As she questions murder suspects for Operation Trapdoor in the new series of Line of Duty, DCI Roz Huntley advises them that “you do not have to say anything…” But no one could ever accuse Thandie Newton, who plays Huntley, of ever hiding behind a right to silence in interviews. During a 25-year career, Newton, now 44, has never been afraid to speak openly about everything from sexual abuse and racial stereotyping in the film business to international politics and her own battles with depression and anxiety.
Growing up in Penzance as the child of a Zimbabwean mother and an English father, she was conscious of being one of the very few black faces in town. “When I was seven, I went to Zimbabwe and was very excited to be there because, when kids in Cornwall teased me about the colour of my skin, I thought to myself, ‘I’m Zimbabwean’. Then on that holiday, a boy and I had a row about something and he said, ‘Go back to England where you belong.’ And I said, ‘I belong here,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean? You’re white’.”
As a teenager, she planned on a career as a dancer. Instead, she ended up studying social anthropology at Downing College, Cambridge. Had she ever thought of a career as an academic? “I feel like I am an anthropologist,” she says. “I feel like I have been continuing to do that through the roles I have had, playing people of different cultures.”
Certainly there has been no shortage of variety. In Flirting (1991) she played a sexually precocious schoolgirl; she was the nursemaid, Sally Hemings, in Jefferson in Paris (1995); she played the title role of the disturbed Beloved (1998).
She won a Bafta for her role in Crash, the 2006 Oscar-winning drama, and then played former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Oliver Stone’s W (2008), thus charting a journey in her roles from slavery to one of the most powerful positions in the world. Most recently, she won a Golden Globe nomination for her striking portrayal of the robot brothel madam, Maeve, in Westworld.
Thandie Newton in Westworld
She prepared herself for her latest role by reading Beyond the Call of Duty: Untold Stories of Britain’s Bravest Police Officers by Ben Ando and Nick Kinsella. “The thing I was most struck by was how the police in this country put themselves into incredibly dangerous situations without weapons – sometimes without realising it. That’s the big difference between here and the United States. Without a gun, you use your mind to work out what to do. If you have a gun it creates fear in the person you’re investigating, which creates fear in you.”
There were other issues. “Like any good old leftie – and also being a person of colour – I was very suspicious of the police and I feel very apologetic about my cynicism because I think many people go into the police with a sense of duty very firmly implanted in their motivation, and I think that’s gone from society in many ways.”
Although she has worked extensively in the United States, home is in London with her husband, director Ol Parker, and their three children. We are talking not long after Donald Trump has become US president and she says that her 16-year-old daughter was so depressed by the result that she couldn’t get out of bed.
“I sent her a text and said that government isn’t the only way that human beings can organise themselves. It’s not the only reflection of who we are. In terms of grassroots organisation, you are affecting change at ground level and that’s the most effective way.”
Newton was impressed by the darkly topical theme of the last Line of Duty series, which was based on an investigation into the cover-up of sexual abuse at a boys’ home. “I understand that because I’m someone who has spoken out about my abuse [as a very young actress] and people didn’t like it one bit. People have told me to stop – ‘It’s not seemly’ – and I have felt it did affect whether I was getting employed or not… But I hope that somewhere a mum taking her kid to the set will just be that little bit more aware.”
From Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect in the 1990s to Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, Sofie Grabol in The Killing and Sofia Helin in The Bridge, there has been a growing trend of strong parts for actresses as police officers.
“I remember watching Prime Suspect and in retrospect it gave me a sense that a woman can do that,” she says. “That was incredibly valuable.” But some things don’t change. She recounts an argument with a producer in the United States who wanted her to take her top off in a sex scene: “He said to me, ‘Thandie Newton – top off: ratings!’” She shakes her head in dismay. But she is delighted with her new role, which came out of the blue.
“I got an email from my agent when I was working on Westworld and she said, ‘If you ever work in England on anything, this is it. This is the best on British television.’ So I watched the third season and was thrilled. I loved the cast.”
Of the two very different work cultures between the United States and Britain, she says, “It’s very civilised here. There’s something about the English not wanting to offend anyone – and egos don’t go mad the way they can do in America.” And on that brisk note, DCI Huntley – “Ma’am”, as she is to her junior officers – gives a firm handshake and heads off to see what is lurking below the Trapdoor.
Line of Duty is on Sunday 9.00pm BBC1