Exclusive interview: Thandiwe Newton, on new movie Reminiscence
From a world out west to memories suppressed…
Upcoming blockbuster Reminiscence is set to hit UAE cinemas on August 19. The action thriller was written, directed and co-produced by Lisa Joy (one half of the married couple behind the multi-Emmy winning Westworld series), and stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson and the sublime Thandiwe Newton.
Reminiscence is set in a near-future Miami, where parts of the Eastern US seaboard have been completely flooded. Which might make for some gritted-teeth-viewing given the results of this week’s UN Climate Report. On the plus side, humans have developed the technology to enter the memories of others, a concept inspired by director Joy’s real-life discovery of a mysteriously captioned photo amongst her late grandfather’s possessions.
Jackman plays a private investigator of neural pathways (Nick) who, after diving into the tangled subconscious of new client Mae (Ferguson), becomes drawn into the machinations of a brutal conspiracy. Newton plays Watts, a troubled soul desperately trying to save the life of her friend Nick, as she sees him slowly consumed by the new case.
What’s On was lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with Newton, and if we recall correctly…
What’s On: The two lead female roles in this film are very different from one another, but they’re similar in that both are very layered characters, and both are very conscious in what they choose to reveal about themselves. What were your first thoughts about Watts when you read the script?
Thandiwe Newton: I’ve always been fascinated by addiction and, in this case, alcoholism, which has been something which I’ve been around in my life. I’ve been around people struggling with alcoholism and, for me, that really defined who Watts was—the fact that she was masking this deep pain, and she was similarly in a dysfunctional relationship with Bannister. You’ve got a situation where what’s driving her are artificial attachments and, ultimately, it’s not real life. It’s like she’s zombie-fied. She’s dead standing. What really interested me about the role and about Lisa’s ideas, was to see this person come alive when she’s been putting so many people to sleep.
WO: Great way to put it. You bring up Lisa Joy, who refers to you a couple of ways: one as a long-term collaborator, but also as inimitable. What was your initial conversation with Lisa about this project? How did that sound?
TN: It was actually adorable and unexpected. I knew she was making a movie. It was infamous, this script that she’d written years before. It was so intriguing and passionate, and I knew that she wanted to direct a feature as well. She’d already directed an episode of “Westworld,” which I wasn’t in, which was so crazy and we laughed about it at the time. I was like, “How come you get to do this for the first time—I adore you, I would do anything for you, go to the ends of the Earth as a performer—and I’m not even in this episode?!” And she was also like, “I can’t believe that you’re not going to be in this one!”
When we were shooting the third season of “Westworld,” we were in Singapore, and I knew she was busier than she normally was on the show. I went and just hung out with her for a moment when she was on her computer. I asked, “What are you up to?” She said, “Oh, I’m just doing a new draft on this movie that I’m doing.” Then she said, “I mean, why couldn’t you play Watts?” Literally, she just said that, and I said, “I don’t know what you mean,” because I hadn’t even read the script, and didn’t know anything about it. She went on, “I mean, why not? She doesn’t have to be kind of mannish, unfeminine… Just because she’s given up on all those things in her life doesn’t mean she can’t be… Look, you’re fierce. You’re so strong. You’re Maeve. Why can’t you be an ex-military person?” She’s saying this like she’s talking to herself, but with me standing there.
I’m like, “Lisa, really? It’s cool. I love you. I’m excited you’re making your movie, don’t worry about it.” I almost thought she was just saying it to be sweet because, of course, she’d love everybody in “Westworld,” everybody that she’s ever loved, to be in her first movie. Who wouldn’t? She did manage to surround herself by a lot of people that she loves—Paul Cameron, the DP, Howard Cummings, the production designer… She has all these collaborators who adore her and are at the top of their game. Then, we got back from Singapore and two days later, the script arrived, through my agent, as an offer. I didn’t expect it. She didn’t expect it, but she took a leap of faith and in a way, she needed to, because she had to see me—not as Maeve, not as the actress in her show, but as an actress outside of that. It’s like she had to go back to the person that she knew who she wanted to play Maeve, but because we have such a beautiful relationship and I am Maeve to her, it’s almost she forgot that I’m an actress. I still feel like, “Oh, she could have done better…” I felt this massive responsibility.
I almost wanted to say no to doing it, because I wanted her to get the absolute best person that she could possibly get for the role, and I said that to her. “Lisa, please, get the very best person. I know you can trust me and I’ll be there for you, but get outside your comfort zone, find the best person,” and she still sent it to me. I then had to trust her. It’s like, if this is what she wants, she is the filmmaker. I insisted that it shouldn’t be nepotism. It’s like, “Just because you love me and I love you, and we think the world of each other, it doesn’t mean I have to physically do this for you. You can do this, Lisa. You’ve got it.” And she still sent it to me.
WO: And now you’ve worked with her wearing all three hats at once—the writer, director, producer. What was that experience like?
TN: She is everything. She’s everything, and she brings an extra quality of fire and joy. That’s ironic because of her name, and I think because it’s like she’s exploding from a place of creativity that’s had a cap on it for so long, and that cap is on there for many reasons. That cap is on there because she was an academic—a student who was driven into academia, who wasn’t really encouraged to necessarily be creative, because she is half Chinese. She was a lawyer, so there’s that cap right there. Then, there’s the fact that she’s a woman in Hollywood and she’s married to not just a husband who is hugely well-regarded, she’s married to a superpower family in the film industry. The Nolans are a superpower family, because they develop the best superhero movies, they develop the best everything. They have the Midas touch.
That’s another cap on her that would maybe disallow her from thinking that she can take the lead. I say this with love because, when I think of a feminist, I think of Jonah [Jonathan Nolan]. To me, he defines a feminist. He’s the kind of feminist that I want to see more of in the world. Jonah, he was the one who gave Lisa her first writing software program. She was a lawyer and he gave her as a gift—this is the most beautiful, romantic thing—he gave her a gift of Final Draft for her computer, and he’s like, “Do it.” She was a lawyer. In society’s terms, there is a cap. She’s a woman, she’s half Chinese, with her family value of academia above everything else. Another cap in a way is that she’s attractive. She’s so f***ing beautiful. “Why isn’t she a model? What’s wrong with her? Why did she not use that?” That’s a cap against her, because she’s beautiful, so she’ll be taken less seriously. I’m serious. She’s got two children and she’d like another. This woman defies the laws of motherf***ing existential gravity.
WO: Truly, all those things.
TN: She really is the de-constructor, let’s just call her that. She lives it. She lives the deconstruction. And you look at how many years of movies have been made? How many years of special effects have been in our orbit? She innovated stuff in this film, and this is her first feature. She’s innovated technology that has never been produced before, and it just came from her insistence, her creativity, her imagination, her rebellious nature, her wish to deconstruct, her wish to break down a system that doesn’t work. Her wish to highlight problems in the future that are coming. Literally, we were doing a day of press for “Reminiscence,” and that day in the news, they had decided that they need to build a flood wall in Miami because the sea levels are rising. “Reminiscence” is about that.
WO: She’s got a mind that sees forward into the future.
TN: She really, really does, and a spirit that moves us forward, too, and I’m onboard. I’m onboard.
WO: Let me switch gears a little. You talked about Watts’s addiction as one of the things that drew you in. She’s also a veteran and so is Nick Bannister, played by Hugh Jackman. It’s an interesting layer in the characters. For Watts, the work is never over. How did that side of her influence your portrayal?
TN: Watts met Nick on the front lines. She wasn’t there for long. She worked in ammunitions, and I think that may be partly because she is a woman and she is not as valued, as you can imagine. I imagine that her alcoholism, her need to quiet the demons, comes from war, comes from being exposed to that lack of humanity, that fear, that being untethered from love… And that’s a kind of PTSD, which led to her addiction, which then led to her accidentally blowing up a munitions factory, which then resulted in her losing custody of her child. What interested me about Watts is that you have to peel back all of those layers to get to the real original pain.
That’s what happens with these reminiscences. Through Bannister getting deeper and deeper into a web, you see Watts is already in a web from the beginning. I’ve just described to you these layers under which she’s suffocating. She’s watching Nick go deeper into these layers, and she’s desperately trying to pull him back out from this swamp. How can she pull him out if she’s in that swamp with him, too? The effort of trying to pull her best friend out of the swamp, saying to him, “No, don’t go down this path. Stay here in this life with me, because to go there, it’s suicide. It’s a slow suicide.”
His love for Mae [played by Rebecca Ferguson] and his need to recover a truth… That is only going to lead to great sadness. And you obviously discover that Watts was right, but Nick needs to sacrifice his everything to find her, and for Watts it’s like, “Only one of us—we can’t both go.” Watts is living for Nick. His life allows her to keep going. So when he puts his in jeopardy to risk everything to find Mae, Watts has to decide to live for herself. And Nick inspires her to do that, to live for herself, just by showing her love, that’s all. The love of a friend. Acceptance.
WO: Admiration, in a way, for both of them.
TN: It’s a very quiet and beautiful message about addiction, about it covering up pain, and about how human tenderness and connection…that we can hold hands through these dark times and we can rest in each other. To me, that’s what their relationship is, what Watts is—the whole story about the military and PTSD and losing a child, all of it is about how you can rescue yourself. You can. Others can help you but, in the end, you have to do it yourself. But there’s always this ability for healing and change, and to be rescued. Lisa’s been rescued in her life. I’ve been rescued. I’m sure you have. We all have those people and experiences in our lives where, when we look back, we realize that we were rescued. That was the moment when we chose some light instead of the dark. You know?
WO: Yes. That’s beautiful. Thinking about that, or anything else that comes to mind… If we could conjure a reminiscence tank right now, what would be the first memory that you would choose to relive?
TN: The birth of my first daughter, again and again. Again and again. At home, in a birth pool.
WO: Oh wow, which is almost a version of a tank.
TN: Believe me, it was a tank, and I do reminisce, every year, on her birthday; I call her and tell her about her labor, and she knows about the contractions, she knows which contraction led to the birth of her head. She knows how I took her out of my body. Yeah, so it is a reminiscence. We go back there every year. When I won my Emmy for “Westworld,” it was her 18th birthday. I got up on stage and I had no speech prepared. The only thing that was in my head is that “It’s my girl’s 18th birthday today.” This is my tiny contribution because, without her, I wouldn’t be Maeve. No way. I wouldn’t be Maeve without her, and I wouldn’t have met Lisa. And I wouldn’t be talking to you, and I wouldn’t be helping women fight for their freedom, as I do.
WO: What a beautiful moment, for both of you.
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TN: She wasn’t even there. She watched on TV the next day, but she was there, man.
WO: I was going to say, she was there in your heart, so she was there.
TN: She was there.
Reminiscence is out in UAE cinemas from August 19. Tickets: Book now