Thandie Newton wasn't supposed to be in Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls, but when Mariah Carey had to drop out of the film at the last minute, the British actress swooped in to play potty-mouthed Tangie, a character with a bad attitude and an even worse sex addiction.
Newton sat down with The Root to talk about the movie's controversial male characters, the poetry of Ntozake Shange, and how she and the rest of the cast found levity while shooting the film's emotionally wrenching scenes.
The Root: What did you think about taking on Ntozake Shange's classic work?
Thandie Newton: One of the reasons her work is a classic is because many productions can be made and it still remains her work. I think she has given us a gift by allowing us to use her piece of literature to meditate on the human experience. Tyler Perry's movie is not the definitive exploration of her piece. This is a play that will be put on many, many times, and our movie will be one link in the very long chain that is her choreopoem.
TR: As a man, I felt shame seeing men portrayed the way they are in the movie. What do you want men to take away from this film?
TN: Certainly not shame. Look at Michael Ealy's character, Beau Willie. He's a guy that's come back from war in Iraq, and he's an example of how society is not taking care of its soldiers when they return. All that confusion and all that pain becomes domestic violence and abuse against his family.
This film is not shaming men. Shame is a very simplified take on the emotional value of the movie. I think there is too much complexity to simply bring the hammer down on men.
TR: When I saw the play, Shange's words seemed to have resonated with everyone in the audience. Why do you think it is still relevant today?
TN: Phylicia Rashad calls it "everybody poetry" in that it is an extension of thought. It is not formal poetry in the way many people consider poetry. It's got this amazing, sexy rhythm and a rawness to it. It doesn't feel highbrow or intellectual. It feels like a scream or a cry.
TR: What was it like performing Shange's poetry?
TN: The poetry was amazing! In the movie we speak in contemporary dialogue that Tyler wrote, and occasionally each character speaks the poetry from the play. Actually, only 40 percent of our dialogue in the movie is the poetry from Ntozake's play.
The poetry always came at a point when dialogue between people was not enough. It was like a speech bubble for each character where they get to say the things that maybe are too painful to say or they don't have the presence of mind to articulate, and then suddenly they are elevated to this place where they are speaking these words. It is almost like the God in them is speaking through them. It's giving me goose bumps just thinking about it.
TR: Well, that rawness produced some powerful performances. What was the mood and atmosphere that created such riveting moments? Was this a heavy movie to do or was there some fun in doing it?
TN: By virtue of the situations and the fact that these characters are going through the most critical points in their lives, it was heavy. But there were moments of light relief. For example, my character, Tangie, is so foulmouthed.
And some of the stuff that came out of my mouth, I tell you, I would have to go to confession at the end of the day, because I couldn't say it was just the script. This was me channeling all kinds of rage. But at the same time it was very cathartic and hugely entertaining. Especially the times that Tyler would be off-camera just whooping with laughter when Tangie came out with another bit of horror.
TR: How would you sum up your experience on this film?
TN: I feel delighted to have tackled Ntozake Shange's work in this way, but I kind of hope that one day I'll do the stage play, too.