The star on her new film – Half of a Yellow Sun – Beyoncé's influence on girls, and the value of education
How did you get involved in Half of a Yellow Sun?
My beloved, beloved film. It was a long bit of romancing – the director Biyi [Bandele] approached me years ago, and now we finally made it. The book is sensational: a wonderful love story set against real-life drama, and the backdrop of the Biafran war makes the romance so much more penetrating and desperate. The film has come at a great time, because Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie, the book's author] is getting more and more well known. Americanah, which is also a really good book, will be coming out as a film – Lupita [Nyong'o] bought the rights to it.
Did you meet Chimamanda during the film-making process?
Lots – she's a dear friend now. Like every writer I've met, she has an incredible, charming, seductive way of listening, and you want to tell her things. She was also the final blessing for me for this film. Because I'm half-Zimbabwean, half-English, here I'm black, in Africa I'm white. In Nigeria there were arguments about whether I look like an Igbo woman. Chimamanda, who is Igbo herself, showed me a picture of her family. There was every skin tone, ranging from her brother, whose skin is lighter than mine, to a rich, dark, coffee-coloured brown. Africa's the biggest melting pot of all.
How was filming on location in Nigeria?
We were filming in a coastal area, in places you could only reach by boat. We were a 200-strong crew, and there wasn't anything like the electricity or the water to support us, so we had an epidemic of malaria and typhoid – which sounds a lot worse than it was. We were all treated, but it struck me how much film units use up local resources. The amount of environmental destruction that goes on with films is pretty shocking, so you want to make sure it's bloody well worth it.
After the Nigerian government tried to censor it, the film has just been approved for release there. Why do you think people there should see it?
In terms of Nigerian history, the Biafran war is still an open wound, and the film allows for more dialogue with a view to clearing out the bad energy. In terms of cinema, the film puts Nigeria on the map – it's a huge deal to film there. But I thought it was ironic they're having a big strop about whether it should be shown when they have an absolute industry of pirate DVDs there that they can't control.
How much did you know about the Biafran war before you read the book?
Very little – I wasn't even born then. I only knew the images when I was growing up: children suffering kwashiorkor, with the distended bellies, and the awful poverty. It was the first state within an African country that was claiming its independence, and it nearly got it, and that was huge in terms of what was going on in the world at the time, with the Black Panthers, and the American troops in Vietnam. What Biafra was trying to do was seen as trailblazing. And the fact that it failed doesn't remove the extraordinary spirit and political clout of the movement.
As a child, you lived in Zambia. Do you have any memories of the tensions with Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] to the south?
I don't, because we left when I was three, but it's one of those things where you think you remember because it was spoken about at the dinner table. In the 60s and 70s my parents lived in Zambia and had friends from all over the world: it was this wonderful utopia. During that time Mugabe was trying to take control [of Rhodesia], and the war for independence was really kicking off, and everything disbanded. My parents were right in the middle of it. A dear friend of theirs, Herbert Chitepo, was assassinated, and he was in line to be the president [of what would become Zimbabwe]. And these things have repercussions: look at Zimbabwe now. I feel like what happened then is still current, but you need to understand where that instability began.
What was it like working with Chiwetel Ejiofor?
It was our third time playing lovers, and it was like, "Are we going to get it right this time?" I love working with him: there are no tricks, no ego, no weird pseudo-suffering. He's quite unknowable. He's not cold – he's warm and charismatic – but he's super-cerebral. With Half of a Yellow Sun we got down into our characters' feelings. This film was very, very close to Chiwetel's heart: his parents were in the Biafran war, and his grandfather was very active. He wanted to honour his family, he wanted to learn more about them, and it really moved him. And then he went straight to 12 Years a Slave.
Your character is a free-thinking, politically engaged intellectual type. How far did you identify with her?
Absolutely – she's the best role I've ever played. I realised how starved I was of being able to play a woman who I identified with. Someone who's politically engaged, who's strong, who doesn't necessarily fit a stereotype. And also it was someone I identified with in Africa. I have friends all over Africa, and they're intellectuals who are trying to change the world, who have enormous amount of pride in their country. So that was really exciting. And also the fact that you have a film where 99% of the protagonists are black. Often when you go to the movies or the theatre, you think, Jesus Christ, everybody is white. But my daughter goes to an amazing dance school called Ballet Black, and they have every colour: dark, white, mixed. It looks like the future to me.
How has Hollywood's relationship with race changed over the years?
It's amazing how things have progressed. When I first started as long as you were a bit brown you could play any kind of ethnic anything. Now it's much more localised and specific. I feel like a wise old woman looking back on the evolution of how much more sophisticated audiences are.
In your TED talk on identity and race you spoke about your insecurity and low self-esteem when you were a teenager. Do you think empowered women in the public eye like Beyoncé are good role models for young women?
I think when girls hear Beyoncé, it makes them move and want to lift their arms up and be strong, be powerful. She puts this energy of positivity out there which is good for people's souls. I think musicians are kind of like shamans: they're bringing the vibrations of a more spiritual state. So yes, I think that is really good for girls.
Growing up in Cornwall in the 70s in an all-white Catholic school, you faced a lot of discrimination. How did this affect you?
My teachers were always putting me down, and even though I was getting really good grades they never wanted to make a big deal out of it, because it was almost like I couldn't be seen to be better than the white girls in the class. It made me very vulnerable, and I had low self-esteem, but it made me work really hard. There's no greater feeling than having overcome a challenge. A lot of children now just don't have that drive. It helps if you're denied something – you want it more. I've had conversations with kids in Africa who would rather not eat than not go to school. And I think that's partly what we're missing with the apathetic west. The challenge they're overcoming is boredom, which is like wet sand, it's suffocating. There needs to be a big shake-up in education. We're stuck in this Victorian system where kids end up feeling bored and fucked up from school life, thinking "I don't mean anything". School can make you feel like you're shit if you're not able to fit into the system.
I thought this was an interesting interview. What do you think of Thandie's casting in this film, ONTD? aka the 10 people here who care? also, I think we need an African celebrities tag.