The actress formerly known as Thandie Newton has lost a lot to Hollywood, says Diana Evans in Vogue. First went the “W” in her Zimbabwean Zulu name, Thandiwe (pronounced “tan-DEE-way”). That was misspelt in the credits of her first film, 1991’s Flirting, which also starred Nicole Kidman.
Newton was just 16 when she auditioned for the movie, and things got worse. The Australian director John Duigan was originally “not quite satisfied” with her skin colour. “Can you be a bit darker?” he said. “I dunno,” said Newton. “Be darker by Monday,” he said. So she spent the weekend covered in coconut oil and frantically bronzing. “Got the role.” Next came advances from Duigan that Newton now sees as predatory – and a “horrific” eating disorder that stayed with her for years. “He derailed me from myself utterly.” Duigan has never commented on these allegations.
A lead role in the Charlie’s Angels reboot in 2000 also soured. Newton alleged that Sony producer Amy Pascal told her a “more convincing” black character wouldn’t have been to university – and wouldn’t mind getting up and “shaking her booty” in a bar. (Pascal says she has no recollection of this.) The Cambridge-educated Newton quit and was replaced by Lucy Liu. She was close to retiring in 2014, but a role in the HBO smash hit Westworld reignited her career.
At 48, she’s one of “the most successful black British actresses of her time”, and wants her “royal lineage” properly credited. Her Zimbabwean mother – who moved to Cornwall with a handsome lab technician turned antiques dealer and became an NHS worker – is the granddaughter of a Shona chieftain. So now all Newton’s work will be under the name Thandiwe. “That’s my name,” she says. “It’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.”
What’s in a name?
Newton is not the only celebrity to undergo a name change. Fred Austerlitz swapped his German last name for the Hollywood-friendly Fred Astaire. Greta Gustafsson became Greta Garbo to stand out in Sweden. Marion Morrison was renamed John Wayne by studio executives and Joaquin Bottom turned into Joaquin Phoenix for obvious reasons.
Then there’s Maurice Micklewhite, who became the more understated Michael Caine. He picked the name because he saw an advert for The Caine Mutiny at the Leicester Square Odeon. “It’s a good job it wasn’t the next theatre, because I would have been called Michael 101 Dalmatians,” he once said.