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The Magic of Sophie Okonedo

An enchanting conversation with the star of Broadway’s The Crucible

The British actress Sophie Okonedo—you know her from her Oscar-nominated role in Hotel Rwanda—made her first turn on Broadway two years ago in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, cluing American audiences into something only U.K. theatergoers had previously known: she’s an absolute force of nature on stage. Now, Okonedo is back on the New York stage, starring as Elizabeth Proctor in Ivo van Hove’s hit revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opposite Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw.

DuJour spoke with Okonedo between shows, when she opined on the importance of revisiting history and the hard work of being on stage.

You were last on Broadway in a 2014 production of A Raisin in the Sun. What brought you back?

I was here two years ago, exactly around this time actually, and doing Raisin with Scott Rudin producing, and he asked me if I wanted to Elizabeth Proctor for a production of The Crucible. I really knew for a long time that I was going to do it.

Was it an immediate yes from you?

I didn’t even have time to not think about it, I just said yes. It’s such an iconic role!

Photo Credit: Jan Versweyveld

The Crucible looks at the Salem-era witch trials, but was written in the 1950s so feels applicable to the McCarthy era of communist witch hunts as well. What makes it important today?

I think the way it’s done now, it could be set anytime, any place. It feels sort of like the McCarthy era—and that might not be relatable for a young audience—but I think the production appeals to them because we’re not in old-fashioned costumes or anything. It’s quite terrifying because you feel like this could happen in Syria, in parts of Europe or even in Trump-era America.

It’s sadly really applicable to any number of situations. 

I think that makes it very current. I don’t want to a revival that’s just something tried and tested over and over again. It’s quite nice to have a reason for doing it. I didn’t even know Ivo van Hove was directing when I said yes, but I’m really glad he is directing because he’s an extraordinary, he’s one of the greats.

What has that relationship been like? You can’t turn around these days without catching one of his shows.

He’s been around for a long time, but a few things have come together for him during the past few years and he’s just suddenly a name everybody knows. He strips things down right to their core, to their essence. He’s not trying to be naturalistic or realistic, he’s just trying to get the essence of something, and I think that really speaks to an audience. They can see that when they watch it. 

What have you learned from playing this role?

I learned an enormous amount from the rehearsal period and the way Ivo works, which is that we don’t really talk about character or psychology of the character, or what happened before. It’s very much about being present in rehearsal and thinking in the present, in the moment. He doesn’t ask you questions about your character; he sets the world, and then you work within that. I think to work with Ivo you have to have a high standard, because he asks you to bring a lot with you, and then you bring it to that world that he’s constructed. But you don’t get lots of notes, and I didn’t anyway, and you don’t get told what to do, you just sort of come and start doing it.

The show wraps in July. What’s next for you?

I took three months off, because I really wanted to go home. Since Raisin, I’ve been nonstop for two and a half years, job to job, so I really feel like I don’t want to do anything. I’ve been offered some really interesting things, but nothing that feels quite right yet. But I’m sure lots of things will come my way, I never quite know what’s going to happen, but I always work. I don’t get too stressed about it. 

Is there a sort of part that you’d love to see land on your pile?

It’d be really nice to do something funny, actually. I probably don’t want to do a show, a play, right away, I think it takes quite a lot out of you doing a play. I need a rest from that for a year or so. I couldn’t go from play to play, I think, it’s probably good to do another medium now for the next job.

You do have some TV projects coming out shortly.

Yes! I did The Hollow Crown which is a kind of a collection of the history plays of Shakespeare for the BBC, and it’s going to be on PBS towards the end of the year. It’s Henry VI parts I, II, III, and I play Queen Margaret, who runs all the way through the film, she’s the only character that does. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Richard III, Judi Dench is in it, and Michael Gambon. It’s an absolute who’s-who. I’ve also got another TV series, called Undercover, which is a primetime BBC television which is coming on BBC America. It has two black leads, which is a bit more unusual. After that, though, I don’t know what I’m doing next.