Telling it like it is
EWAN McGREGOR is in trouble. If you have been to the cinema recently you may have heard the actor's dulcet Perthshire tones narrating a gloopy commercial before the trailers - a pricey-looking short film, really - for Land Rover. "There is a place called beyond..." he says with hushed sincerity. But his shilling for the advertisers' dollar has landed him in ethical hot water.
In early December, the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s wrote to McGregor. They wondered how the actor's role as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef sat alongside his work for Land Rover. "Supporting 4x4s doesn't fit with child welfare," said the activists' spokesperson. "Aside from the accidents outside school gates, they hasten global warming, which will increase droughts, floods and child suffering." At the time of writing, the eco-warriors hadn't received a reply to their suggestion that McGregor donate his fee to charity.
He had better get his skates on. If he doesn't reply soon, he could have an even more formidable foe ranged against him. Thandie Newton is on the anti-4x4 warpath, and has been ever since Greenpeace stuck a sticker on her BMW X5 last year - "This gas-guzzling 4x4 is causing climate change," it stated.
"The reason we got our big X5 was it was safe for the kids," the 34-year-old actress says. She and her husband, screenwriter Oliver Parker, have two daughters, six-year-old Ripley (named after the ball-busting heroine of the Alien movies) and two-year-old Nico (named after The Velvet Underground's iconic singer). "But then I was reading a bit more about oil, about how quickly the world is losing that."
She realised that her children's future was more important than a luxury car. "I just felt so ignorant. It was terrifying. I thought you had to plug electric cars into a certain place in the street! I just couldn't do that. Well, I could, but we're the kind of family that leave the lights on in the car all the time - we're not that well organised!
"Then, in the same week that I got the sticker on the back of my car, I found out that there is a hybrid [petrol/electric] car, the Prius."
Matters came to head after her husband, driving Ripley to school, was pelted with eggs lobbed by women picketing the gates. Seriously. When the environment's at stake, things are rough on the streets of London's more affluent neighbourhoods. "I thought, 'Yeah, what the f**k are we doing?'" she continues. "And also, by the way, those big cars, they're not even built for off-road driving. They're just built to be big! Apparently there are more 4x4s in London than in the whole of the eastern Congo, where you really need an off-road car!"
In the gloom of the bar where we meet, Newton's eyes are shining. She's almost messianic about her cause, and rams her points home like a barnstorming politico. It's not the stuff of your normal interview with a Hollywood star. What about her new film that was such a wonderful experience? No, hold on, Newton's still going on about 4x4s.
Now she's saying that, asked in a newspaper interview for her biggest status symbol, she said her X5. Asked what she was most ashamed of, she also said her X5. "And I'm gonna change cars before Christmas...
"So Greenpeace called me up and asked if I was really gonna do that. And I said, 'Of course I'm gonna f**king do it.' Who wouldn't? Jesus!"
At this point in our conversation, I feel it would be inappropriate to bring up the fact that I (cough) own a Jeep. I don't want to own one. But because these days they are the bte noire of the road, they're quite cheap to buy second-hand. It's easy to be eco-cool if you're rich, I say. "Oh God, yeah," she concedes immediately. "My 4x4, I sold it for 20 grand. It was brand-new - I'd had it less than a year," she wails.
Her Toyota Prius wasn't cheap either. "Anyway, then I rang Greenpeace saying that I wanted to write a letter to celebrities who have 4x4s, because maybe a lot of them are like me and are just ignorant."
A celebrity ignorant of the wider world? Perish the thought. But Newton was as good as her word. Supplied by Greenpeace with a list of automotive offenders, she fired off her letters. Chris Martin of Coldplay got one. Tom Cruise, her co-star in Mission: Impossible 2 - her big-screen breakthrough from 2000 - got one. So did Will Smith, star of her next film, The Pursuit of Happyness. She was informative and cajoling in her crusade to convert others to more environmentally sound driving. "'You are so revered, and the public listen to you, and maybe you'll want to do what I did. And it has been amazing, the impact, just for me...'"
Bravo and brilliant. She was Thandie Newton, star of the Oscar-winning Crash. And she was standing up and being counted. How many replies did she get? "Not one," she says quietly. "Not one. And I'm sure a lot of them were just dealt with by their publicists. Maybe none of the letters got to them. Doesn't really matter."
But the campaign was out in the open. The next time Madonna pops down to Waitrose in a massive big motor, she might get egged too.
WE MEET in the Electric, a private cinema and members' club in Notting Hill. Pink Mumm champagne for her, obscure foreign lager for me. It's a Saturday night. After our meeting, Newton is off to dinner with former Friends star David Schwimmer, who is currently directing her and Simon Pegg in a London-set comedy called Run, Fat Boy, Run.
So far, so luvvie. But as we might surmise from her forceful rant - and her enthusiastic swearing - the British actress is no soundbite-spewing, Hollywood-friendly A-lister. Certainly, she has the long CV to justify that status. To name but a few, Interview with the Vampire (with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise), Beloved (with Oprah Winfrey, now a good pal, in an adaptation of the Toni Morrison bestseller), The Truth about Charlie (a remake of Charade, with Mark Wahlberg), Mission: Impossible 2 (nicks jewels, snogs Cruise), The Chronicles of Riddick (runs about in deep space with buff Vin Diesel), TV series ER (doctor in Congo - gets off with Dr Carter), and, most notably, Crash (abused by racist cop Matt Dillon). This last film was the big winner at last year's Oscars, and Newton won a Best Supporting Actress Bafta for her performance.
But she is her own woman - and very vocally so. Take her new film, The Pursuit of Happyness. It's based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a bloke in San Francisco who was left to bring up his little boy in the 1980s after his wife Linda (played by Newton) walks out. They're continually broke and often homeless, until the father pulls himself up by his bootstraps and lands a job as a stock broker. It's a life-affirming tale, and the perfect vehicle for everyman hero Will Smith, who stars in the film with his real son. It opened in the United States last month and shot to the top of the box-office charts, taking 27 million in its opening weekend. It's reaffirms Smith's position as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Nonetheless, Newton initially didn't want to appear in the movie. And even when she did, she fought to make her character, as she saw it, more believable."I read the script and thought, 'Ooh, she's this awful person who leaves.' I couldn't play that because to me it didn't make any sense."
In the film's production notes, Newton says, 'I'm very aware, from the past work I've done and also from life, that mental health and depression can make a person feel that they can't cope... It's very important that you understand the pain Linda is in when she leaves her family.'
Leaning forward in her chair and touching my knee - the better to make her point - Newton expands on this. She discussed with director Gabriele Muccino how it was important to have the script reflect Linda's dilemma "She can't be like, 'Yeah, f**k you, motherf**ker,' being all happy, then f**king off... And even if in life the woman is like that, it's because it's so deep-seated in her. It comes in all shapes. But I just wanted the film to suggest that. The reason I ultimately did it - I mean, I really needed to work at the time as well, by the way, ha ha! - or thought I could do this, is because it's impossible for me as an actor and a person not to suggest fragility. It's really hard for me to suggest brutal, thick-skinned toughness. There's something about the way I perform.'
Is that because, unlike many actors, she can't close herself off from roles? Because Newton brings a lot of herself into performances? "Yeah," she nods vigorously. "I empathise so deeply with things that it sometimes drives me crazy."
We might trace this sensitivity - and also her talk about knowing how mental health and depression can make a person feel they can't cope - back to Newton's first film, and her first serious relationship.
She was born in the UK to a nurse from Zimbabwe and a white lab technician father. The family (she has a brother) spent time in Zambia before political unrest caused them to return to England, where they settled in Cornwall. When she was 16 and a student at drama school in Hertfordshire, she landed a part in Flirting. It was a drama set in a boarding school in Australia in the 1950s. Her co-stars were the young Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts.
Newton began a relationship with the director, John Duigan, who was 23 years her senior. When she was 18 or 19, she followed him to Los Angeles, where he was shooting a film. Didn't her parents try to stop her? "They lost me when I was 11, when I went to boarding school. I got two scholarships, which was unheard of in Cornwall. And that was really why they allowed me to go. But my mum was inconsolable when I went away. And it was a good thing to have happened. I really got to follow a dream. But it just meant that I didn't have that connection with my family any more. That's nobody's fault.
"So it wasn't that they were saying, 'Where are you going?' They were saying, 'Where are you going now?' Because I'd been going off for years. I was someone else's responsibility, which they had given over with all the good faith in the world. It was a brave thing to do. And it was exploited by... people. That's what that abuse is like - exploiting people's trust and innocence and all the rest of it."
She says she doesn't want to talk much about the relationship, "Because it gives it so much more power than it has in my life." But she brought it up in the first place, and it seems that she can't help talking about it. Too much honesty, and too much pain. "I was involved in a relationship which really relied on my insecurity, so that I wouldn't ever think, 'What the f**k am I doing with an old bloke?' And that insecurity was fuelled all the time. 'It must be because you're black.' Seriously. 'Don't worry about it because I'm here to...' Bollocks! 'It's because I'm 18 and you're 41. Everyone's looking at us because this sucks. And I'm thinking they're looking at us because I'm black.' Isn't that f**king awful?"
So she was doubly exploited, through her age and her race? "Yeah, absolutely! But you know what, it's a shame - because I kinda met myself for the first time in the last couple of years as an actress. As, like, a valuable commodity. I really did. When Crash was all happening, and I had my kids, and lots of therapy and thinking and reading, and my husband, a good solid relationship - I really came to an understanding of what had gone on."
That traumatic relationship lasted six years, but she didn't let it prevent her taking an anthropology degree at Cambridge University. Now, she says emphatically, she views the fact that she got her 'crisis' out of the way long before midlife as a plus point.
Newton is a strong woman. No self-pity, no flim-flam, lots of integrity, no Hollywood psychobabble. Well, not too much. And she's highly entertaining company, even if the dark stuff from her past can't help but crowd into the conversation. She's buzzing on the night we meet because she's loving making Run, Fat Boy, Run. It's a romantic comedy in which she is desperately wooed by Simon Pegg, the overweight ex-boyfriend who jilted her at the altar and is now trying to be as marathon-fit as her new boyfriend. "You know when you're involved with something and you start being sad before it's even over, because you know how you're gonna feel when the end does come? I'm feeling sad," she says, pulling a mock-mopey face.
It's David Schwimmer's debut as a film director. What's he like? "Schwimmer is a very serious, earnest, sensitive, funny, really nice guy. It is fun all day long. Sometimes I gotta pull myself together because I've got to remember that I'm working!'
But she's good at pulling herself together, and making tough decisions. Once upon a time - around 2000 - she was offered a part in the big-screen version of Charlie's Angels. She was about to go massive. But she declined the role, and the 6 million fee. She had promised to star in a British indie film being made by her husband. She couldn't let him down. Lucy Liu took the part. "I grew as a person and learnt more from that decision," she says firmly. "I'm more who I am now as a result of that."
Making stark choices, it seems, has got her to where she is now - in the position of being one of Britain's most internationally renowned actresses, with a sensible and loving home life and a right-on electric car. "My kids did like our big X5," she laughs as she finishes her solitary glass of champagne and readies herself for dinner with Schwimmer. "It was like a big sofa. But I don't care.
"And you know what? In life, you often sacrifice one thing that on the surface is seemingly more comfortable for the thing that really is more important. You don't learn anything from being comfortable. You learn from discomfort, don't you?"
• Run, Fatboy, Run is due for release later this year
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