The Star Who Rose from the Mean Streets
Her name may not yet be familiar but she is being feted by Hollywood’s movers and shakers as the next big thing. This week, after being nominated for an Oscar, it appears that there will be no stopping British actress Sophie Okonedo’s rise to the top, And her achievements are even more remarkable considering her tough upbringing on a notorious housing estate. It has been no easy journey for the 36-year-old mother-of-one, who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Hotel Rwanda in which she plays the wife of a hotel manager who hid 1,200 people during the genocide in Rwanda. She is facing competition from movie favourites Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman for the Oscar. Such illustrious company and the lure of the Hollywood hills are far removed from Wembley’s Chalkhill estate in North-West London where Miss Okonedo grew up. She is the daughter of a Nigerian father, Henry, and a Jewish mother, Joan.
Muggers, vandals and drug addicts
Her father, a government worker, left the marital home to return to Nigeria when Sophie was five, leaving her mother – a retired Pilates teacher – to raise her on the estate famous for muggers, vandals and drug addicts. Former local MP Ken Livingstone, now Mayor of London, once said of it: “Nobody in their right mind wants to live there. It’s a riot just waiting to explode.” But even in these unpromising surroundings, her family encouraged her to be artistic. She remembers how a housing inspector was flummoxed by the family’s large collection of books. “This man said to my mother, ‘What do you do with all those books?’ Because, of course, poor people don’t read. My mother never forgot that.”
Describing the estate itself, she said: “It was very rough. It wasn’t very nice, that’s why we left. But there were loads of mixed-race children there. When I moved out, I found it much harder.” As a child, the young Miss Okonedo experienced racism in many different forms – and was the only black girl to attend a local Jewish youth group, Maccabi. “I came across as much racism in the Jewish community as I did outside the Jewish community,” she says. “No more, no less.”
At one point she overheard parents of a friend say they would be moving to another area because of the number of black people moving in. As a teenager, she and her mother moved into a small flat about a fish and chip shop in nearby Kenton. “I used to be so ashamed that I lived there. My friends’ parents were quite rich and I’d always get them to drop me down the road.”
Throughout her schooldays at Preston Park in Wembley, Miss Okonedo remained close to her maternal grandparents, Max and Jean Allman. Her grandmother would regularly take her to services at the nearby Wembley Liberal Synagogue. “I feel proud to be Jewish, as proud as I feel to be black,” the actress says. “Now I find the mixture extraordinary and I’m so happy to be both.” Her grandparents’ neighbour Esther Levy yesterday recalled: “I remember her as a young girl. She always loved drama and I had high hopes for her.”
Miss Okonedo left school at 16 to work on a clothing stall at Portobello Market. Two years later she spotted a magazine advert for a workshop run by writer Hanif Kureishi at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre and immediately joined up. But she soon discovered that she was better at reading out the plays then writing them and applied for Britain’s top theatre school, RADA. After completing her training she landed acclaimed roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Young Vic and the National Theatre as well as in films including This Year’s Love and Dirty Pretty Things.
Rada principal Nicholas Barter said: “I remember her very clearly – she was extremely talented and a somewhat unusual student. At the end of her time with us a number of agents came to watch her and she gave a fantastic performance of a monologue about a woman giving birth to an egg.” Miss Okonedo, who appeared in the TV drama Whose Baby? last year, now lives in Muswell Hill, North London, with her partner Eion Martin and their seven-year-old daughter. She heard of her Oscar nomination while walking on Hampstead Heath with her mother and daughter on Tuesday.
The group’s jubilation was so loud that a security guard at nearby Kenwood House had to ask them to quieten down. “I could hardly speak,” she recalls. “I really didn’t think there was any chance at all,” she explained. Although she describes her relationship with her father as ‘not close’ she is in constant contact with her mother, who looks after her daughter while Miss Okonedo is abroad filming. This, she says, is the toughest part of her job. “With theatre I’m home every night before bedtime. It’s tough when my child is in the middle of school – I hate pulling her out – but I also hate her not being with me. It’s a working mother’s typical dilemma.” This story first appeared in the . For more great stories like this, buy the Daily Mail every day.