“I’m a very emotional person – sometimes I feel like my skin is off”

Sophie Okonedo, 54, is one of our most extraordinary actresses, who now stars as Medea at the @sohoplace theater in London, giving a heartbreaking tour de force as Euripides’ tragic infanticide. Her career on stage, screen and television reached a new level of flashy performance in 2014 after winning a Tony for her performance in A raisin in the sun and since then it has been much celebrated. She played Cleopatra at the National, Winnie Mandela on TV and will star in Season 3 of the critically acclaimed Apple TV+ slow horses later this year.

How much do you see Medea as a mythical figure – or do you feel that she has a modern psyche?
I try to put myself right in the middle – I don’t know any other way to behave. If I’m not connected to the person I’m playing, I just don’t know how to do it. I don’t think from the outside. I have the feeling that myths are always topical.

To what extent does the process of learning lines contribute to knowing how you will say them?
That’s a good question that people don’t really ask. For me, the thorough study of lines is the gateway to what I do. I find television work quite tedious because sometimes screenwriters rewrite the night before, which can make me feel like I’m losing my agency as an actor.

This is “before” – and what about “after”? performance Medea must be so exhausting?
When I’m doing a show, it’s hard for me to do anything else. People might come over to say hello after the show, but I don’t want to go out for dinner. Meeting people drains my energy, so I avoid it. It’s different with my husband and kids, but I tend to be silent most of the day. And yet I’m not tired at this show afterwards. I was in shows with smaller roles and was more exhausted. That’s because Dominic Cooke directed it so well. He would say, “I want to hear yours Fight.” I don’t rely on emotions MedeaI rely on the language.

Did you see Alice Diop’s Oscar-nominated film Movie Holy Omer, researching the Medea story?
My agent in America said, ‘You must see this film’ and I loved it – it was brilliant. Those performances were incredible.

What do you think of the new @Sohoplace Theater?
I absolutely love this theatre. I looked at it when it was built. I said: “I really want to work here” – and they stuck to that. What stands out is its intimacy. The audience is right there with the actors and you can be very subtle with your voice and expression. There are no bad seats!

You are the daughter of a Jewish mother and father of Nigerian descent – How do you think about yourself and which background is more relevant?
I think of myself as a mix and it’s all relevant. I was raised by my mother so know more about her family. My mother used to work as a Pilates teacher – she’s actually retired now.

When raising your own daughter, did you intend to do anything differently than your mother raised you?
I have a daughter and two stepchildren. It feels so long since raising her – my daughter is 26. I always feel like I should do things differently. Being a parent is one of those things that’s filled with that feeling all the time — which makes it hard to put it into a sentence.

What is your favorite thing to do that has nothing to do with acting?
To go biking. I live in Sussex and ride bikes with my husband [she is married to Jamie Chalmers, a builder]. He’s a lot fitter than me, but the great thing about cycling is that you can go slow. Last year we did a little bit of the Tour de France and it was great. Right after this show we’re going to Italy to watch the Giro d’Italia.

What makes you angriest in life?
The usual – injustice – but I’m a very emotional person. I am easily driven by my emotions [laughs], which is really good for acting but maybe not that brilliant for real life. I sometimes feel like my whole skin is off. I find it very empowering to be on stage. It’s what I’m supposed to do. Everyone has their thing they’re good at – I’m not good at a lot of things, but that’s the only thing I’m good at.

What originally made you decide to become an actor?
I felt most comfortable when I was acting. I didn’t act at school but joined the Royal Court Youth Theater as a teenager and had a tiny role in Caryl Churchill’s serious money.

I can’t imagine being an actor who hasn’t done theatre

What makes you laugh?
Ben Daniels [who stars alongside her in Medea]. He makes me laugh so much. Ben and Dominic [Cooke] are my best friends. I’ve known Dominic since I was 15. He is godfather to my eldest daughter and gave me away at my wedding. We first met in Swiss Cottage’s library.

Do you prefer working in theater to film?
In the end I’ll think: “It’s going to be nice to do a film” – but I can’t imagine being an actor who hasn’t done theatre. Theater is such a challenge – there’s nowhere to hide. And I love that connection with the audience, especially on this piece. This kind of storytelling has been around for thousands of years and I find it incredibly moving every night. When I arrive, my heart swells.

You are in slow horses with Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott Thomas, which has received much critical acclaim.
I’ve only done one scene in it so far! I just finished filming the third season though. I wanted a bigger role in the show, which is why I agreed to do this scene for the first season. I always knew that one day I would play a big role.

what are you doing once Medea is done – something comforting, I hope? And who would be your ideal partner?
I’d like to do something fun and was talking to Dominic about it the other day. I had a great time with Annie Baker [the American playwright] last year. I’ve done a film with her – her first – which she wrote and directed, and she’s absolutely amazing. I really connected with her. The film is called Janet Planet. It’s not out yet – there will be a lot more about it when the time comes.

  • Medea is at @sohoplace theatre, London until April 22nd

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