The Secret Life of Bees: Sophie Okonedo Interview
We caught up with the versatile British actress Sophie Okonedo to ask her about her role in The Secret Life of Bees, in which she stars alongside Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Paul Bettany. Sophie is probably best know for her Oscar-nominated performance as Tatiana in Hotel Rwanda, so we also asked her about breaking into the US and the films that inspired her to become an actress.
LOVEFiLM: How did you get involved in The Secret Life of Bees?
Sophie Okonedo: I was actually given the book by the film company about three years ago before the director Gina Prince-Bythewood was involved and they said, “Just have a read, we might make a film of it” and I read it and just said, “Oh gosh, if you ever make it, I’d really like to play May.” But then I forgot about it and didn’t hear anything. And then, completely coincidentally, Gina was on board – without knowing that I wanted to do it – and the next thing I knew it was on, so I was delighted.
LF: It’s kind of unique for a film to have a predominantly female cast and a female director…
SO: It was phenomenal! We just kept pinching ourselves and thinking, “When do you see this happen?” Normally, particularly if you’re a black woman, it’ll be one of you on the set and that’s it. Or there might be one or two… You know, the older woman and the younger woman, or the more voluptuous woman and the gorgeous woman. And we kept looking round and there was all of this. We were all really excited and everyone was really supportive. It sort of lead to a real sense of community on set. The film was very low budget. We shot it in 35 days. It was like a 10 million budget – dollars, that is – so everyone was doing it for very little money. There was no big trailers to run off to. There was none of that. So we just all huddled together in Queen's bedroom between takes. It was all really informal and everyone was there for the love. They weren’t doing it for a pay cheque.
LF: What was it about the book that particularly appealed to you?
SO: It was just such a lovely story! It was one of those stories where I cried and I laughed and I cried again, and I didn’t want to put it down. I just found it very compelling. This wonderful world that Lily goes into with these women. They’re just not the kind of stereotypical poor black woman working on the… I don’t know, whatever. They’re self-sufficient businesswomen and I really liked that.
LF: You’ve played a real mixture of roles, from Hotel Rwanda to Scenes of a Sexual Nature. With Hotel Rwanda and your Oscar nomination, that must have catapulted you onto a whole different level?
SO: Well, I wasn’t expecting a nomination, that’s for sure! That came completely out of the blue. It gave me an American profile, which I hadn’t had before. I’m quite a home girl. I stay at home a lot, so I didn’t really know how it affected things. I often get surprised that people recognise me at all. People come up to me and they go, “I like you” and I go “Ooh, thank you very much!” and I always stop to have a long conversation. But yeah, certainly I wouldn’t have been able to get into any films in America without that. And that’s great, because you think you might get a bit of a film career in your twenties, but you certainly don’t expect it to happen in your late thirties.
LF: What are you working on next?
SO: Skin. It’s a film about a woman called Sandra Laing. It’s a true story. She was born in the 50s in South Africa and she’s what they call a “genetic throwback”, so she was born black to two white parents in the height of Apartheid in South Africa. It’s about identity.
LF: What were the that films inspired you growing up?
SO: One of the first things I watched was Mean Time by Mike Leigh. That really inspired me because it was filmed on the kind of estate where I was growing up. I just did not know that they made films about places like that. I could just suddenly really identify with the characters. And Made in Britain - two films that came on TV at the same time.
I was really into Bette Davis growing up. She was one of my great inspirations. I used to go to the local cinema and they had a Saturday matinee and I would go and watch the Bette Davis double bills all the time. And Liv Ullman, you know? Who did a lot of the Ingmar Bergman films. That was in later life. Obviously I wasn’t watching Bergman films when I was 12 years old!
I do like a good cartoon. Dumbo was a big film for me. I’m very into that film Spirited Away. I’ve watched it so many times! I just think it’s completely addictive. I wouldn’t mind doing a voice for an animation. So let’s put that out there!
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