Sophie Okonedo: ‘My body is my barometer – my instincts are physical’

Published in The Observer on April 23, 2017

Sophie Okonedo was born in 1968 in London and studied at Rada. She has worked extensively across theatre, film and TV and was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.

On Broadway, she won a Tony award in 2014 for A Raisin in the Sun and two years later was nominated for her performance in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Her TV credits include The Slap, Undercover and The Hollow Crown. She is currently performing alongside Damian Lewis in Edward Albee’s 2002 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?; she plays Stevie, a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair with an animal.

What was your first reaction on reading The Goat?
I thought I was due a break from theatre, because I’ve been doing a lot, but I was just really gripped by the play. I found it quite shocking. But everything I do is based on instinct, so when people say: “Why did you do that?”, I don’t really know… my gut just told me to.

That must be a helpful barometer – you can’t trick yourself into having a physical reaction…
Exactly; my body is my barometer. The minute I go into my head to try to work something out, that muddles me a little bit – my instincts are always very physical. It might be that I start shaking when I read the script or break out in a sweat.

Do you still get stage fright?
Yes! For the first few weeks, it’s just like standing at the edge of a cliff and hoping the parachute will come up.

The Goat treads a fine line between tragedy and comedy. How do you switch between them?
I don’t really think about it – I just go with playing the truth. I knew the play was funny when I read it. I was upset and laughing all at the same time, but you forget about how funny it is once you’re rehearsing. So it was a real shock when people laughed so much.

It’s quite a provocative play to have in the West End. How are audiences reacting?
The West End has changed quite a lot, hasn’t it? There are loads of brilliant shows and lots coming from subsidised theatre… it’s quite exciting. It’s very fizzy in the audience, sometimes: they’re not sure whether to laugh or cry or be disgusted or walk out. I’m not sure if we’ve had walk-outs: I sometimes hear a few seats going, but they could just be going to the toilet…

What’s it like working with Damian Lewis?
He’s a wonderful actor and enormous fun. I have a big second act with Damian and it’s a bit like doing a dance every night: I don’t know quite what he’s going to do; he doesn’t know quite what I’m going to do. He’s so agile, Damian – he’s not set in his ways. I couldn’t do a show where I’m just repeating the same thing every night… I find that deadening. I set out on an adventure with the show.

You get to smash a lot of vases in that scene. Is that satisfying?
It is very cathartic. People get quite jealous when they watch – they want to have a go!

You worked with the director Ivo van Hove on The Crucible. He’s known for taking very fresh approaches to classic plays – does that excite you?
I don’t really know – I think what really excites me is the play. And I’m not sure that I loved The Crucible, as a play – that’s probably sacrilege to say! But it is just so dark and I found that tiring. There’s a lot of anger in the play. That was a show I probably shouldn’t have done for 16 weeks; it was a bit too long.

Do you enjoy working in America?
I do miss home, but I really enjoyed being in New York. It was a dream to be on Broadway as a kid, so to actually end up there, I loved it. And it’s an amazing city.

You work between TV, film and theatre – which is your first love?
My first love is a wonderful script. It’s the story. But I can’t imagine not doing theatre – there’s something about that live experience, the exchange with the audience, I find quite moving. And I love going to the theatre: one of my favourite things is to go and see a matinee on my own.

What have you enjoyed lately?
I saw See Me Now at the Young Vic, which was performed by sex workers. I thought that was extraordinary. It showed the capacity of human beings for love: different types of people in different types of situations.

Last year, you played Queen Margaret across three parts of TV series The Hollow Crown – how was that?
It was just brilliant. Doing Shakespeare is a treat anyway, because of the language, but also working with Dominic [Cooke]. He’s a theatre director, so we had wonderful rehearsal time, and then went to all these castles and had a whale of a time.

Presumably, the colour-blind casting was not an issue?
No, it wasn’t an issue. I didn’t talk about it with Dominic. I played Elizabeth Proctor [in The Crucible] and me and Ivo didn’t talk about it. But as a caveat, I do think it’s brilliant there is so much discussion about diversity now – it has changed and people think about it more.

You’re based in Sussex – what’s the appeal of living in the countryside?
I like gardening. And my husband is here – obviously, that’s a reason. I like being in nature; it’s really relaxing and I get the best of it all, really. I come up to London, do a show, then retreat here. I’m on the South Downs a lot, too – I really like the solitude. Being in the theatre is like being in a little family: you get really close. But I think I’m probably not such a social person, so I need to switch all that off.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1, until 24 June

Where next?