Thandie Newton has spoken out about the challenges facing non-white actors in the UK, saying that she has struggled to get work because she “can’t” star in period dramas.
The actor, 44, was most recently seen as robotic brothel madam Maeve in HBO’s science fiction western thriller Westworld, and has been cast in an upcoming spin-off film about Han Solo from Star Wars.
Newton, who was born in London to a Zimbabwean mother and an English father, recently returned to the UK to appear in BBC One crime drama Line of Duty. However, she tells The Sunday Times Magazine that the British obsession with period dramas makes it difficult for black actors to work in the UK.
“I love being here, but I can’t work, because I can’t do Downton Abbey, can’t be in Victoria, can’t be in Call the Midwife – well, I could, but I don’t want to play someone who’s being racially abused,” Newton says. “I’m not interested in that, don’t want to do it.”
She adds: “There just seems to be a desire for stuff about the Royal Family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of colour.”
Newton, who began her acting career age 19 in the 1991 film Flirting, revealed last summer that she had encountered frequent sexism and sexual harassment in Hollywood – including being “groped” by a male co-star.
Now, the actor says that she sees herself as a fighter.
“I’m talented at what I do, but I’ve had to struggle against racism and sexism,” she tells The Sunday Times Magazine. “But I’m glad of it, in a way, that I survived and overcame.”
Newton has campaigned extensively to raise awareness of the problem of violence against women, and says that her activist credentials helped her land the role of a detective chief inspector in the new series of Line of Duty, set to air on Sunday 26 March.
“The reason they wanted me wasn’t just, ‘Oh, she’s been in Hollywood movies’,” she says. “They wanted someone with integrity, someone who does actually stand for the empowerment of women, fighting violence against women.”
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has defended his decision not to cast actors of colour in some of his period productions, saying that he wants to “produce something that is believable”.
However, these attitudes are leaving many black British actors feeling as though they have to move to the US in order to further their careers – a phenomenon recently criticised by Samuel L. Jackson, who questioned whether black Brits should be playing African-American roles.
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Referring specifically to new horror film Get Out, in which London-born Daniel Kaluuya plays an African-American man dating a white woman (Allison Williams), Jackson said: “I tend to wonder what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands it, in a way.
“Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years,” Jackson continued. “What would a brother from America have made of that role?”
Jackson also singled out Selma, the Martin Luther King biopic starring British actor David Oyelowo. Oyelowo said in October that he moved to the US because of the lack of opportunity for black actors in the UK, after research revealed that the British film industry had seen “little change” in diversity in a decade.
The study by the British Film Institute showed that almost 60% of UK films made between 2006 and 2016 featured no black actors at all. Only 13% of films had a black actor in a leading role.
“I felt I had to leave,” said Oyelowo, before appealing directly to senior figures in the British film industry. “Please stop this talent drain. You have to change the demographics of the people who are making these decisions.
“You are the curators of culture. You are those who are going to shape the minds of those coming up.”
Images: Rex Features, Getty Images, ITV