Sophie Okonedo has spent the past twenty years building up a stellar reputation as an actress, and this reputation is certainly well-merited: the RADA graduate was nominated for an Oscar in 2004, after all, for her role in Hotel Rwanda. And her latest project is based on real life as well: the upcoming movie Skin recounts the life of one Sandra Laing, a South African woman born during the apartheid era to white parents but forcibly classified as colored. In this interview she and I discuss preparing to portray Sandra, the importance of accents, and... vampires? Enjoy the article!
Hey, it’s great to meet you. How are you?
I’m fine, thanks; how are you?
I’m good! So I wanted to know—what attracted you to playing Sandra in Skin? Did they have you in mind specifically, or…?
I was sent the script and asked if I was interested in attaching myself to the film. And I read it and I thought it was a really extraordinary story; I just thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is a true story,” and so I was initially attracted just by the content of the story, really.
So you didn’t know about Sandra or her life before—
No, I didn’t know anything about her at all. Everything was totally new to me.
Did you get to meet her while working on the film?
I got to meet her the night before we started filming, and then she came down to visit us a few times while we were filming. She’s really, really shy, so I didn’t research through her or anything like that.
But did you try to base your portrayal of her off of real-life accounts of her as a person or did you approach it like any other character?
Yeah, I just—exactly the second. I approached it like I normally would: just from the script and using my imagination. I didn’t try to do any sort of copy of her or mimic her in any way. I didn’t know her; like I said, she’s really shy, and so if I had just played it exactly as her it might have been less interesting to watch because she’s less vocal than the character in the script. I didn’t really do a hell of a lot of research, actually. I just knew the script really well and turned up and sort of just did it!
Well, in general, how do you go about getting into character for roles?
I just do it completely differently every single time; I don’t really have a set way. Like it all depends on how long I’ve got and what the part is, because most of the time I’m doing really, really low-budget movies and there’s no time; it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got the money, we’re doing it… we start next week!” [laughs] So I just run there and I do costume fittings and I just—shoot; action; go. You know. So I don’t really get a lot of time to think about what I’m doing, which I think is sort of a good thing. I think if I had to think about what I did too much I’d probably not be very good; I’d end up just thinking it through too much. So I just think on my feet. I just think in action. I just get raw gut visions about things and have a go, and if it’s not right then people will tell me, “Oh, don’t do it like that,” and I’ll do it a different way! [laughs]
Although recently you have had more of an opportunity to explore characters in movies with slightly higher budgets; I mean, you were in Secret Life of Bees recently.
Yeah, but that was really low-budget as well.
Oh, it was!?
Yeah. We shot it like in 35 days! [laughs]
Wow. I remember when the book came out it was like a huge deal and everyone I knew was reading it, so I just assumed…! [laughs]
Yeah, no, it was really low-budget. It did well, but it wasn’t made with that expectation. The thing is, I was talking to Gina [Prince-Bythewood, the director] on that for quite a long time because I knew it was probably going to happen, so I was actually doing some research on that one a while before. You know, just reading stuff and making sure I understood the context. I don’t know, maybe I’m selling myself short; maybe I do more than I let on. I don’t know. But I don’t really… when I read other actors talk about what they’re doing I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m really not doing much!” [laughs] You know, when they say, “I went off to upper Mongolia and became a monk for three months for the role.”
I mean, Jeez, Louise, I really don’t do anything like that! I just think about it a lot. But then I just carry on with my life, because I’m a mom and I’m doing all that sort of stuff. But then I’ll read through the script at night and I’ll just think about it. I try not to make any decisions about how I’m going to play those things; I just go there and then I just work off of everybody else, see what everybody else is doing, and see what the sets are like, what the costumes are like! [laughs] You know. But it would be fun to do something where—like I’m playing Winnie Mandela [in the upcoming TV film Mrs. Mandela] and that one required quite a lot more research because… she’s such a political person, and if I didn’t understand the politics of South Africa I’d kind of look like a moron! So I had to, like, get with it. So I did quite a lot of reading for that. But at the same time I really tend to just read, and then all this sort of just cooks in my imagination. I don’t really… I don’t think it’s that I’m lazy; I just don’t really… know what to do more than that! [laughs]
Well, if you try to force it, that’s going to come across. If you work better just by sitting and mulling it over, then…
Yeah! Although, for one, the accents do take time; you can’t just sit down and do an accent, you actually have to learn it. And it’s a long process. Although with The Secret Life of Bees I think we got that down in about three weeks or four weeks, so it wasn’t so long, but I had a really good dialect coach on that and he was there every day. But things are getting really bad now, and very often there aren’t any dialect coaches now on films; they can’t afford to pay for one. So instead you’re just… making it up! [laughs] I had to do that once; it was terrible. It was awful! But, yes, I had a dialect coach on Skin and she was really good.
I mean, I’ve never really had a very good ear for accent quality, but here in the States, especially in the South, they get so worked up if somebody gets the accent wrong. You should hear people talk about True Blood.
Really! [laughs] What is True Blood? I haven’t seen True Blood; is that out in America? Maybe it’s not out here.
It’s a vampire show set in a fictional town in Louisiana.
Oh, I think that’s just come out here! I haven’t seen it; my daughter is mad about vampires but I think that looks too adult for her.
Is she a Twilight fan?
Yeah, she’s a Twilight tween. She is a complete Twilight person.
You should introduce her to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think that’s a little higher-quality.
Oh, she loves Buffy. She’s seen it. That’s where it started, with the Buffy thing.
Yeah. I think Buffy is a bit higher-up in vampire quality.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, she loves Twilight—she’s read all the books and everything.
Yeah. …I mean, I have my own misgivings about Twilight, but this isn’t really the right…
[laughs greatly] Yeah. Well, I watched it for her. I know what’s going on.
Skin opens in theatres this upcoming Friday.