a young white girl (Dakota Fanning) and her black caretaker (Jennifer Hudson) on the run from the girl's abusive father and the racist establishment in their hometown. A year ago, she heard that director Gina Prince-Bythewood wanted her to play the kind-hearted but uncontrollably emotional sister May, "which was good, because when I read the book I thought that's certainly the part that I was interested in.

"I didn't have a clue how to play her, I think," Okonedo said, laughing at herself. "I didn't have a clue how to start it. And also I thought there are probably lots of actresses who can do the other parts better than me; I'm quite a character actress, let's play something I'm more likely to get cast in anyway.

"May lost a twin sister when she was 14, 15, and she's never been quite the same since. She's like playing someone with all your skin peeled off, all your nerves right on the edge. She feels everything very, very strongly. She gets hysterically happy. If something makes her a bit sad, it's life or death all the time."

Despite her amazement at the immersion methods of some, Okonedo is hardly averse to research.

"I found this website, I don't remember what it's called, it's a twin bereavement website -- people post letters about losing twins, what it felt like," she said. "Some said they felt like they'd lost half of themselves, talked about losing half their souls."

Apart from finding the right calibration for May's outbursts ("There was no particular illness you could look up and say, 'Oh, they have that and their eye twitches and they have nightmares,' " she said), Okonedo acknowledged that the biggest challenge for her came in a kitchen scene that called for the untrained vocalist to sing a ditty while making pancakes for Fanning's character. The hang-up? She was the only one singing in a room with music stars Latifah, Keys and Hudson.

"That was the thing I was most nervous about," she confessed. "When I read the script, I thought, 'She's not really going to make me sing. I'll be miming along to someone else that can sing.' And about a week before, I said, 'This song . . . who's singing it?' 'You're singing it.' 'Oh, right.' There's three of the greatest singers in America and there's me just trying to croak along, unaccompanied, while making pancakes. I'd rather they film me running around naked with my knickers on my head.

"It made such a story when I got home to England; I tell it all the time. Yeah, my record's coming out. Watch this space."



Where you've seen her

After 17 years as a professional actress, mostly on London stages, Sophie Okonedo became an "overnight success" in "Hotel Rwanda" (2004) opposite Don Cheadle. Her accolades for the role included Oscar and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. Before that, however, she had been seen in a small role in "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" (1995) and in the British film "Dirty Pretty Things" (2002) with Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor. In addition to the sci-fi flick "Aeon Flux" (2005) with Charlize Theron, Okonedo was also featured in the HBO miniseries "Tsunami: The Aftermath" (2006) with Ejiofor and Tim Roth, for which she received considerable acclaim, including a Golden Globe nomination.

-- Michael Ordona

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