I am fishing the plastic lining bag out of an empty ice bucket so that Thandie Newton can fill it with the tiny foil-wrapped sweets from the decanter on the table. ‘My kids love these little sherbet pips,’ she says when she spots them. ‘They’ll be over the moon if I take these home for them.’ Her three children, aged between two and 15, are in London, while Thandie and I are in a hotel suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where she is also threatening to swipe the array of high-end toiletries from the bathroom – if I can find her another plastic bag.
The British actress has seemingly boundless, dervish-like energy, even in the middle of a long day of media obligations. When her kale salad arrives (she’s vegan), she delivers an impromptu lesson about the way we’re all getting conned by the food industry. ‘Do you know that you can’t get rid of kale? It’s so hardy; it’s basically a weed,’ she says. ‘That’s why we’ve all been sold it as this incredible superfood that’s going to save the universe – because you just can’t stop it growing.’
She waves her fork in the air. ‘It’s all b******t! And pomegranates are everywhere. That’s because they grow practically overnight and are sold for 500 percent more than it costs to cultivate them. But they take water away from villages [in developing countries].’ She fixes me with a serious stare. ‘It’s all about profit, and it’s going to destroy the planet.’ Her indignation at such short-sighted capitalism is one of the reasons she’s so excited about Westward, her much-anticipated television show. ‘It deals with this stuff,’ she explains. ‘Not kale or pomegranates – but the cheapness of human life.’
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Animated and opinionated on myriad topics, the 43-year-old star of films including Flirting, Crash, W, and Half of a Yellow Sun is far from your average showbiz interviewee. First, she has a degree in anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is, by her own admission, ‘a total anthropology nerd’. And, although she has been cast in hit films since she was 16, screen stardom doesn’t come top of her list of self-definitions. ‘Over the past few years, I’ve let my life as an actress take fourth place at least,’ she has said. ‘I now see myself as a mother and wife first, then a human-rights and animal-rights activist.’
Her new role, however, not only puts her acting center-stage again but also supports her anthropological and activism interests more than any part she has previously played. ‘I work hard to try to end violence against women,’ she says. ‘Human trafficking, sexual trafficking… it is an epidemic, and I do a great deal of campaigning against it in my spare time.’ (Thandie is on the board of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, which founded the One Billion Rising mass-action campaign; one billion being the number of women worldwide who will be raped or beaten in their lifetime.)