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FALL SNEAKS / THE ACTORS

Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice (really)

September 07, 2008|Lesley O'Toole | Special to The Times

Thandie NEWTON has garnered way more column inches for a movie she didn't make ("Charlie's Angels") than for any of the 21 already under her petite belt. At 35, she has starred as girlfriend, wife and daughter of Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, respectively, and worked for an international clutch of esteemed directors (Bernardo Bertolucci, John Woo, Jonathan Demme, Neil Jordan, Paul Haggis). But if the universe conspires in her favor, Newton will merit her most expansive and complimentary coverage yet for playing Condoleezza Rice opposite Josh Brolin in “W,” Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biopic out Oct. 17.

"I feel a real pull from 'W,' a grief at its having ended," Newton says by phone from her "ramshackle beach house" in Vancouver, Canada, where she is filming the disaster epic "2012" for director Roland Emmerich ("The Patriot"). "Every now and then it's good to do a bigger movie. And every now and then there's a recharge of the battery. 'W' was one of them." So, she says, was her other fall release: Guy Ritchie's “RocknRolla,” a crackling London underbelly crime caper releasing Oct. 8.

Initially, she was less gung-ho. "When Oliver said, 'So, Condoleezza?,' I was thinking, 'Have you lost your mind?' Then I thought, 'Maybe I'm so used to girlfriend, wife, mother, attractive-appendage-to-male-lead, I've gotten artistically flabby,' " says Newton, who pronounces her first name as Tan-dee.

Stone was adamant she could do the role. "This is one of the top 10 actresses in the world, no question," Stone said during filming over the summer in Shreveport, La.

Nonetheless, six weeks before shooting, Newton says she was "pretty scared" Stone would fire her. "I didn't have my voice, my body language. But he said, 'I know you, you're a plodder.' And I am. I take my time, thinking, considering. Physical stuff comes last."

She followed suit for Ritchie, who touts her "class and wicked sophistication." Again hesitant, Newton perceived playing snarky, crooked glamour puss accountant Stella as unknown territory. "But I like jumping without opening my eyes, otherwise you get pigeon-holed, and that's anathema," she says.

On the "W" set and almost unrecognizable as anyone but Rice, Newton sits on a sofa in the Oval Office sporting false teeth, dark contact lenses, a Condi Rice circa 2002 wig, hip padding and extensive "theater makeup shading" (prosthetics were out due to local humidity). Even without dialogue, her face emotes furiously.

"I think that's what challenged her," Stone says later. "She saw the moments between the lines" of his potentially divisive take on the personal, political and psychological evolution of the president.

"It's sooooo good to act again," Newton enthuses during a break in filming.

"Charlie's Angels" was not a movie with moments between lines. But in 1999 Newton accepted the role of Alex, later played by Lucy Liu, then "woke up days later thinking, 'I'm not doing it,' " she says. "It would have helped so many ways in terms of career, but career is so not everything."

No kidding. Whatever the impetus -- cited at various times as scheduling conflicts, exhaustion and choosing to work with her husband, British writer-director Ol Parker, instead of doing "Angels" -- she and Parker welcomed baby Ripley (now 7) to the family just 10 months later. "So no regrets," she says cheerfully in the educated clip of a Cambridge University graduate born to a Zimbabwean mother and English father. (They also now have daughter Nico, 3.)

The decision ultimately proved no detriment to Newton's career, which changed immeasurably in 2006 when she won the supporting actress BAFTA for her portrayal of the mouthy, violated wife in 2005's "Crash" and shared in the film's ensemble cast win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

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