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'I didn't feel beautiful until I had children'

Thandie Newton accompanies every anecdote with a series of tiny, kinetic-like movements and a tinkle of jewellery. Wired by an excess of feeling, she talks fast, eyes wide beneath the perfect circumflexes of her brows, stopping every so often to apologise for "gabbling".

"It's going to be a big change," she explains, of her move to Los Angeles next week, where she's embarking on a large television project that she's not yet allowed to talk about.

"But I want to be able to go home at night and see the children. That's really the only reason we're doing it - to keep the family together. It's funny - in 25 years working as an actress, I've never lived in LA before."

It's easy to see why not. Whereas many actresses might embrace the insularity and frivolities of the single-industry city, the 41-year-old Bafta-winning star of The Pursuit of Happyness, Mission: Impossible II, Crash and Half of a Yellow Sun, has always operated on a loftier plane, spending as much, if not more, time on human-rights activism as she does on her career.

The culture shock will be particularly brutal, coming as it does off the back of Newton's trip to Ghana last month, where she was helping to launch a campaign called Choose Galaxy RED, Make Lives Better, a partnership between Galaxy Chocolate UK and the global charity RED to help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

"I had to leave my four-month-old baby for the first time," she winces, "and it was pretty awful. But once I'd got going it was OK - and I'd filled the freezer with breast milk!"

campaigns

Ghana has had one of the greatest success rates in prevention. I was in a clinic built as a result of RED. The clinic was set up in a hallway and the pharmacy was under a tree outside.

"Four hundred women had already come through that clinic to be tested for HIV, and they can still have children without HIV, even if they start taking the drugs late in their pregnancies. If the campaign reaches its target of £700,000 (€880,000), that will buy three million more days of anti-retroviral drugs. So we could potentially be looking at an HIV-free generation. And what," she implores, "could be more exciting than working on a campaign that is based around the birth of children?"

After the troubled teenage years Newton has spoken about in the past - in which she battled bulimia and "mental disorder", after becoming embroiled in an "unhealthy relationship" with a director many years her senior - motherhood seems to have helped her define herself and lay her demons to rest.

Newton has three children - Ripley (14), Nico (10), and Booker, now five months - with the film director and writer Ol Parker. As well as making sure they're aware of what's going on in the world, she urges them "not to follow the herd", to "question authority" and to "feel compassion for anyone who behaves in a negative way towards them".

"Because all negative behaviour is fear and insecurity," she insists, "and once you understand that, it allows you to be so much more relaxed."

If only Newton - the eldest daughter of a Zimbabwean health-care worker and a British laboratory technician - had known that when she was growing up in Penzance.

"From about the age of five, I was aware that I didn't fit," she has said. "I was an anomaly."

This feeling was only exacerbated in her teenage years, she tells me.

"When we were living in London, I remember that I'd been penpal-ing this boy for two months and when we finally met at a party, he wouldn't talk to me. I was distraught. Then, a few weeks later, my best friend told me that when she'd asked him why, the boy said: Nobody told me she was black."

Those formative memories have kept Newton grounded when it comes to her looks.

"I've been different things in different contexts, and I didn't really feel beautiful until I had my first child. There's no way I was beautiful growing up," she maintains - which is hard to believe now, looking at that fragile, exquisitely sculpted face.

"I mean, I was the person that I am, but in a small town in Cornwall I was not perceived as the person that boys wanted to go out with. And that has a very strong effect on a young girl.

"But once I'd figured out that there were different boxes for different types of beauty, that it was like a language, I got smart about using it. And you know what?" she whispers, leaning forward. "Now I do use it. I use it!"

UPBEAT

In the hour we spend together, there is only one moment where Newton's tone is anything less than relentlessly upbeat - and that's when we return to the prospect of her new life in LA, where she says she'll be working harder than ever.

"That will be strange," she says slowly, "because over the past few years, I've let my life as an actress take fourth place at least. I now see myself as a mother and wife first, then a human-rights and animal-rights activist." She tails off.

All of which, I suggest, may be a trifle too earnest for Angelenos, who are more likely to be found having their nostril hair waxed than engaging in politically motivated protests.

"People have their nostrils waxed there?" she balks. "How absolutely wonderful."

hnews@herald.ie


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