Sophie Okonedo is a British stage, television, and film actress who gained international recognition for her roles in the films Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Hotel Rwanda (2004). A child of mixed heritage who grew up in low-income public housing in London, Okonedo overcame prejudice and poverty by developing a sense of pride in her own identity. She discovered as a young adult that she had a talent for bringing words alive with her acting skill, and built a successful career performing in works ranging from Shakespeare plays to science fiction films. Discussing what most appeals to her about acting, Okonedo told Liz Hoggard in The Observer, "You feel very live and present in the moment—I wish I could carry that into my real life. I listen much better when I'm acting than I do in real life."
Okonedo was born on New Year's Day 1969, the daughter of Henry and Joan Okonedo. Joan was a white British Jew, who worked as an exercise instructor, and Henry was a Nigerian immigrant to the United Kingdom, who worked for the government. When Okonedo was five years old, Henry Okonedo left the family and returned to his former home in Lagos, Nigeria, leaving Joan to raise her daughter as a single parent. Though Okonedo reconnected with Henry in later years, this early separation created a painful distance in her life, not only from her father, but from her African heritage.
After her parents' separation, Okonedo moved with her mother to Chalkhill, a public housing development in northwest London that was known for deep poverty, violence, and crime. Okonedo was an avid reader, and her mother combed secondhand bookstores to fill their shelves with books. Joan later told Okonedo that a government official who came to inspect their apartment was bewildered by the amount of reading material, apparently stunned to realize that poor people could enjoy reading books.
Eventually, Okonedo and her mother left Chalkhill to move closer to Joan's parents in west London. As a black girl with a white, Jewish mother, Okonedo experienced prejudice from an early age and from both sides. Though she sometimes felt the pain of not completely fitting in either the Jewish community or the black community, she also felt proud of both sides of her heritage and pleased that they were combined in her.
When Okonedo was sixteen years old, she dropped out of school and took a job selling in the stalls of Portobello Road, a famous street market in west London. However, she still loved to read and had an interest in learning. At age eighteen she enrolled in a writing workshop taught at the Royal Court Theatre by Hanif Kureishi, a British novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Her work in the class led to unexpected results: she did not believe she was especially talented as a writer, but she did have a gift for reading the other students' work aloud. Her classmates admired her dramatic ability so much that they suggested she try acting. After taking classes at the Weekend Performing Arts and Media College and appearing in performances with the Royal Court Theatre, Okonedo auditioned for and received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), a respected London school of theater arts.
Upon finishing her studies at RADA during the late 1980s, Okonedo began performing on stage with such groups as the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the National Theatre. In 1991 she appeared in her first film role, in Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels. She continued to view herself primarily as a stage actor and looked upon film and television jobs chiefly as a way to make extra money. In 1995, however, she did audition for a Hollywood movie, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, a zany comedy starring Jim Carrey. She was cast to play the small role of "Wachati Princess," one of Carrey's love interests. The largely forgettable role netted Okonedo a nomination for an MTV Movie Award in the Best Kiss category.
During the late 1990s Okonedo began a relationship with Irish film editor Eoin Martin. The two had a daughter, Aoife, before breaking up several years later. Okonedo continued working on stage, films, and television, appearing in an American action film, The Jackal, directed by Michael Caton-Jones, in 1997, and winning enthusiastic reviews in the title role of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida onstage in 1999. By 2002 she had attracted the interest of British director Stephen Frears, who gave her a substantial role in his film Dirty Pretty Things. Critics admired Okonedo's on-target portrayal of a cynically humorous prostitute in Frears's story of struggle and survival among London immigrants.
Soon after her appearance in Dirty Pretty Things, she received an offer to audition for an upcoming film about ethnic genocide in the African nation of Rwanda. The film, titled Hotel Rwanda, would tell the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the assistant manager of a hotel, who protected hundreds of people from slaughter during ethnic violence in Rwanda. Okonedo was cast in the role of Tatiana, Rusesabagina's wife. Before filming began, she met and talked with Paul Rusesabagina and spent several days with Tatiana in an effort to gain understanding of how their experiences had affected their lives. In addition, her preparations involved some personal soul-searching. Having been separated from her African father since childhood and growing up as a British citizen, Okonedo found that she had to reconnect with her African roots and "de-Westernize" herself in order to play an African woman. Her efforts were well received. The film was a success, and Okonedo received critical acclaim for her complex portrayal of a woman under unimaginable stress. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in 2004 and an NAACP Image Award for outstanding supporting actress in a motion picture in 2005.
At a Glance …
Born January 1, 1969 in London, England; daughter of Joan and Henry Okonedo; one child: Aoife. Education: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Career: Stage actor, 1990—; television and film actor, 1991—.
Memberships: Screen Actors Guild; Royal Court Theatre, board of directors, 2006—.
Awards: NAACP Image Award, Outstanding actress in a TV movie, miniseries or dramatic special, for Tsunami: The Aftermath, 2006.
Addresses: Agent—c/o Markham and Froggatt Ltd., London W1T 2HZ, England.
Following her intense work in Hotel Rwanda, Okonedo was happy to take on a lighter film with plenty of action. In 2005 she costarred with Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, a science fiction adventure. Okonedo was awarded another NAACP Image Award in 2006 for her role as Susie Carter, a mother frantically searching for her missing child, in Tsunami: The Aftermath, a British and American coproduction inspired by the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004. Emphasizing that Tsunami: The Aftermath is not a disaster film but rather one that focuses on the human drama connected with a catastrophic event, Okonedo told a British Broadcasting Corporation interviewer that her "preference is for stories about how we get through this life and what it is to be human, because I'm always struggling with it myself." She added, "When people identify with what they see, they begin to feel that they could be part of that experience and so it becomes hard to disengage yourself from things that are happening around the world."
Young Soul Rebels, 1991.
Go Now, 1995.
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, 1995.
The Jackal, 1997.
This Year's Love, 1999.
Mad Cows, 1999.
Once Seen, 2001.
Dirty Pretty Things, 2002.
Cross My Heart, 2003.
Hotel Rwanda, 2004.
Aeon Flux, 2005.
Scenes of a Sexual Nature, 2006.
Age of Treason, 1993.
Deep Secrets, 1996.
Staying Alive, 1996.
Never Never, 2000.
In Defiance, 2000.
Sweet Revenge, 2001.
Dead Casual, 2002.
The Inspector Lynley Mysteries: In the Presence of the Enemy, 2003.
Whose Baby?, 2004.
Born with Two Mothers, 2005.
Tsunami: The Aftermath, 2006.
Jackanory Junior, 2007.
Back Stage, December 17, 2004, p. 32A.
Entertainment Weekly, February 4, 2005, p. 48.
Interview, February 2005, p. 70.
Marie Claire, December 2006, p. 76.
Newsweek, December 20, 2004, p. 60.
The Washington Times, January 8, 2005, p. B1.
Evans, Gavin, "Sophie Okonedo (Profile)," Gavin Evans April 2005, http://www.gavinevans.net/?page_id=81 (accessed February 27, 2008).
Hoggard, Liz, "I Guess I'm up for Grabs Now," The Observer,, February 20, 2005, http://film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,,1418413,00.html (accessed March 13, 2008).
"Sophie Okonedo." Hollywood.com.http://www.hollywood.com/celebrity/Sophie_Okonedo/1126338#milestones (accessed February 27, 2008).
"Tsunami, The Aftermath: Sophie Okonedo Plays Susie," British Broadcasting Corporation Press Office, November 11, 2006, http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2006/11_november/20/tsunami_okonedo.shtml (accessed March 14, 2008).
Williams, Kam, "Sophie Okonedo: The Aeon Interview," Blacknews,http://blacknews.com/pr/sophie101.html (accessed February 27, 2008).
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