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Thandie Newton: Let's celebrate being women

  • 'My First Time' explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant
  • Thandie Newton is an actress and women's rights advocate
  • She talks about the key to making the right choices, balancing work and life, and empowering women
Thandie Newton: Let's celebrate being women
Thandie Newton

Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).

In this installment, Thandie Newton -- humanitarian and star of the new Direct TV original series “Rogue” -- opens up about her first difficult decision, secrets to work-life balance and lessons she teaches her daughters.

HLN: Your character, Grace, gets into quite a few pickles and is constantly faced with making difficult decisions. When was the first time you remember making a difficult decision in your personal life?
Thandie Newton: I was 11 years old. I was showing a real talent for dance and had auditioned for a school in London -- and I got into the school! I’m from a small town on the coast of England, my parents didn’t have a lot of money and the only way I could go is if I got a scholarship. I got the scholarship, and I also got a local community grant. Both of these things were a really big deal and meant that I was destined to work in the arts. But it also meant going to a boarding school six hours away, which was so not part of my family. So my parents sat me down and said the final decision had to be with me. And I remember sitting there, knowing that it was a really big deal, having no sense of the magnitude of it, and all I could think of in my head was midnight feasts with lots of girls in my dormitory. It was like a fantasy -- it was the only thing I could hinge on to. I had no sense of what it really implied. How was I supposed to understand?

And that illustrates something really important: Children shouldn’t be given responsibility. There’s an innocence which must be maintained for as long as possible. Obviously, that’s not always possible -- kids can find themselves in war zones, without a family, in natural disasters -- but as conscious parents, if we’re able to, we need to make sure that our children know that we make the decisions for them. Gradually, over time, that voice of responsibility and caretaking will be transposed, but they need to dictate that.

HLN: Were you OK with the responsibility of having made that decision? I’m assuming you went to the school.
TN: Yes, I went to the school, I was there for years and years, and absolutely loved it!

HLN: Did you have the feasts?
TN: And more! The feasts turned into other things as time went on.       

HLN: Your character has a lot of responsibilities. She’s constantly torn between choosing her work or her family. What’s your advice for women striving to achieve work-life balance?
TN: It’s unique to the individual, but just be really frank with yourself about what your priorities are. As parents, overnight, your priorities become very clear: It’s about being a conscientious and responsible parent. So if you find that you’re making decisions that are neglecting your kids, you’re given the gift of, “Hang on, why am I doing this?” And it’s difficult, but being a parent doesn’t add to the burden, it actually alleviates the burden because suddenly, all the unimportant stuff just goes out the window, and you’re focusing on how to give your kids the best life that you can.

So the only advice is not to feel like you’re not the master of your destiny. You’ve got to do whatever it takes. And really inform yourself so that you can make good choices.

HLN: How do you balance your work, kids and personal life?
TN: My husband and I always want at least one of us with the children all the time. If I’m traveling for work, Ol will be at home or vice versa. He is an incredibly present father. He’s a writer and director, so the children can visit him on set or go with him to post-production. Very often, they’ll come with me if I’m shooting, but now that they’re in school, they tend to stay in London. Right now, it’s spring break, so we’ve all come here as a family. And I’ll save on whatever I can so that they can fly out and we can get a house together. When on tour, I opt out of having hair and makeup or a stylist. Thankfully, I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’m able to do it myself, and instead I’ll say “Can you look after my family?” I tend to always see how I can include my family wherever we are, because it’s just going to make me feel better.

HLN: What kind of lessons have you learned from playing Grace?
TN: I’m drawn to characters that are reflecting a need in me -- a psychological or spiritual need to express something in the world. Violence against women is a theme which I, as a human rights activist, am heavily involved in. “Rogue” is about a woman who is empowering herself, who isn’t waiting to be given permission. She’s stepping outside of the conventional norm to make changes based on human rights and justice, and she’s not letting patriarchy get in the way -- she’s not letting anything get in the way. And there was a sense of empowerment that I’m desperately hopeful will help support women around the world, especially women who are in situations where they’re silenced even though they’re going through terrible cruelty and oppression.

One of the things I love about Grace is that she’s not unusual -- she’s a regular person, but she’s dealt an extraordinary situation, so she has to become extraordinary. And that’s what I believe anybody can do.

HLN: Is that a lesson you try to pass on to your girls?
TN: I want my girls not to see women as an impediment. A lot of reinvention is going on now, because the gender inequality and the violence against women is not working. There’s this bizarre tendency that if you want to destroy humanity, you destroy women. It’s happening at such a rate that it seems to be a trend that we need to really look at. That’s something I want my girls to consider and to understand. Let’s celebrate being women, as opposed to seeing it as a strait jacket that you’ve got to be in for the rest of your life.

HLN: What drew you to Grace and to the project?
TN: The basic themes of a woman who has given everything to her career and tried to do the same with her family, and suddenly, that is taken away from her. And being convinced that there’s something about the work she was doing that led to the death of her child. There’s this feeling of guilt and feeling that she’s being lied to and wanting to discover the truth no matter what’s behind that façade. To find the truth and to have to make a deal with the devil. It’s really interesting drama. I’ve loved it so far, and no matter what, it’s the thing that people are going to remember. It’s very provocative. 

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