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Thandiwe Newton on reclaiming her identity

Earlier this year, Thandiwe Newton took her name back. “That’s my name. It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine,” said the British actress, who has spent most of her career going by Thandie — a name that was easier for Western audiences to pronounce. The award-winning actor, known for roles in Westworld, Line of Duty, Star Wars, Mission Impossible 2 and Crash, speaks to Violet Gonda about her African roots, racism in Hollywood and the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

Let’s clear something up. Where is Thandiwe from? I understand that both Zambia and Zimbabwe are claiming you.

Well, let me explain. My mother is from Zimbabwe, she originates from Zhombe, and my mother and father met in Lusaka. My father was a laboratory technician, and my mother was a midwife. They met, fell in love and they were married there, and I was born on a trip back to London soon after they were married. Then they returned to Lusaka, where my sister and brother were born. My sister unfortunately didn’t make it, but my brother did and we continued to live in Zambia for a few years until Herbert Chitepo [the Zimbabwean liberation leader] was assassinated [in 1975]. He was a friend of my family’s, and there was a lot of unrest. They didn’t want to leave but they decided they would leave for a short while. Unfortunately, they never returned to Zambia — we settled in England after that.

What challenges have you faced as a woman of colour in the movie industry?

Whatever difficulties and challenges there are, I have faced them … thankfully, I didn’t internalise shame around the colour of my skin. I did not. If I realised that someone was treating me in a disrespectful way and it was to do with the colour of my skin, I would immediately disregard that person, because I felt that they were my subordinate in terms of just their mental capacity. Because race, if you just consider it for any degree of time, is a complete fabrication which is a hangover from colonialism as a way of making the colonialists and the colonised as different to each other as possible — so that it could justify brutal behaviour and the kind of master-servant mentality. And we are not in that, we are no longer masters and servants in this world, right? So why are we still using these terms that were only relevant at a time when you had masters and servants? 

Have things improved over the course of your career?

When I first started out, people of colour on screen — it was a drought. A drought of good material for people, a drought of scripts, roles, my goodness. Now, it’s amazing! Incredible. I can’t keep up with all the incredible actors. I could name all the black actors when I started out, practically, you know, the mainstream. Now it’s incredible, it’s extraordinary, this explosion of talent and desire for stories, for the stories of African Americans, right? And I want to see that from African filmmakers. And we have them, they are there.

When your name was rendered as Thandie, was that a clerical error? Or a race thing, to conform with society? Why is reclaiming your name important, and why now? 

I’m not changing my name. I’m restoring it … I’ve met people who don’t even know what their name is because of their westernised name. Of course they will make their name their own but if you think of how effective a tool that is for erasing the culture where you come from to even take your name away. And for me, it happened very easily and simply.

I was very shy about my name when I was a child because it was so different to everyone else’s. People called me Thandie not Thandiwe because it was such a mouthful. Also because people pronounced Thandie wrongly. They’d say Thandie [with the ‘th’ pronounced as in thunder] all the time or they would just say it wrong, which was just so punishing for me. Talk about being an outsider anyway. And so people would call me Thandie. And as I got older and more confident I would insist on Thandiwe. It’s such a beautiful name, it means beloved. It speaks to me about my mother’s family and Shona, even though it’s not a Shona word it’s actually from Zulu, the word, which is also in-credibly romantic and gorgeous, and it kept me attached to my history. 

So I was still Thandiwe to a few. I remember when I made my first movie I was 16 years old. It was in Australia, it was a complete fluke. I wasn’t planning on being an actress at all, I was a dancer and studying hard to be accepted into life. And I did this movie and it was in Australia and the director had named this character a Hebrew name, even though it was an African character. I realise now in retrospect that he knew so little about modern Africa it’s almost pathetic. But he knew I was called Thandiwe and he was like, “Oh God, what a beautiful name, and it’s also authentic!”, so in order to make his character and his writing more authentic he took my name and he called the character Thandiwe. I was so flattered … So he used my name but then in the credits to the movie they used the name that everyone called me which was Thandie, you know, which was easy. So that stuck forevermore. My name was no longer Thandiwe, it was Thandie.

For years and years I was worried that if I reverted to Thandiwe I would lose all my fans who only know me as Thandie. But now, as a grown woman, I mean, you get to an age where I don’t need to have this fame around me. People are going to find my work … Look, if I’m going to be called Thandiwe in my movies I want to be called Thandiwe in my life. And that’s all I really want — to be called Thandiwe in my life.

In recent months you have become vocal about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. What triggered this?

What triggered it? The violence. The violence triggered it. I’ve known about the violence surrounding political issues for a long time. I’ll tell you what it was. It’s partly to do with the pandemic. The fact that people were being forced to wear masks … it felt to me that it wasn’t the whole story, it was a cover for something more, it wasn’t the whole story. It was using the pandemic as a way of controlling people.

When I first went to Cambridge University, all those years ago, I had a reading list and the top of the reading list for an anthropology student was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. I read that book thirty years ago and it changed my life. It connected me to Zimbabwe in a new way because it was a modern telling of modern women, modern family. 

So when I saw that Tsitsi had been arrested when she was on a peaceful demonstration and put into prison, I was like “What? What’s happening?” and that’s when I just couldn’t turn away. I wanted to help Tsitsi first. And then there was journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, and then the three women, Joanah Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri, who were abducted and found weeks later dumped on the side of the road, who had experienced concussions and had very hazy memories of what happened. [Opposition MP Joanah Mamombe and opposition activists Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova were abducted by state security forces in May last year and subjected to torture, humiliation and repeated sexual assaults]. 

I’ve worked for 20 years in the field as a human rights activist focusing on women and girls and we believe women, we start there! We start from that place. Why would someone talk about something as shameful as being abducted and sexually abused? Who wants that as an identity? I tell you what: No, you don’t. I was sexually abused. It’s really hard to talk about it. The only reason I talked about it is because I didn’t want it to happen to other people. It’s a sacrifice on my part because you become … it’s like you’re stained, right? You are an example of the bad things that can happen, so keep the bad things away. I would even be dismissed by people, other women, you know, other actresses in my field. So I believe you believe women. That’s where we start. 

Certainly. And on  far lighter note, what do you miss about Zimbabwe? Can you cook sadza?

No, my mum is sweet. She cooks for me because she doesn’t want me to get burnt because every woman has got that big old hot bubble slap on the skin. I know how to do it, I do, but Mum always does it [laughs]. My mum lives up the road from me … she comes with the full sadza, relish, greens. I did the greens in peanut butter. But yeah, we all sit together and eat from the centre. Yeah, it’s magical. And of course I’ve got this view of Zimbabwe because it’s romanticised, massively, but what’s wrong with that? I know it’s very different from when I was 17 and back there 30 years ago. It’s very different.

Violet Gonda is the host of the radio programme Hot Seat. The full interview with Thandiwe Newton is available on bit.ly/ThandiweNewton

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Violet Gonda
Violet Gonda is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster, and host of Hot Seat

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