Sure, she possesses an ear-tickling British accent, but Sophie Okonedo is no different than the sister next door. The Oscar-nominated star of “Hotel Rwanda” has made a name for herself on American soil. This month, Okonedo tackles race in “The Secret Life of Bees” as May Boatwright, the youngest of the honey-making sisters who straddles the line of reality and fantasy just to get by. ESSENCE.com caught up with the British beauty to discuss her latest role, whether Black Americans and Brits can truly relate, and the significance of Barack Obama’s candidacy.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats on the film. Can anyone say Oscar? You costar as May Boatwright, whose personal growth is stifled by a painful family secret. What’s her deal?
SOPHIE OKONEDO: In the film, my character, May, suffers a grave loss when she is about 14 and she can’t contain her grief. As a result, she’s slightly different in the way she interacts with others socially and is incredibly sensitive. It’s like she’s carrying the weight of the world and her time on her shoulders, so all her nerves are shot and she’s always on edge. The slightest change in mood and she releases a flood of tears so she’s kind of out there. She lives a duality between the light and dark.
ESSENCE.COM: The film takes place in the sixties. Was there anything about that era that you might have difficulty coping with today?
OKONEDO: Absolutely! Not having any rights, and I suppose all the obvious liberties and freedoms that didn’t exist for Black people back then. It was a great privilege to read about the political economic context of that time. I did a tremendous amount of research with different documentaries that were so helpful in helping me gain a better understanding of how many must have been feeling at that time of injustices.
ESSENCE.COM: Initially, there was criticism from folk who were obviously unfamiliar with the book who thought it was just another “mammy film” because four Black women are helping raise someone’s White child. Do you think it’s a fair assessment?
OKONEDO: Not at all. How often do you get four Black women portraying main characters who are incredibly complex, self-sufficient with their own business, and educated during that time period? This film shows an extreme situation through the Boatwright sisters, who have a nice house, are powerful in their community because of their successful family business. Also, it shows a different side of Black life and women. These women are not victims. It will be interesting to see what people can get from this film.
ESSENCE.COM: Folk have often said that Black Brits don’t have the same hang-ups as American Blacks. Do you agree?
OKONEDO: Perhaps there might be some truth to the statement, but what I know is that this is an exciting time for Blacks in politics. Having Barack Obama running as president. He’s good news and it’s been simply extraordinary. I’ve never followed American elections before until now and it’s been nothing short of a miraculous turn around when I think of where America was two years ago. So I might not be American but I can still appreciate the significance of American Black history and the [trials and tribulations].
ESSENCE.COM: You said that you prefer “stories about ordinary people who get tangled up in an extraordinary event, idea or emotion and your preference is for stories about how we get through this life, what it is to be human, because I’m always struggling with it myself. Through your roles, have you made any revelations about humanity?
OKONEDO: Of course, but it’s a lifetime of learning. When you learn one thing, I think playing all these different roles gives me great compassion that essentially drives the character. I always ask the same question before I begin a new role of my character’s existence: “Why am I here? What’s my purpose?” Acting is my college and I’m always going back, and it’s the lessons I gain that make me love my work the most.