Before she won her Tony Award for her performance in 2014’s A Raisin in the Sun, Sophie Okonedo already knew she’d be back in New York with another American classic, The Crucible, come spring 2016. “Scott Rudin [now her two-time producer] offered me the part of Elizabeth Proctor just as I was at the end of the run of Raisin in the Sun,” the actress confesses.
After her first Broadway experience—award or no award—Okonedo was eager to get back to the New York stage. “I love it here,” she says. “The community of Broadway is very different. It's just a supportive atmosphere.”
But it’s the work she truly loves. Listening to Okonedo speak about her work, her raw talent is evident.
“I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes—it’s from my unconscious,” she says. “I have no idea how it’s happening. I think it’s like an energy thing that happens. Something comes over me, and then I feel it come out.”
“I’m very sensitive, and sometimes my skin feels very thin,” she says. “I feel things and people’s moods and stuff, which is great for acting, but sometimes in real life, it makes it a little bit of a challenge.” Okonedo is a reactionary performer, responding to the energy in the room, and she has a unique ability to feel that energy and channel it into her work.
“I don’t have a particular approach. I don’t have a particular method that I follow at all,” she says. “I just literally stay open to what happens with [each] job.” For some roles, Okonedo researches intensely, but for Crucible, all she did was learn her lines in an American accent. Nothing more.
Her natural ability to feel in the moment makes her perfect to partner with director Ivo van Hove on his take on the Arthur Miller play. Known for stripping dramas down to their essence, throwing to the wind all reference to time and place, van Hove and Okonedo worked organically during the rehearsal process. “Ivo said very little to me during rehearsals. No discussion about character,” she says. “He just let you do your thing, but, obviously, he set the world.”
The relationship she describes between actor and director is one of complete trust. “We never did a run-through until we’d got to the theatre, and we did our dress rehearsal, and then we went on that night,” she shares. “That was the first time we’d ever run it together.” Okonedo reflects with an air of complete relaxation. “He’s one of the great directors,” she says. “If you get a chance to work with him, you just go with it.”
And so, when van Hove walked into the theatre on the day of The Crucible’s second preview and suggested she and Ben Whishaw, who plays her husband, John Proctor, drop the American accents, the pair looked at each other and said, “‘Should we just do it tonight and see what happens?’ And we didn’t rehearse it at all.”
The result is what audiences will see today, performances that van Hove lauds for their transparency and rawness. You can hear the empowerment of that freedom in the actress’ voice when she recounts the story. Though that type of change seems last-minute and under-rehearsed (which it was at the time, to be fair), Okonedo’s style is reactionary. That spontaneity creates authenticity in her performances.
Moreso than being ripe for work with van Hove, her style seems made for the stage—despite her success in film and television. “It’s just something that happens about live exchange. There is an exchange between you and the audience, it’s not like you’re just acting in a bubble,” she says. “You are exchanging energy. I don’t pretend the audience isn’t there. I lose myself in the moment sometimes, but a lot of the time, I’m very aware the audience is there.”
Okonedo is an actress who values the nightly experience and the singularity with each audience in each performance of the show. “It’s eight o’clock and by the end of this, you will know our story,” she says of her duty when she steps onstage. “All of you are going to be taken on this journey and you’re not getting off until it’s finished … and I’m not going to stop until I get to the end of the story.” Still, when she gets to the end of Elizabeth Proctor’s tale, the exertion takes a toll. “I try and kind of let go, but I am shifted. If I’m not shifted, I’m probably not shifting the audience.”
Okonedo has made a career choosing pieces that affect her audience, from Winnie Mandela in Mrs. Mandela to her Oscar-nominated turn in Hotel Rwanda and, of course, her Tony-winning Ruth Youngerin Raisin. Coincidentally, these pieces are often highly political, and The Crucible—Miller’s allegory for McCarthyism—is no exception. “When I take a look back at my career, I’ve taken quite highly politicized pieces, [but] I don’t realize I’m doing that,” she says. “I’m doing it, but I just do it instinctively.”
When asked about the message of The Crucible, Okonedo shies away—never wanting to be a spokesperson for another artist’s vision. “In my opinion, good art will often reflect and influence our culture,” she says. “This [Crucible] could be a million places at the end of the day. Could be Syria, could be in part of Europe, could be a part of America.”
“I’m just useless [on commenting about the big picture]. I just go in and play and do it,” she says. Clearly, she enjoys the experimentation and, seemingly, the clear expectations of live theatre: You just show up.
“I always feel sad for actors that don’t get a chance to do [theatre],” she says. “You know, they just stay in film and television. I always think, ‘Wow, you’re really missing out.’” Because for Okonedo, New York and Broadway is “my favorite place.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.