Finding out you’re expecting a baby while starring on a hit TV show throws up a multitude of challenges. Thandie Newton reveals her rules for making it work
I think the worst phone call for the producer of a green-lit second season TV show to receive is, “Your lead actress is pregnant”. Well, of course there are worse things, but it’s right up there. When I was two months into my current pregnancy, that’s the call I made. Except I made it to my agents – so that the said producer could react with all the expletives he felt necessary. I’ve yet to ask what they were exactly (see Rule 1).
I play kick-ass, uncompromising, undercover cop Grace Travis, the central character in the American TV show Rogue. The show premiered in 2012, to enough success that we got the all-important second season. But last June, this giant cause for celebration coincided with a little blue plus sign appearing in the window of my pregnancy test. Gulp. I say gulp, but in truth, the TV show was a long way back in my consciousness at that moment.
After a speedy calculation, my resulting brain-static went something like this: ‘I’m 40! Ripley’s going to be 13 years older than her sibling? We just got a f***ing cat! We’ll have to have another one so it won’t feel like an only child?? Ol (husband) is shooting in India when the baby’s due! I’ll be 41!? Nico (9) still sleeps in our bed! Can I still fly to Congo on my due date? I ate mussels and drank red wine all last week! What about the f***ing cat? And hang on, what… about… Rogue’.
Indeed, what about Rogue. Basically, I had two options; to withdraw from the show (already in pre-production) which would have meant the show collapsing, or, commit to the shoot regardless – which would take me into my last trimester. I didn’t really want to share the news with anyone until the first 12 weeks had elapsed, especially after a previous miscarriage. But that would have meant telling them the week before shooting. So, I decided to give them the news after eight weeks. I was adamant that I didn’t want my character to be pregnant, as it didn’t suit the arc of the story Matthew Parkhill (writer) and I had loosely discussed (see Rule 2).
Thandie taking time out on the Rogue set
I’d seen actresses take on meaty un-pregnant roles while carrying babies – Jodie Foster in The Panic Room comes to mind (her first baby). My agent also reassured me that both Claire Danes and Anna Paquin had shot their TV shows long into their (first) pregnancies. So – it was all going to work out just fine, wasn’t it? I might even be able to still wear the eel slick leather trousers I slid into on the first season? Ah, sweet denial… eight years since my second baby, the combination of being 41, and having done this twice before means my body has ‘generously’ anticipated the months ahead. I am six months along, and huge (see Rule 3).
I’m writing this from Vancouver, we’re on episode nine, and are near enough to finishing for me to be able to chuckle at my naivety in thinking this was going to be anything other than crazy bonkers mayhem, with a waddling lead actress at the centre, who has most definitely not been wearing spray-on leather trousers. At the start of filming, the producer, writer and I made a wordless pact not to ‘go there’, but to keep our heads down, and not look up until the end (see Rule 4).
So, here are my rules for surviving a 10-episode TV show from weeks 12-28 on a third pregnancy.
Rule 1. Cancel curiosity. The bigger I get the more I can feel the crew’s fresh alarm each week when I waddle on set. I decided not to assume anyone else’s concerns or opinions about the pregnancy. I have to stick to what I know. I do my job and only that.
Rule 2. Preparation is everything. This largely means costume, but also attitude. When I play Grace I am simply not pregnant – for those two minutes at a time I suspend disbelief. This is only possible if I’ve prepared the scene physically to ensure that I’m not moving in a way which is difficult, or revealing too much of my middle (I’ve become devilishly cunning with props).
Rule 3. Be fully and openly pregnant at every opportunity when the camera isn’t rolling. The crew need to be aware that I’m pregnant, so they’re sensitive and cognisant of what they can do to help. I don’t hide it from them, only from the future audience.
Rule 4. Pick someone on whom who you can unleash your frustration, and reveal what you’re truly feeling inside. Warn them of their special role, and apologise to them at the beginning of the shoot. This has been my eternally enthusiastic assistant Rosie. Rosie has tolerated me raging, usually followed by sobbing, after which I’m ready to spend the last bit of fuel that’s in the secret reserve tank, which only seems to be accessible after a major meltdown. Rosie even had a dream one night, that she fed me her own liver. When during the shoot she left to go back to London for 10 days to be with her new husband of six months, I had to give myself a stern talking to after feeling just a bit put out.
Even though this experience has been more challenging than any other job (even contracting typhoid in Nigeria on Half Of A Yellow Sun last year), there have been surprising insights that’ll stay in my armoury long after this little bundle is making his/her own hit TV shows. For starters I think my Four Rules should apply to every actor, whether protecting a foetus or not. Also, in conserving energy and not ‘trying too hard’ I’ve been reminded of the keys to powerful screen acting – stillness, calm, minimal movement (especially in close ups) and a certainty that the camera will catch my tiniest gesture.
Pregnancy does that for me – roots me to my core, settles me at the centre of everything – physically but also emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. I’m more alive to the present, more in tune. “I’m growing a baby in my body – beat that!” That’s the underlying attitude that’s rescued me from the grind of a sometime 13 hour day schedule, the endless lurches to the loo in the night, the unexplained queasiness and lack of desire for food coupled with gasping thirst and the sudden desire to eat our focus puller’s meaty thigh, two bronchial infections, forgetting just about anything anyone asks or tells me, the rash of first trimester acne that tormented my make-up artist Rita well into my second trimester, bursting into Matthew’s office in rageful tears – accusing him of driving me into the dust (he couldn’t have written more drama) leaving him ashen-faced and panic stricken while I felt loads better thank you very much.
And yet, underpinning all of it; all the on-set, off–set bedlam, all the fear, frustration, sometime regret and plain old WTF are pokes and kicks from inside, getting stronger every week, tapping out baby Morse code, telling me he/she is doing fine, that we are doing fine, and that I am mighty and awesome. Kick-ass undercover cop Grace Travis has nothing on me.
Back in June 2010, Thandie appeared in Issue 35 as the face of Stylist’s summer beauty feature. Now she makes a welcome return as a writer for this issue.