“Are you fucking joking?”
Thandiwe Newton speaks out on her Star Wars death: “A big mistake”
Thandiwe Newton thrives on chaos.
Best known for playing robotic host Maeve Millay on HBO’s Westworld, Newton’s recent career choices have been all about learning to embrace the unknowns that used to keep her up at night.
“I don’t want to back away from fear,” she tells Inverse. “I want what I fear to become what I’m familiar with, so it loses its power.”
“Yes, I’m afraid,” she adds, “and yes, I’m going to do it anyway.”
Newton has spent these last few weeks of summer promoting the sci-fi noir Reminiscence, now in theaters and on HBO Max. A high-profile reunion with Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy, it follows a private investigator, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who scours his own memories for traces of a vanished lover (Rebecca Ferguson) using a futuristic memory machine. Newton plays Bannister’s assistant, military veteran Watts, who struggles to combat her own demons while protecting her employer from unseen threats.
“I’ve been around alcoholism, and playing this character who’s dealing with her trauma and numbing herself with alcohol was fascinating,” says Newton. “She’s sleepwalking through life, but she’s the only one who receives another chance. She taught me that we must always be alive and awake to possibilities of change.”
Change has dominated Newton’s career in the half-decade since Westworld premiered. The series has earned her three consecutive Emmy nominations, including one win. Politically, she’s grown more outspoken in discussing racism, sexism, and abuse in Hollywood. She even made pop-culture history playing Val in 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, though this last experience was not an entirely positive one, and Newton doesn’t hold back as to the reasons why.
“You don’t kill off the first Black woman to ever have a real role in a Star Wars movie,” she says. “Like, are you fucking joking?”
A no-nonsense smuggler who’s part of a crew joined by Aldren Ehrenreich’s Han in Solo, Val was a prominent figure in the prequel. And, unlike multiple Star Wars characters played previously by Black actresses, she was not an alien, appearing without CGI or heavy prosthetics. But Val sacrifices herself in the first third of the film. That Solo plot point wasn’t what Newton signed on for, and she says the decision to kill Val was made for dubious reasons. (But more on that later.)
As Reminiscence hits screens, Newton is also hard at work on the fourth season of Westworld. Though little is known about what’s ahead for the series, Maeve will play an essential role. Having evolved from a saloon madam into a katana-carrying freedom fighter, the character ended Season 3 standing alongside Caleb (Aaron Paul), having liberated humanity from Rehoboam’s algorithmic control. Newton has been filming extensively, which has entailed plenty of night shoots. Slipping away from the set, she speaks to Inverse en route to the Los Angeles premiere of Reminiscence.
Though the actress apologizes for the “frantic” nature of her professional existence these days, there’s no need. Speaking by phone, Newton is warm, impassioned, articulate, and thrillingly frank. She races through our wide-ranging conversation with the kind of mile-a-minute momentum that must come naturally to an actress who, at the peak of her creative powers, has never appeared more in control.
Ahead, some conversational highlights that didn’t make Inverse’s feature on Reminiscence, from Newton discussing Maeve’s evolution across Westworld to her candid thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story three years later.
On Westworld and onscreen nudity
Honestly, I was ready to quit. Happily, joyfully, like, “Oh, I don't have to keep acting? Fine.” I love being a mother. I love being a human rights activist. I love writing. This was my moment to step away, and not in a fearful way. It just fit. And then I got the call for Westworld. It was my husband, [Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again director Ol Parker,] who said, “Oh, this sounds good,” because of the team involved.
The original Westworld, obviously, has got a real kind of cult value. And it's the Nolans. I mean, Inception, I fuckin’ ate that shit up, man. I love Memento. Oh, Inception was so romantic: the music, and the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio. My god, he can fucking bring a performance!
When they invited me into Westworld, it was initially to use what I’d fought hard to rid from myself in the hope of liberating others, which is toxic patriarchy and the sexual objectification of women. Would you play a prostitute? Would you play a madam in a saloon who farms out these innocent, young beauties to people who are going to rape and abuse them? They asked me to play the evil that I had daily been trying to rid from the world — and do it naked.
Part of the abuse that I’d suffered in the industry was directors who lied about how my nudity was going to be used and got me naked in ways that were inappropriate. I've also been physically sexually abused. And so, they asked me to reveal my body at a time when I wanted to retreat, [especially because] I had a six-month-old baby when I started shooting Westworld.
“That is what the first season of Westworld was, and in it was the liberation of a brown woman.”
But when they described what we were going to use it for, it was literally the whole notion of martial arts: use your enemy's strength against them. That is what the first season of Westworld was, and in it was the liberation of a brown woman. If you want to really understand how cruel and how destructive humanity is, look at the experiences of most brown women in the world. You don't get lower than that in the pecking order of what's fucking important. To be able to use that, and literally empower this character through her truth, with everything that I've wanted to do with my career. And that was why I wanted to leave the film business, because I felt like I wasn't able to do that.
Then, Westworld happened. And I wasn't expecting anything from it. Of course not. I would have done it for nothing. I needed it for myself. And that character ended up captivating people. It was so beautiful. This spring suddenly burst from the ground. And I got to actually release that, finally.
On superhero movies and critical race theory
[It’s] not my cup of tea, I'm afraid. We have superheroes on the ground right now, and they're the ones that we should be celebrating and supporting. This idea that there are these fantasy superheroes just disconnects us from really finding the superheroes that are actually here. But I am loving the reimagination of comic books that we’re seeing right now, like Thor: Ragnarok, which is more comedic but at least is shaking up that kind of franchise and fucking with the system.
I am loving what happened with [HBO’s] Watchmen. It’s so profound that they used Tulsa as the origin story for Watchmen. Most Americans didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre. and they’re trying to get rid of critical race theory!
“If you get rid of critical race theory, are you going to imprison the people that write Watchmen?”
If you get rid of critical race theory, are you going to imprison the people that write Watchmen? The director of 12 Years a Slave? Lisa Joy, for writing about the reevaluation of history? Mind you, she does sci-fi, which is fucking clever, because you can’t touch sci-fi, because it’s postulating a future. Opposition to critical race theory is like Scientology, in that it wants to erase history. But if you erase history, it's like trauma survivors not dealing with their trauma. If you don't deal with your trauma, it is going to bite you in the ass, because it's going to come up in ways that you don't understand. You have to deal with your trauma. And that is what critical race theory is. That is what a reimagining of history is. That is what we're starting to see in art. And that is why we have to fight to critique critical race theory because it's inspiring so many of us artists.
On Solo and how Star Wars failed its first woman-of-color protagonist
I felt disappointed by Star Wars that my character was killed. And, actually, in the script, she wasn’t killed. It happened during filming. And it was much more just to do with the time we had to do the scenes. It’s much easier just to have me die than it is to have me fall into a vacuum of space so I can come back sometime.
“In the script, [Val] wasn’t killed. It happened during filming.”
That’s what it originally was: that the explosion and she falls out and you don’t know where she’s gone. So I could have come back at some point. But when we came to filming, as far as I was concerned and was aware, when it came to filming that scene, it was too huge a set-piece to create, so they just had me blow up and I’m done. But I remembered at the time thinking, “This is a big, big mistake” — not because of me, not because I wanted to come back. You don’t kill off the first Black woman to ever have a real role in a Star Wars movie. Like, are you fucking joking?
On the future of Westworld and producing documentaries
The first season [of Westworld] was the real epiphany. After that, I feel like we're in an entertaining show, honestly. And that’s not to discredit the show. I love the show. I think it's wonderful. But it’s all about the origin story, isn't it really? The origin story of Westworld is profound and had a massive impact.
For me now, I'm passionate about producing documentaries. I have one that’s just trying to get its way around the world, President, about Zimbabwe. It’s about the stolen election in 2018, [directed] by Camilla Nielsson, and I executive-produced it with Danny Glover. It's absolutely disturbing and sensational, and urgently important. We need to share it with people so that people can be moved to do what it is that they want. Because so much of what's foul in the world right now is what is hidden from us.
That’s what I love about Maeve in Westworld, is that she has to find the truth. It’s not readily available. She has to die again and again and again, in order to get nuggets of truth. And that, to me, spoke volumes. Maeve, in a way, is generations of humanity that have had to die for progress. In her, in the dimension of Westworld, in that fantastical place, they condense literally generations of death and loss into this one character who dies again and again. She's humanity dying again and again. That first season was astonishing.
On how Newton overcame self-doubt to play Watts in Reminiscence
I started to research women in the military. And unfortunately, I came across a documentary about women in the military talking about sexual abuse. Watching women in the military speak into the camera, having the courage to talk about sexual violence, [I saw] they were every kind of woman, and I realized I could be any one of them.
We think these women are tough, because they don't talk about what they have to deal with. We just assume that they don't have any of those issues. How could they? But, actually, they do, and they cover it up. They swallow it down. In order to be in the military, that's just what they have to tolerate. I realized that, not only could I be one of them, but that I have been one of them. And that I needed to honor them. Part of why both Lisa and myself had felt doubtful about me playing [the role of Watts] was because we had internalized a male portrait of women in the military. That's pretty much all we've seen on screen.
If I look at one of the actresses who completely liberated me, Jessica Chastain, who’s an extraordinary actress, she plays all the facets of womanhood in the same way as Sigourney Weaver in Alien. And so I found myself coming back to what I know in my heart. I named my kid Ripley! Why am I denying myself this [opportunity] because of the internalized internalization of a stereotype that I spend my life fighting? I realized it was such a gift. But it was my own bigotry that I've internalized, that was causing me to doubt myself. It said everything about why Lisa, as a woman, should be writing this role, and why I, as an actress, should be playing it.
On why Newton, who is British and Zimbabwean, and Reminiscence director Lisa Joy, who is British and Chinese, bonded over their cultural heritage
One of the beautiful things about coming from two different cultures is that one does feel entitled to be a person of the world, as opposed to a person of your culture. And that's something that Lisa and I share, me being from Zimbabwe and from England, and Lisa being a person from Chinese culture and British culture. She is British-Chinese, now American-Chinese but actually British-Chinese, like I’m British-African. We've had to figure out how to bring those two sides of ourselves together. And that tension between those two sides is where the magic lies.
I swear to you, and I see it in Lisa. I see it in her history and how she was brought up and what was expected of her, in the history of China and how a woman is perceived in China, and all of that, and then globalism and going to America to study the law, and to have this fantastic mind and take her legal mind into the sphere of fiction. We've come together over so many things. One is, you know, this current argument over critical race theory. She and I define intersectionality, in many ways.
And as a result, we are primed to the finest point. It makes us more creative, it makes us stronger, it makes us more determined, it makes us the absolute best we can be. We can't be complacent. We're not allowed to be. That's a luxury, man. It's a luxury for people to be complacent and to just feel like they're accepted as they walk around. I never feel accepted anywhere. So I have to accept myself. And in that bubble, that's where I exist. It’s the same with Lisa. I call myself an outlier, which comes from Westworld because it’s all about the outliers in the world they’re trying to get rid of. That’s how I define myself: as that rogue element people don’t want to admit exists.
Reminiscence is now in theaters and on HBO Max. Westworld Season 4 is expected to premiere in 2022.
Editor’s Note: After an impressively researched bit of reader mail, we’ve updated a point in our article to add, regarding Newton’s role, “Val was a prominent figure in the prequel. And, unlike multiple Star Wars characters played previously by Black actresses, she was not an alien, appearing without CGI or prosthetics.”