- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

“The big leap I had to make was to de-Westernize myself,” recalls Sophie Okonedo, recalling her role as Tatiana Rusesabagina, an imperiled housewife and mother in “Hotel Rwanda.” Miss Okonedo leaped into prominence as far as American moviegoers were concerned when she played the sardonic hooker Juliette in “Dirty Pretty Things.”

In “Hotel Rwanda,” which opened yesterday, she co-stars with Don Cheadle, cast as Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life hero who contrived to shelter about 1,200 refugees at the hotel he managed in Kigali, Rwanda during the massacres of April to June, 1994. After their ordeal, the couple relocated to Brussels, the home office of the corporation that employed Mr. Rusesabagina as a hotel manager. He has since gone into the transport business in his adopted country.

While the movie was in preparation, Miss Okonedo arranged to meet her prototype in Brussels, but she does not believe the encounter had a crucial influence on her performance. “There wasn’t much time between getting cast and doing the film,” she explains during a recent conversation at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “I spent a couple of days with Tatiana, mainly just hanging out. She speaks French and Kinyarwanda but has very little English. I brought along my best friend from London, who knows French and did a little translating for us. I watched a lot of footage about the Rwandan holocaust that our director, Terry George, had accumulated, and I read a lot. I asked lots of questions of everyone I could. Tatiana herself wasn’t in a position to help me pretend to change from a young British woman into a Rwandan housewife.”

Sophie Okonedo’s surname (pronounced “awk-uh-nay-doe”) is Nigerian, but she was born and raised in London. Her Nigerian father remains a distant figure in her life. Her mother, whom she identifies as Jewish, is an exercise teacher, now specializing in Pilates. Miss Okonedo also has a child, a 7-year-old daughter.

In her own youth, Miss Okonedo was more attracted to dancing than acting. After high school, she joined a writing workshop associated with the Royal Court Theatre and supervised by the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, of “My Beautiful Laundrette” renown. Miss Okonedo didn’t think much of her own writing ability but found herself a quick study when reading other people’s lines.

Active in both the theater and television during the 1990s, she credits a 1999 National Theatre revival of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” directed by Trevor Nunn as her “big break.” She had played bit roles in several name movies, including “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” and “The Jackal,” but it was “Dirty Pretty Things” that decisively upgraded her prospects as a film actress.

“The type of things I’m reading now have gone up 100 notches,” Miss Okonedo says. “One big difference is that they’re main characters. That’s very nice.” She has a principal role in a science fiction thriller starring Charlize Theron, “Aeon Flux,” that is supposed to appear this year.

Miss Okonedo has reached the conclusion, perhaps prematurely, that she is not an actress who can compensate for weak material. “Some actors are brilliant at making anything work,” she reflects. “I’ve come to realize I’m not that kind of actor. When I do a bad script, I end up being very, very bad. Then I come away quite depressed, thinking I’m worse than when I started .. . So I have to be a bit careful. Anyway, when I’m not working, I’m still busy. I have a daughter. It’s not like I sit around waiting for the postman.”

* * *

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre is mounting a retrospective tribute to the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar this month and next, coinciding with the Friday release of his new feature, “Bad Education.” The management has also revived a cycle of opera features, a programming staple at the Kennedy Center for many years. The new programs are scheduled for occasional Monday evenings, beginning this very Monday with a 1992 production of “Tosca” that co-starred Catherine Malfitano, Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi. “Carmen,” “Salome” and “La Traviata” (on Valentine’s Day) are the subsequent attractions.

* * *

Alert viewers of Turner Classic Movies may have noted that the cable channel was reviving “Come September” last night. This is the 1961 romantic comedy recalled as the Bobby Darin-Sandra Dee courtship vehicle in Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea.” Other sightings seem likely while Mr. Spacey’s picture remains current. Eventually TCM can double-bill them.

If “The Aviator” has aroused curiosity about some of Howard Hughes’ consorts, TCM can also help on that score. “Where Danger Lives,” in which the obscure Faith Domergue was cast opposite Robert Mitchum, circa 1950, is being revived Jan. 15 at 8 a.m. The next morning offers a wake-up double-bill of Jean Harlow in “Suzy” at 6 a.m. and Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” at 8 a.m. Both opposite Cary Grant.

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