“I’m a North London, working-class, black, Jewish girl,” actress Sophie Okonedo said. “I love my upbringing because it had so many different colors; it’s given me the equipment to play lots of diverse roles.”
In 2005, the tall, striking actress burst into the international spotlight when she was nominated for an Oscar for her harrowing turn as the wife of a hotel manager who hid more than 1,200 refugees from genocidal militias in “Hotel Rwanda.” As the unexpected new toast of Hollywood — Newsweek described her performance as a “revelation” — she went on to portray an emotionally disturbed young woman in civil rights-era South Carolina in “The Secret Life of Bees.”
Now she has tackled her first leading role in “Skin,” based on the true story of Sandra Laing, a biracial girl born to white parents — unaware of a black ancestor in their family tree — in 1950s South Africa. The film chronicles the parents’ battle for Sandra to be classified as “white,” her rebellion and marriage to a black man and subsequent struggle to be reclassified as “colored” to keep her children. At one point in the film, Laing’s parents learn the 10-year-old Sandra cannot continue to live in their home unless she is documented as a household servant.
The script stunned Okonedo when it arrived at her North London home not long after her Oscar nomination. “The story was so extraordinary I almost couldn’t believe it was true,” she said from the flat she shares with her 12-year-old daughter.
And then there was the personal connection for Okonedo, 40, who was raised by her Ashkenazi mother and Yiddish-speaking grandparents after her father, a Nigerian civil servant, abandoned the family when Sophie was 5.
“I could relate to being black and brought up in a white family,” she said. “Of course being raised in North London in the 1970s was much kinder than South Africa in the ’50s. But it was helpful to understand what it is like to have a family that is a different color than you — and to question your heritage when people say, ‘That can’t possibly be your mum.’”
Okonedo was the only black congregant at the liberal synagogue she attended with her grandparents, although she refuses to discuss previous remarks she reportedly made about encountering discrimination from both blacks and Jews.
She also declines to discuss her estranged father, Henry Okonedo, who left Sophie and her mother, Joan (née Allman), in poverty when he returned to Nigeria. Okonedo spent her formative years in a dangerous housing project, notorious for drugs and criminal violence. When a government worker paid the family a visit, he asked what they did with all the books in a large bookcase. “Because of course poor people don’t read,” Okonedo told London’s Daily Mail.
Eventually Joan, a hairdresser and Pilates instructor, was able to afford a flat above a fish and chips shop. The actress’ mother infused young Sophie with the sense that she could accomplish anything, and her grandparents, who had been born to Russian and Polish immigrants in London’s East End (England’s equivalent of the Lower East Side), remained central figures in her life, regaling her with stories of her great-great-grandfather and other forbears depicted in old photographs.
“My grandparents kept a fairly Jewish household,” Okonedo said. “They celebrated all the holidays, and they spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand the conversation. I feel sad I didn’t learn Yiddish as a child,” she added. “It’s such a fantastic language, so expressive. And now my grandparents are too old to teach me.”
Now that her grandparents are in their 90s, the family holiday celebrations have ceased. “But culturally I’m still very Jewish,” Okonedo said. “It’s all in my blood.”
Over the years, her mother has remained Okonedo’s staunchest champion — encouraging her to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after she dropped out of school at 16, and later traveling with her to theater and movie sets to attend to her hair. “I’m not very good at the whole dressing-up thing,” Okonedo said.
Her big break in a mainstream film came in 2002, when Stephen Frears cast her as a kind-hearted prostitute in “Dirty Pretty Things,” which revolved around the struggle of an illegal immigrant from Nigeria in London. Okonedo herself once visited Nigeria, and she acknowledges that her roles in “Hotel Rwanda” and “Skin” are perhaps attempts to explore the African side of her identity.
It was her mother who was by her side, however, when Okonedo’s cell phone rang with the news that she had been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for “Hotel Rwanda.” The two women were visiting an art gallery located in a stately mansion in London: “My mum just stood in the middle of the room and started screaming,” the actress recalled. When a guard reprimanded her, Joan declared, “I don’t give a f—-. My daughter has just been nominated for an Academy Award.” The entire gallery burst into applause as the two women triumphantly strutted outside, where Joan, the 70-year-old Pilates teacher, turned cartwheels on the sidewalk.
The close relationship Okonedo has with her mother bears little resemblance to Laing’s experience. After she eloped with a Zulu-speaking vegetable peddler at the age of 16, Laing was disowned by her conservative parents and only reconnected with her mother after her father’s death.
Okonedo met Laing a few times on the set in South Africa: “She was sweet but very shy and spoke English only as a second language,” Okonedo said. Their conversations were short and generic: “I couldn’t very well ask her, ‘How did you feel being abandoned by your father?’”
The film’s director, Anthony Fabian, described the drama as “a journey into color.” It also “tackles the eternal human question: Who am I and where do I belong?” he wrote in a statement.
Okonedo agreed. “Sandra constantly had these breakdowns and crises of identity,” she said. “Because of her unique circumstances, there was no one for her to relate to and no collective for her to join. That’s a very frightening place for any human being to be. You feel like you’re falling all the time, falling through space with nothing to hold onto.”
“Skin” opens in limited release Oct. 30 in Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.skinthemovie.net.