Sophie Okonedo

AWARD-WINNING British star actress of Nigerian origin, Sophie Okonedo, is now an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The major role player in many Brit and Hollywood films received

the honour from the Queen of England recently to her fans especially members of the British and Nigerian art community.

According to the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper, she was named as one of the recipients of OBE in the 2010 Birthday Honours of Queen Elizabeth of England because of her contribution to drama and the arts. Celebrating her laurel, fellow British artiste of Nigerian origin, the globally respected choreographer, Peter Badejo (OBE) told the Nigerian Compass that her honour abroad shows the outstanding enterprise of Nigerian in diaspora, especially in the creative industry. The veteran artiste added that Ms Okonedo’s feat should equally make the leaders of Nigeria recognise the worth of the arts and the country’s artists, internationally.

Badejo’s words: “That (the OBE award) is very good. The more we are, the better. It means that art is being recognised in many directions. It also means that other Nigerian artistes will also be recognised. It is good.

“I hope you people help tell the government that artistes should not only be recognised abroad. They should be given recognition at home. It should not just be abroad.”

Okonedo’s honour, publicised penultimate week did not come as a surprise given her antecedence in the performing arts field. As an artiste and celebrity, she has posted impressive records both off and on screen. Her achievements in the performing arts becomes very significant against the backdrop of stereotypical outing of artistes of colour in western screens and theatres.

She joins other artists of Nigerian root, such as the dance expert Badejo and respected post-modernist, Yinka Shonibare among others who are recipients of the coveted noble honour.

Okonedo’s feat as an actress is somewhat epochal. She has played star roles in many box office hit films, including Hotel Rwanda which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, among others, Okonedo was born in London, England, in 1969, to Joan (née Allman), a teacher, and Henry Okonedo, who worked for the government. Her father is Nigerian and her mother, an Ashkenazi Jew, was born in the East End to Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland and Russia.

Okonedo, according to media reports, never considered being an actress when she grew up, let alone an international star. But she seemed destined to be a star as an artiste. This could be traceable first, to her passion for books, her gift in eloquence as a performer and her remarkable voice.

“A voracious reader all her life – a government official visiting the family’s home marveled at the large bookcase stocked with books – Okonedo got her start through a writing workshop she took with renowned novelist and playwright, Hanif Kureishi (author of My Beautiful Laundrette, My Son the Fanatic),” it was reported.

Though she had no desire to be a writer, she took the course because it was something interesting to do at night. However, she soon realised, that she was not as good a writer as she was in reading other people’s works aloud, which eventually led to her involvement with the Royal Court Theatre. From there Okonedo got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and soon learnt where her talent was. Her true start as an actress began with experiences in RADA.

After a series of theatrical roles, including Shahrazad in The Arabian Nights and Anippe in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Okonedo, she broke through with an acclaimed performance as Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, staged by famous stage director, Trevor Nunn for the National Theatre of United Kingdom. Though the only Shakespeare role of her career, she earned high praise for her ability to “project a tense ambiguity between love and passion.”

Success in the Cressida role led the actress to British television where she appeared in Episode 5 of Clocking Off (BBC-1, 2000), a six-part drama series about the secret lives of every day people; in Never Never (2000), which earned her a Royal Television Society Award nomination for playing a single mother. She also appeared in Spooks – a popular series about Britain’s domestic security agency that was presented across the Atlantic as MI5.

Encouraged by her success on British television, Okonedo decided to move into the film medium. And after wading through several thankless parts in major feature films, including two lines as a princess in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), and as a nameless Jamaican Girl in The Jackal (1997), her characterisation of a prostitute living in a rundown West London hotel in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2003) made a deep impression. She then got cast as Tatiana Rusesabagina, the wife of a hotel manager (Don Cheadle), who houses 1200 Tutsi refugees fleeing the 1994 genocide in Hotel Rwanda (2004). It has been described as her “highest profile role to date.”

To prepare for the challenging role, Okonedo read Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, by Fergal Keane, then went to Brussels to meet the real-life Tatiana. According to Agency reports: “The cultural leap of transforming herself from a London woman to a Rwandan refugee turned out to be her biggest challenge on the film.”

For her outstanding performance in Hotel Rwanda Okonedo received nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress.

After Hotel Rwanda, She returned to the Hollywood system and was cast in the film version of the popular MTV series, Aeon Flux (2005). But the movie turned out a disappointing failure on all fronts. Okonedo however, rebounded with a moving performance in Tsunami, the Aftermath (HBO, 2006) – an ensemble drama that depicted various stories involving the devastating 2004 tidal wave that destroyed large portions of Thailand and other parts of South Asia. In the film, she played a mother searching frantically with her husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor who is also a UK-born artiste of Nigerian parentage with rising profile in Hollywood) for their six-year-old daughter after the tsunami literally ripped her from their arms. She earned a nomination for a 2006 Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.

Among Okonedo’s laurels are Black Reel Awards 2005, as Best Actress-Drama ( for her performance in Hotel Rwanda); winner of Hollywood Film Festival 2008 awards for Ensemble Acting of the Year (for her performance in The Secret Life of Bees); and in 2007, Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie/Mini-Series (Tsunami: the Aftermath). She has also been nominated for several awards, among which are, Academy Awards, 2005, Best Supporting Actress (Hotel Rwanda), 2008, Best Ensemble (The Secret Life of Bees), 2008, Best Supporting Actress (The Secret Life of Bees), 2010, Best Actress (Skin); British Independent Film Awards: 2003, Best Supporting Actress (Dirty Pretty Things), 2009, Best Actress (Skin); Golden Globes: 2007, Best Actress in a Mini-Series/Television Movie (Tsunami: The Aftermath); Image Awards: 2005, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Hotel Rwanda), 2009, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (The Secret Life of Bees) and others.

Some of the screen works she played major roles in include Young Soul Rebels (1991), Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), The Jackal (1997), This Year’s Love (1999), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Æon Flux (2005) which she co-starred with Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, Stormbreaker (2006), Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006), Scenes of a Sexual Nature (2006), Martian Child (2007), Oliver Twist (2007), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), Skin (2009), Mrs. Mandela (2009); TV series: Staying Alive (1996), Never Never (2000), Spooks (2003), Eastenders (2008), Father and Son (2009),Criminal Justice (2009),and her most recent work this year in Doctor Who (“The Beast Below, The Pandorica Opens”).

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