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Real Life Stories
By: Agatha White-Dowe
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A tenacious and positive attitude has got this Regal African petal gently creating waves and daring to venture where so many are afraid to journey.

Her 2005 movie Hotel Rwanda exposed the swiftest inhumane and brutal genocide in human history that happened in Rwanda 1994, taking the lives of 937,000 people in just three months. The world stood by, watched and did nothing. The movie version of this atrocity won critical acclaim - it was well cast, beautifully directed and produced. The events depicted in it were chilling and harrowing. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival where it was awarded the prestigious People's Choice Award. The plot showed Paul Rusesabagina, a heroic hotel owner who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their fight for survival against the Hutu militia. The film tells the true life story of Rusesabagina as he fought impossible odds to save everyone he possibly could by creating a safe haven where hope survived. The movie was filmed on location in Kigali (Rwanda), Johannesburg and Gauteng (South Africa).

Not making light of, or ignoring the pains suffered by the victims of the genocide, the talented cast that brought this horror to celluloid life should be given credit for a job well done. Little was known of the Nigerian – Jewish actress Sophie Okonedo's body of work before this movie, as a mater of fact not many people knew who she was, but critics and plaudits were bowled over by her portrayal in the movie as "Tatiana", wife of Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. For the role, she received an Academy award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, an incredible achievement since the last black British female to be nominated was Marianne Jean-Baptiste in 1996. Her dedication and preparation for this role saw her meet with the real life Tatiana Rusessabagina in Brussels to get a sense of her and how she had perceived what was happening around her. She also read the book Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane for more insight.

Okonedo's talent was again evident in the film, The Secret Life of Bees - set in South Carolina during the early 1960s amidst the burgeoning era of the Civil Rights Movement. She starred with an ensemble cast that comprised of some awesome Divas'…… young talent - Dakota Fanning, Dream Girls Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner and American Idol reject turned platinum selling recording artist -Jennifer Hudson, musical divas - Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keys.

There may be an element of bias here, but DivaScribe always goes agog with excitement when we hear that a woman of colour is making her mark in her chosen field. In particular one that hails from a country that has got its name synonymous with fraud and corruption. Attributing anything positive to Africa is indeed remarkable.

Born January 1968 to a multi racial working class pairing, her father Henry Okonedo a teacher is Nigerian and her mother Joan (nee Allman), is an Askenazai Jew of Polish and Russian origin. Her parents separated when she was 5 years and she was brought up in a single parent home by her mother in Chalkhill estate – a housing project notoriously known for drug dealing and criminal violence in Wembley – North West London. This exotic beauty is an example that hard work and perseverance pays off in the long run. Okonedo has admitted that her childhood was character building, it is easy to infer meaning to this as it has been alleged that she suffered racism as a mixed race kid growing up in a Jewish community.

However, she has never publicly made any statements regarding this. Unsurprisingly, Okonedo got her work ethics from her mother who worked two jobs as a hairdresser and pilates instructor to make ends meet. Some of this credit can also be attributed to her grandparents whom she attended the synagogue with throughout her formative years and is incredibly close to, to-date. Of her father, Okonedo has been reported to say that she does not have any contact with him after he abandoned her and her mother to go back to Nigeria. She has been very dignified and private about her family and personal affairs, but this doesn’t mean to say that Okonedo is a recluse, far from it, those in her inner circle says that she is game for a good laugh and fun and have described her as cheeky and outrageous.

This exotic beauty is an example that hard work and perseverance pays off in the long run.

By her late teens she had left home to work in a health spa in Convent Garden. She also had a brief spell working on a clothes stall in Portobello Market which was where she spotted an advertisement for a playwriting workshop run by Hanif Kureishi at the Royal Court. At the workshops, she discovered that she enjoyed reading plays more than composing them, and with her mothers urging and support, she applied and was accepted at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts)

Okonedo made her big screen debut in Isaac Julien's commendable but unsuccessful 1991 movie -Young Soul Rebels. She also landed bit parts in UK terrestrial TV dramas such as Casualty and The Bill before being offered a recurring role in Michael Winterbottom's multiple sclerosis drama Go Now for the BBC. Sophie made inroads into Hollywood filmmaking with small roles which masked her true talents in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls as an African Princess (1995), and The Jackal with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere (1997). She was more in her comfort zone amongst the young ensemble cast of David Kane's 1999 romantic comedy This Year's Love. The movie received comparisons to the hugely successful Four Wedding and a Funeral. It told the story of a group of thirtysomethings living in Camden Town London, who by weird flukes engaged in romantic entanglements with each others partners in their search for love and lust.

She also shone in the gritty two part legal drama In Defence (ITV, 2000), was brilliant in Never Never, a 2000 John Merchant Channel 4 drama where she played a bedraggled single parent, caught in the poverty trap that gets involved with John Ronald Simm's loan shark character. Her sense of fun and mischievousness was evident as the vengeance-seeking wife in David Morrissey's drama Sweet Revenge for BBC.

Her obvious acting strengths and talent led to her landing a 90 minute television drama with the BBC - playing Winnie Mandela, ex wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela in a fact-based drama that charted how Winnie went from an innocent country girl to politicised fighter against apartheid. It also depicted how Winnie went from an adoring and loving wife to firebrand revolutionary. Writer – Director Michael Samuels sought Okonedo out for this role because he believed that she was the only actress who could bring the role to life, the way he envisioned. Okonedo doubted her ability in playing Mrs Mandela in the movie, though she did admit that this was a role she felt she was destined to play and has been one of her favourites to date. It is safe to surmise that this gave her an opportunity to come out of the shadows of typecasting - which has seen her portrayed as a victim of circumstance in past roles, and be a protagonist in this one. Throughout filming Okonedo feared that she would either sell Winnie or herself short in her portrayal of this iconic character. Fully immersing herself in the role by method acting and with the help of added prosthetics, Sophie once again proved how versatile her talents are in her ever increasing divergent career. Her chameleon like quality adds that extra notch of authenticity to every role she plays.

Behind the glitz

In August 2005, Sophie took time out of her busy schedule to film the Tsunami for the BBC and HBO. She visited Baan Bang Muang School where fifty children were killed and another fifty orphaned by the 2004 Tsunami. The documentary showed how these brave young ones were rebuilding their lives after the disaster. She also got the opportunity to see first hand UNICEF’s work when she visited Sudan with Martin Bell the UK Ambassador for Humanitarian emergencies in Sudan.

Family is very important to this Actress. Despite the fact that she missed out on an Oscar for her supporting role in Hotel Rwanda, she was inundated with offers from big wigs in major studios in Hollywood. But Okonedo decided against uprooting her family for movie roles that she felt did not justify the relocation to the US. She has once been reported to say that she is trying to find a balance between a burgeoning film career, remaining loyal to the stage (she sits on the board of directors of the Royal Court), and her family life with 12-year-old daughter Aoife - her daughter from a past relationship with Eoin Martin an Irish film Editor.

Indeed, the hardest part of being a film star for her is not being around for Aoife. She doesn't like the idea of uprooting her daughter from her settled routine in school and her life in the UK. She counts herself lucky that she has her mother and step father living only a mile away from her home in Muswell Hill - North West London to help. Added to that, a move to Tinsletown is out of the question as she has stated in the past that she is not thick skinned enough for Hollywood. She chooses her role carefully by ensuring that there are serious messages behind them and the parts she was offered initially were badly written. In one of her rare interviews, she admitted that when she works on something that is not good, she is a worse actor for it, but saying that Okonedo is willing to take risks for projects that she believes in, even if it means falling flat on her face. Okonedo is currently rumoured to be making a cameo appearance in Dr Who – a British TV classic. Getting her on board would be a major coup for the BBC. Sources say that she has already filmed her scenes at a secret location…we will just have to wait with bated breaths until it airs. ds

 



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